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Northanger, Downton, and the terrors of ‘religion’

Back in November, an article on the lack of religion in Downtown Abbey made a bit of a stir — a tasteful, understated stir, perhaps, but all the same a notable “aha” among choruses of Episcopalians. (I assume without any verification that most fans are Episcopalians, in spirit at least. Part of that spirit may include a lack of involvement in religious institutions.) Anyway, it was no great surprise to find that today’s television producers grow faint at the thought of “religion” in the public eye.

But what, I wonder, is the alternative to Downton’s absent ecclesiastical scene?

I’ve been reading Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey with my 5th-form class, and Austen’s world, despite being full of eligible (or repulsive) clergymen, is not substantially more enhanced with “religion” than Downton. A passing reference to “divine service” before the all-important shopping for muslin may, at least in Northanger Abbey, suggest something of Austen’s satirical take on her naive heroine’s misguided priorities. But the reality is that these passing references figure in the book’s world so lightly that they might be entirely ignored by the average modern reader for whom they do not signify. Like a Muggle seeing magic, the secular reader’s mind simply slides over these words as filler material. And Austen does nothing to prevent this.

Downton, to be fair, shows a slight edge in its religious ghosts. Only in the final season do we get even a slight mention of the titular house’s apparent former status as an abbey: it comes in a passing moment in the “open house,” when the Countess of Grantham shows embarrassing puzzlement over the house’s religious history.

All this is to say: the more common presence of institutional religion in the 1920s does not necessarily change its character and impact. Perhaps religion’s substantial absence was already accomplished far earlier.

* * *

Is there something inherently sinister in a world where the initial, primary, bath-abbey1mainstream understanding of “abbey” is devoid of religious context? I find it interesting that, among all the places in Bath mentioned in the first half of Northanger Abbey, that striking and prominent church in Bath — an abbey — is never mentioned. The only abbeys interesting to Catherine Morland are the mysterious abbeys-turned-mansions; the only interesting abbey is a dead abbey, full of potential ghosts.

Catherine is of course a devotee of the Gothic; Mrs. Radcliffe’s Udolpho is her Holy Writ. In her imagination, then, religion, in a way that it would have been more readily understood in other centuries, is inevitably intertwined with horror: monks, nuns, priests, friars, cathedrals, monasteries, crypts — the symbols of the “religious life” with all its terrible and enchanting separation from the ordinary and the secular. It is precisely because nuns and monks are not concerned with the buying and making of muslin gowns that they must be so terrible: their religion suggests a dangerous escape from what is good, what is tasteful, what is respectable, what is English.

Though Austen’s story is rather hard on Catherine and her imaginative obsessions, it retains in the end this central dichotomy. As Henry Tilney seeks to teach Catherine, there is nothing wrong with giving in to the excitement of good fiction; we would, however, do well to understand that real life consists not of evocative symbols — their horrors and their pleasures — but rather of people whose interests and concerns transcend such symbolic worlds. Though Austen’s suggested reality — especially in the light of her longer novels — is more substantial than the buying of hats and dresses (I rather like the way this video presents some of her moral principles), it excludes religion, at least explicit or visual religion. It includes clergymen and good, quiet, unassuming English “divinity,” for practical reasons, but it excludes anything resembling the foreign sensory-symbolic apparatus of Catholic tradition.

* * *

Religion can be everywhere and nowhere. Austen’s muted “divine service,” though a perfectly appropriate description, reminded me a little of my present life in an Episcopal school, in which church liturgies are uniformly referred to as “chapel.” Morning Prayer is “chapel.” Evening Prayer and Eucharist is “evening chapel.” Solemn Mass is “long chapel.” Sometimes I am amazed by the ability of students to retain spiritual ignorance even when attending 5 to 6 mandatory Christian services a week. They are trained to refer to me and other clergy as “father,” etc., and I think sometimes I mistake this well-formed verbal respect for understanding. Most of them have no idea that I am a priest. Many of them, when pressed, could not tell you that their school was Anglican or Episcopal.

What we have to start with, then, is the sheer visibility of religion. I wear a clergy collar every day. I and the other clergy wear vestments for Mass and Office. We do as much as we can to encourage the off-putting external rituals of Catholic tradition, starting with incense. Fr. Andrew Petiprin is absolutely right in his suggestion that incense is one of the most weirdly religious things out there, and that is why we keep it, despite routine protests (very rarely from committed Protestants, more often from those who dislike “chapel” in general). I suppose what I am going for is the gothic atmosphere of Catherine Morland’s imagination. If we stuck with the quiet Anglicanism of the 18th century, or the quiet liberal Episcopalianism of the 21st, most of our students wouldn’t even notice its existence.

When I took my confirmation class to Washington a few months ago, we passed a habited nun on a stairwell at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Several of the students stared; they then mentioned to me with a mixture of awe and confusion that they had never before seen a nun. Nuns, for them, were something out of history books. They knew nuns were real, sort of — like I, as a boy growing up in Mississippi, knew of Canada’s existence. But they never thought they’d see one. Some of them honestly did not know that religious orders still existed in any religion.

I am not issuing a call for more Benedictines, or more Dominicans, or more Cistercians, though I am sure that these and other orders do more to sustain our ecclesial life than we really know. It is rather a lament that the religious, in both the canonical and common sense of the term, are not more visible in our lives. We need them more than ever. We need those people who admit in public that they follow a rule beyond their momentary whims; we need to know that they are trying, and that it is possible, and that there are alternatives. We long for visible models of holiness, visible signs that there is more to our lives than the gray monotony of secular disenchantment. I suspect that our continuing postmodern fascination with fantasy and horror and the gothic is really an extension of that need. And like Henry Tilney — or maybe unlike him — I want to affirm both the value of fiction and the value of the real; but the real isn’t just parking tickets and daycare decisions, it’s holding the world in a wafer, getting absolved from your sins, making real sacrifices for the sake of the Good.

We have a lot of “religion” in American public life, often to destructive and divisive ends. We could use more religion.

Fr. Sam Keyes is the chaplain at St. James School. His other posts are here.

The featured image comes from the 5th series of Downton Abbey.


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