Downton Abbey and the Role of the Woman

Episode 4 of Downton Abbey shifted our focus rather quickly from nobility to gender.  Where the previous episode saw multiple attacks on the prestige and place of nobility in English culture, such attacks were all but non-existent this time around.  Instead, the wealth and nobility is temporarily stabilized, while the role of gender equality is challenged on several fronts.

First, Lady Edith, who we just saw jilted at the altar last episode, begins to rise from the ashes as a voice for women’s suffrage.  This plot line allows us to precisely place the setting of last episode to late August, 1920, since it was announced early on that “Tennessee has just ratified the 19th Amendment.”  Tennessee was the tipping point for the amendment, thus allowing its overall passage in late 1920.  The amendment, granting women the right to vote and congress the ability to enforce such a right, surpassed the concurrent British law which granted only women “over 30 years old…and either a member or married to a member of the Local Government Register.”  The episode concludes with Lady Edith successfully writing a Letter to the Editor and having the letter published (in what one must assume is the London Times).

Second, Lady Sybil arrives from Ireland, pregnant and fleeing the country due to her husband’s revolutionary terrorist act of helping to torch a mansion.  Irish politics aside, Sybil’s role becomes one of protecting mother, yearning for her now-exiled husband to stay safe under the auspices of Downton.  At one point, her husband warns her, after her repeated cries to keep them in Downton, “that’s a lot of musts.”  The one-time forward female political activist of Sybil has found a difficult place as wife and mother of a violent revolutionary.

Third, the chronicles of Ethel Parks and her fatherless child continue.  In this episode, quite tragically, Ethel confirms that she is a prostitute, is treated badly by nobility and servants alike, and decides to give her only son away to his paternal grandparents–because they are nobility and can give him an upper-class life.  The scene in which her child leaves with them falls beyond tragedy in its reality and pain.  The head female servant of Downton, Mrs. Hughes, assures Ethel that she has done the right thing; while Isobel Crawley (Matthew’s mother), cannot believe what has happened.  She has been working at a home that offers meals and classes to local prostitutes, and believes that each of them can turn their lives around.  As often occurs, Lady Crawly becomes a symbol of the disaffected nature of the nobility reaching down to the help the lowly.  As she urges Ethel to keep her son on behalf of the strength of a “mother’s love,” Ethel fails to see anything in common with Lady Crawley, and chooses her son’s ability to have a wealth of education and options in life rather than the poor love of his mother.  The choice is heartbreaking.

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At this point, before I continue, I would like to note that–as always–the opinions voiced here are my own and by no means necessarily reflect the opinions of the other excellent contributors to this blog.

That said, the contemporary Christian church is remarkably out of step with the universal human push towards equality of the genders.  While some desire to blame this on the presence of abortion-rights as virtually synonymous with women’s rights in the United States today, I view the pairing of abortion rights as a terrible symptom rather than the underlying disease.  Ever since the rise of historical-critical scholarship in the 19th century (to speak very generally), academic thought has shifted from a glorification of history and our ancestors to a realization of the entrenched male hierarchy and systematic abuse of various factions of society over time, especially–and most widely–the abuse of women.  Just to recall Downton’s theme of the week: women were granted the right to vote less than 100 years ago.

One of the difficulties of historical-critical research for Christianity was the discovery that the Christian Church was complicit in much of the abuse of women and other minority groups since it rose to power under the age of Contstantine.  Whether this takes the form of crusades in the Middle Ages, Martin Luther’s (and everyone else’s, for that matter) antisemitism, or church officials who approved of the African slave trade and those who approved of the Nationalist Socialist Party (Nazis).  No one is exempt here: even Aquinas talks about women as inferior beings, although a kinder reading could argue that he was “ahead of his time” while still remaining biased against the female sex.

Because of these and other changes in the 19th century, some Christian denominations began to accept women into the roles of clergy. In fact, the Methodist-offshoot Church of the Nazarene was a unique denomination being the first to explicitly write the role of female clergy into its charter.  Most protestant denominations today accept women as clergy, but even the most progressive denominations still hold of 70/30 imbalance of male to female clergy.

