The real “Downton Abbey” is Highclere Castle, a fifty bedroom residence that costs an unspeakable fortune to maintain. As Lord Grantham wrings his hands over the financial crisis that could result in losing his historic home, the conversations about cultural shifts and unwieldy buildings reminded me of countless conversations I’ve had with church people worried over the possibility of losing their historic church homes.
There are the people who equate their church with their building and there are other people who do not fear giving up a fabulous but expensive church building. And it’s not necessarily a generational issue. Lady Mary (in her 20s) will do almost anything to keep Downton Abbey. Isobel Crawley (in her 60s) finds change exciting. And then we have the older ladies:
Countess Violet (Maggie Smith): “You Americans never understand the importance of tradition.”
Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine): “Yes we do, we just don’t give it power over us. History and tradition took Europe into a world war. Maybe you should think about letting go of its hand.”
Like many of our historic church buildings, Highclere Castle was designed by a
famous architect, is appointed with marble floors and Gothic turrets, and brings to mind a different time when top hats were an essential part of a man’s wardrobe and women didn’t leave home without wearing white gloves. Many of our historic American church buildings were financed by the closest thing we have to royalty: the titans of business. Carnegie, Armour, Pullman, Roosevelt, Flagler, and many others all contributed lavishly to the building of Protestant church buildings incorporating the artistry of world-renowned painters, sculptors, and designers.
But this is not what we worship, right? Gorgeous things are so seductive. Who doesn’t want to sit ensconced in exquisite architecture with breathtaking vistas? But these things are not God. Our life’s purpose is not to maintain beautiful buildings. It’s to do beautiful acts of love.
While our buildings can be effective tools for ministry, they can also keep us from doing our work as spiritual people.