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The Vicar’s Shifting Scruples

By February 6, 2012 2 Comments

Maggie Smith, imperious as the Dowager Countess of Grantham, peered at the hapless vicar across from her and pronounced, “You cannot imagine that we would allow you to prevent this happening.”  The “this” she was referring to was the moments-before-death marriage of William, a war-wounded family servant, to Daisy, another of the servants at Downton Abbey.  William wanted to get married so Daisy would receive the “widow’s dole.” Although the vicar’s reservations were never fully explained, one might imagine they had to do with his beliefs about the sanctity of marriage being violated in this case.  The Dowager Countess had other ideas. “I would point out your living is from Lord Grantham’s gift, your house is on Lord Grantham’s land and the very flowers in your church are from Lord Grantham’s garden.  I hope it is not too vulgar in me to suggest you find some way to overcome your scruples.”  The next time we see the vicar, he’s standing at William’s flower-bedecked bedside, performing the ceremony.  So much for his scruples — apparently the vicar liked having a job. As Groucho Marx once said, “These are my principles.  If you don’t like them, I’ve got others.”

The vicar had never appeared in the series before these scenes, so you knew he had no chance against Maggie Smith’s character.  But still . . . I wonder if I am the only Downton Abbey devotee (and yes, I fully get that Downton Abbey is nothing more than a soap opera made culturally acceptable to snobs like me because of the British accents) who felt that the vicar was right.  Both times.  He was right to object to the wedding . . . and right to finally perform it.  How difficult it is to find the right balance between pleasing ourselves and pleasing others.

Yesterday’s lectionary gospel lesson from the end of Mark 1 gave us Jesus as introvert, getting away from the entire city of Capernaum, which the gospel says “was gathered at the door.”  Peter and the others go to find him and say, “Everyone is searching for you.”  Although the temptations of Christ had already happened in Mark’s rapid-fire telling of the story, I wonder if this is not another temptation.  At that moment Jesus could have gone back with the disciples and become king of Capernaum.  Instead, he tells them it’s time to go someplace else.

In his wonderful book In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen calls this the movement from popularity to ministry. We admire Jesus for not giving in to the wishes of the crowd.  In a similar story in John 6, after Jesus fed the 5000, the gospel says, “Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king.”  Again he withdrew, and when the crowds finally did catch up with him, he said some of the most difficult words in the gospels, about the need for them to eat his flesh and drink his blood.  “Because of this,” John 6:66 says, “many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.”    

Good for him and too bad for them, we think.  He stayed true to himself and his mission.  He saw that playing to the crowd eventually corrupts and he wanted no part of that.  He didn’t confuse popularity with ministry. That’s the way we should be.

And yet . . . as the Dowager Countess told the vicar, “I would point out that your living is from Lord Grantham’s gift . . .”  Who among us doesn’t ultimately serve at the pleasure of others?  Ministers who would dare follow Jesus’ example and preach sermons that intentionally drive people away would find themselves looking for new churches.  Who wants that?  We don’t want to preach sermons that drive people away.  We want to preach sermons that people love. My fantasy is that someday I wouldn’t have to say, “Please stand if you are able for the Apostle’s Creed” because the congregation would already be standing for the ovation after the sermon. 

How difficult it is to find the right balance between pleasing ourselves and pleasing others.  Who among the clergy reading this hasn’t performed a wedding he or she had serious doubts about?  But you did it, didn’t you?  And I know the reason why – not because you were weak, but because you truly are a minister, called to serve God’s wayward flock, called to build bridges instead of burning them.

I imagine the vicar of Downton, on some not-too-distant day, standing at another bedside, this time praying for the soul of the Dowager Countess, ministering to her and her family in their time of need, allowed into that sacred moment because he was able to overcome his scruples and keep his relationship with them alive by performing William and Daisy’s wedding.  Let’s hear it for the vicar.




Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the editor of the Reformed Journal. 


  • Theresa Latini says:

    Jeff – thank you . . . for lovely and humorous story-telling, for poignant and refreshing honesty, and for the image of a standing ovation (which I tend to imagine after a semester's long class and which I have yet to experience)! BTW: have you ever watched the Vicar of Dibley? It got me through seminary.

  • Jeff Munroe says:

    Theresa – I love Dawn French and the Vicar of Dibley. Especially enjoyed the joke she would always tell at the end of the show.

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