Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Blogging the GOEs, Question 3: Clown Trigger Warnings

[Disclaimer #1:  You know, Crusty can be serious at times (well, often, actually) and here is a very special message from COD:  These blog postings are really about me arguing with the questions, and are not intended to be any kind of GOE forum.  Crusty welcomes comments and feedback, but please DO NOT discuss answers in the comments section, since the GOEs are a double-blind process -- readers aren't supposed to know who you are, God forbid any of them should stumbleacross this site.]
[Disclaimer #2:  Last year for some strange reason Crusty was elected to the General Board of Examining Chaplains. To prevent any appearance of conflict of interest, Crusty has recruited Dread Pirate Crusty to fill in this year as GOE blogger.  While COD is allowing Dread Pirate to remain anonymous, rest assured the Crust is strong in DPC.]

Dear Dread Pirate Crusty,

There comes a time in every young padawan’s life when they must search their heart and encounter a reality that they know to be true. Much akin to Luke Skywalker on the catwalks of Cloud City fighting Darth Vader, the time has indeed come for our readers to know the truth. That we are not one single pseudonymous GOE blogger, but two pseudonymous GOE bloggers, writing under a common name
DPC -- activate!
. Much like the Planeteers, that band of earth-saving heroes who summon Captain Planet when Earth, Fire, Wind, Water, and Heart combine, the Dread Pirate Crusty is only truly ever in full force when our powers combine. With that reality revealed, and a slew of pop-culture references out of the way, perhaps we should turn to this morning’s question?

Set 3: Christian Ethics and Moral Theology
According to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, those who are baptized promise to follow and obey Jesus as their Lord; and those who are ordained to the diaconate and the priesthood promise that they are willing and ready to obey their bishop and other ministers who may have authority over them and their work [BCP: 303, 526, 538].
Obedience has been described in many ways that articulate differing aspects or perceptions of the concept. Consider the following two quotes:
A 20th century Christian mystic has written that “Obedience is the only pure motive, the only one which does not in the slightest degree seek a reward for the action but leaves all care of reward to the Father who is in secret and sees in secret.”
The views of a contemporary artist have been characterized with the following words,  “All the world’s problems stem from obedience ... war, genocide, and slavery [are] products of such silent compliance.”
In an essay of about 1,000 words:
Provide an ethical definition of Christian obedience that takes into account promises of Baptism and Ordination, explaining how obedience is viewed in Christian life and ministry, as set within the Christian tradition of moral reflection.
Address each of the above quotes, describing how obedience in Christian life and ministry is the same as, or different from, what is suggested by the phrase, “silent compliance.”

Ah, yes, obedience. One of the great gifts and challenges of Christian life in general, and ordered life in particular. GBEC has had a tendency of late to try to ground the questions in practical ministry, and almost all of the questions start end with “write a presentation,” or “prepare an article.” Often times - like we saw yesterday - that drive to “relevance” ends up diluting the question, removing necessary elements for developing a sound answer, or getting in the way of clearly communicating the knowledge that the test-takers have learned.

But here, major kudos to GBEC. They’ve found a superbly relevant issue, one that relates to what it’s like to actually be ordained, to bear the burdens and challenges of ordained ministry. They seem to recognize that there are some things that, as a priest, you’re not going to be able to explain to your congregation. And vows of obedience are squarely in that category. Further cheers for the fact that they’ve dispensed with the window-dressing of making this a presentation or newsletter article, and asked candidates to reflect on a question that will profoundly affect them over the course of their ministry. Seriously, this has the makings of an excellent question. A really excellent question. I was screaming “Axios! Axios!” as I started reading it. We had found the platonic ideal, as far as I was concerned, of an excellent question.

And then… Oh, GBEC. You disappoint me.

Using the Force (alternately known, of course, as Google), I found the sources of the two quotes provided. The first quotation, about the heavenly Father who rewards in secret, comes from the
DPC is on the case of these quotes.
French mystic Simone Weil. Weil is a case unto herself, and, if I recall correctly, from one of our many conversations over the years, I think you’re a fan. I’ll leave the light side of the Force to you. The second quote comes from Finnish artist Jani Leinonen, who evidently did an art installation called “The School of Disobedience” in 2015. You can read all about it online:
http://hyperallergic.com/230374/learn-to-fight-capitalism-at-the-school-of-disobedience/. (Trigger Warning: Traumatic Ronald McDonald Photos Ahead). I’m not sure why GBEC is drawing from this particular source of culture, (CLOWNS! BEHEADED RONALD MCDONALD!) but let’s go with it anyway. This is truly the dark side of the force at work. I mean, again, clowns. (Shivers, goes to take a shower.)

The question asks test takers to explain “how obedience in Christian life and ministry is the same as, or different from, what is suggested by the phrase, “silent compliance.”

