Thursday, January 26, 2012

Book Review: Below Stairs by Margaret Powell

This one's for all you Downtown Abbey fans out there!

Below Stairs by Margaret Powell, originally published in 1968, is the classic memoir of a woman who worked her way up in service from kitchen maid to cook before retiring after her marriage to a milkman.

The book has been re-issued (even in e-book format!) because it is one of the sources used by the writers of the popular PBS/BBC series Downton Abbey. And yes, we are big fans Chez QG. Apparently the book was wildly popular in the UK when first published and created something of a sensation.

Margaret Powell vividly illustrates the division in the great houses between the wealthy noble families and their large staffs of servants. The houses themselves were physically divided with front and service stairs so that some servants seldom entered the part of the house used by the family. Class lines were rigid and mutually enforced on both sides.
Margaret was something of a rebel and always tried to make something of herself. She was an avid reader and one of the most poignant passages in the book relates her request to the mistress of the house she worked in to borrow books from its library. "Of course, Margaret," was the reply," but I didn't know that you read!"

Margaret not only read but later in life completed her education and got a college degree. She is a good writer but not always a fluid one. The book is a personal memoir, not an attempt at social history, and succeeds on those terms.

Readers will not find any of the plot lines of the television series but will better understand the world of its "downstairs" characters.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Cautionary Tale from the Episcopal Church Wars

I had the great privilege of attending the Fellowship of Presbyterians(FOP) meeting in Orlando last week along with several other members of my church. I was moved and inspired by the incredible worship and amazed at the progress made towards birthing the new denomination: Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians (ECO).

The meeting answered a lot of the questions I had before attending and raised more questions as the details of the FOP and ECO are taking shape.

At the same time I am pondering the meaning of a cautionary tale that one of my relatives (let’s call him Calvin) has been relating to me regarding his experience of leaving the Episcopal church over doctrinal differences.

Here’s the story. A couple of years ago Calvin was a member of the vestry (lay governing board) of his church. The bishop of the diocese visited the vestry meeting and issued an ultimatum: either find a way to accept the changes in the denomination or leave, but quit complaining. The next week the vestry met again and more than half of them declared their intention to leave.

This is a very large Episcopal church. Several hundred families left, including Calvin and family, but a couple thousand members remained. The breakaway group established a new church that eventually affiliated with the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA).

In due course a new rector was hired with AMiA credentials. However, Calvin became concerned about the way the new church was developing. So he sat down with the new rector for a frank discussion. To his shock he learned that the AMiA does not ordain women, permit women to serve in leadership, or teach the Bible to men, and there are no elections only appointments by the rector. Calvin says he and many other members of the new church are dismayed that these policies were not revealed at the time when they voted to affiliate with this denomination.

Now the new church faces further division as those who disagree with these positions ponder leaving yet again. Calvin is deeply grieved and prayerfully seeking guidance about what to do next. He cannot return to TEC and finds AMiA equally uncomfortable. 
"I may suggest women and men sit on opposite side of aisle, force the women to wear burkas and call it a day." he said." Good grief, AMiA makes me feel like a screaming liberal! "
Since Calvin was also raised in the Presbyterian church, he visited one a couple of weeks ago and was encouraged by what he found. Until he asked me about the state of the PCUSA and discovered he could be jumping from the fire back into the frying pan.
What does this mean for us fractious Presbyterians?

Here’s my conclusion: for those of us who drawn to the FOP and perhaps pondering dismissal to ECO, thorough vetting of alternatives is imperative. Calvin's experience illustrates some of the pitfalls awaiting those who act precipitously.

For those in the PCUSA who embrace the recent change in  ordination standards and continue to press for change in the definition of marriage: beware the cost of divisive actions that will leave a remnant isolated from most  other Christian churches around the country and the world and drain resources away from the Great Ends of the Church. 

The Episcopal Church is intolerant of dissent from its progressive theology, takes a hard line on church ownership of property, and, as a result, is beset by numerous lawsuits across the country. Many progressives, moderates and evangelicals in the PCUSA recognize the danger of following this path and seek to avoid it. We must do better.