Women Clergy
Percentage of Women Clergy in Various Protestant Denominations – Credit:

Now, as is widely known, the Roman Catholic Church stands as the largest denomination that does not accept women as priests or deacons.  However, as Sara Butler writes in a 2007 text defending the Catholic position, this stance does not omit the role of women clergy in other Christian denominations.  One of the central tenets of the Roman position lies in the vision of the sacrament of priesthood: as opposed to Christian churches in the reformed tradition, the Roman Catholic Church believes that Christ implemented the ministerial priesthood as a serving role in the form of a sacrament. The sacrament of Holy Orders is not simply a way to appoint leaders of the church, but an act of bestowing special sacramental graces instituted by Christ Himself. (See the 2nd Vatican Council document, Lumen Gentium, esp. paragraph 28)

This is an important difference, and is often misunderstood by just about everyone: if Holy Orders is a sacrament and the priesthood not merely a leadership role, and Jesus’ commission at the Last Supper specifically to the apostles instead of to all the faithful, then the Catholic Church’s doctrine of an all-male priesthood stands as categorically different than many Christian denominations today.  If the priesthood were only a leadership position, there would be no theological reason that women cannot be priests.  John Paul II himself declared the ontological equality of women and men in Mulieris Dignitatem (paras. 6 and 16), placing the stance of the church and women priests solely in the realm of sacramental theology and the seminal question: “When Jesus appointed 12 apostles as priests during the Last Supper, did he pick only males for a specific cultural reason (e.g., reminiscent of the 12 tribes of Israel), or did he pick only men because of some intrinsic theological reason that men must be priests and thus servants at all times?”

Make no mistake: this is a difficult question to answer.  As should be clear by now, the official Vatican stance falls into the latter category: there is a specific theological reason that men should be priests, and this reason is directly related to the theological anthropology of reversing the Genesis narrative of women as servants to men.  As men become priests, they take on a specific servant-hood within the Church, continuing to reverse the distorted inequality of gender roles in the natural world.

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Before we continue this discussion, let us return momentarily to the problems for the Christian Church as the historical-critical movement unfolded.  Among the many ways in which the Church has been complicit in the ungodly affairs of the world, one of the many ways is the vast amounts of earthly power that men, as Priests, Bishops, Popes, and Holy Emporers, have wielded through the centuries.  Theologically, the priesthood is one of servant-hood, but practically, the priesthood is often one of power.  While one might be tempted to discuss this earthly power only in terms of land ownership in the Holy Roman Empire, this power is alive and well today.  The Catholic Church is run by Priests who have become Bishops and Cardinals and Popes.  Their influence affects the behavior of people and institutions–hospitals, schools, charities, and more–worldwide, and the continued refusal of allowing women into leadership positions continues to entrench vast numbers of people against the Catholic Church today.

The arguments for and against Jesus’ choosing of only men as apostles during the Last Supper are vast, and I will not argue them here.  I will, however, argue the following: if the Catholic Church is to prove to the world that women are ontologically equivalent to men (that is, equal in their very being and existence, in every possible way), and that the “priesthood” remains one of male servant-hood, only one choice remains: to set up a direct role of leadership for women within the church.

While movement has been made in this regard, it is movement by inches.  A much better way to achieve this is by allowing women to become “Permanent Deacons” within the Church.  As permanent deacons (much as married men could be today, and a role that women have played within the history of the Church), women could be easily given positions of leadership alongside male priests, and their ontological equality would shine for all the world to see.

“With women preaching and prominent in sacramental roles outside of the Eucharist [as deacons], with women shaping administrative decisions and seminary education [as deacons, educators, and theologians], with women among the cardinals heading Vatican offices and electing popes, Catholics might well conclude that reserving the priesthood to males was only a symbolic division of labor.” (Peter Steinfels, A People Adrift, p. 303)

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Let us pray that we may continue to fight for the equality all people each and every day. And let us pray that, especially today, on this day of remembrance for the legacy of Rev. King, we realize that we are each a part of the systemic violence in the modern world: to women, to minorities, to the poor, to immigrants, to day-laborers in foreign lands, to those slain on the bloody fields of war.  Let us, as people of God, lead instead of follow on the path to righteous equality in all walks of life, lest others forever identify the name of Christ with injustice, violence, and power.  Amen.

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