I’m truly concerned that GBEC sets up a false dichotomy - and quite possibly, confuses obedience,
The least disturbing photo from the website referenced.
at least in the larger stream of Christian theology of ordered life, with submission. These are two dramatically different things. Weil, in the shades of the questions,  is pro-obedience, and points to its spiritual fruits. Leinonen, in the questions’ intimations, is anti-obedience, and points to what happens when people blindly submit.

But our theology, as expressed in the BCP, never expects obedience to be blind submission. Otherwise, why would we vow to take part in the councils of the church?  It’s a false flag of a quote. My view of obedience has always been this: my Bishop has authority over me and my work; I’ve promised my obedience to the Canons of the Church and the rubrics of The Book of Common Prayer. But that vow is not one to silently agree with the status quo. I’ll argue with my Bishop tooth and nail - I’ll make my feelings known - but at the end of the day, I’ll do what the Bishop says. I’ll lobby at General Convention to change the canons or the prayer book, and say loudly that an existing provision is ill-conceived and wrong, but obey it if it’s made Canon or BCP. And if I decide not to obey - obey the canons, obey the BCP, obey the Bishop - at the end of the day, I understand that there are also real, lasting consequences for that decision - consequences that could go as far as being deposed from orders. But that is a choice I make, and at some point, if charged with doing something awful, I would hope I have the integrity to say “no,” and face the consequences.

So I’m quite concerned that GBEC sets up a false equivalency for test takers that will not serve them well in their ministries - by essentially giving equal weight to a quote that goes to the heart of Christian obedience with one that likens obedience to the equivalent of a Jedi Mind Trick. Granted, one can argue against Leinonen’s quotation - and measure as proficient. Axios!

But a test taker could also wholeheartedly agree that to be obedient is to be a mindless automaton in an evil machine, pass this question, and GBEC would happily endorse them for ordination where they will make… what the candidate views to be  a vow of mindless compliance to an evil machine? WTF, GBEC? WTF? We need clergy that can think critically, we need clergy who can live their vows of obedience, and most especially, we need clergy that don’t see that as contradictory.

Reality is that for most clergy, this ain’t Mos Eisley spaceport, our Bishops aren’t Obi-Wan Kenobi, and, no matter what, we’ll be able to see that yep, these are the droids we’re looking for. (I hesitate to use this analogy, because it makes the clergy Storm Troopers, but the analogy works otherwise, so take a big cup of DEAL WITH IT.) Obedience isn’t mindlessness. I’m afraid some portion of this question is a bit mindless, however.

For the giant achilles heel in this question, I’m giving it a solid MEH. It has lots of potential, of the very best kind - I would have rated this an “Axios!” but the hole opened up by allowing a candidate to rate proficient with an equating of obedience to blind submission, which I find too big a flaw to ignore.

May the Force Be With You (In Such Limits as Your Bishop May Allow),


Dear Dread Pirate Crusty,

I concur. The GBEC has lured a good question to the dark side, and now, it is more committee-work
I suspect the hand of Emo Kylo Ren in luring this question.
than solid idea – twisted, and pointless.

It makes me even sadder that somewhere in there is the shard of a decent point.

You are correct; obedience is something that ordinands will wrestle with (whether they realize it now or not) for their entire careers. And most of them, I daresay, currently don’t realize it. Unless they have witnessed firsthand the breakdown of a diocese due to an episcopal meltdown, or seen a parish go up in flames because of a burnout cleric, the notion of obedience is pretty much theory. Until you have to grapple with it in practice, obedience just sounds like a nice idea floating out there, like words in space. The true test of obedience comes, as you rightly pointed out, when you are directed to follow someone whom you (rightly or wrongly) disagree with.

And to this point, I agree with you that they really could have chosen better quotes. I am indeed a major fan of Simon Weil--what sensible pirate could not be a fan of a French/English autodidact mystic who was a Resistance fighter in World War II?  

But on this note, the citation of her as a Christian is problematic – any serious reader of Weil knows that she consciously refused baptism for her entire life--choosing to remain Jewish in order to remain in solidarity with her fellow Jews who were being slaughtered throughout Europe for their faith. She thought that a more faithful following of Christ – over the strong and continued objections of her spiritual advisor and confessor.  Talk about nuanced obedience!  

And the second quote... what a desolate place that is.

Look, I agree that silent compliance is the root of most, if not all, social evils. But there are many sociological experiments that could have made that point as well, starting from the notorious Stanford Prison experiment, where it took only a matter of hours for normal college kids to violently attack their fellow classmates in a simulation. There are the Nuremberg Trials, where defendant after defendant from Nazi Germany argued that they were just following orders, even though they knew those orders were barbaric.

It’s because I agree with the substance of the second quote that I’m filled with rage about the whole thing, like Kylo Ren smashing up a console. When Simone Weil talks about obedience the way she does, she’s talking about obedience to GOD. Not humans. She’d be the first to tell you that unquestioned obedience to humans is always a bad call, because humans are generally flawed, usually selfish and agenda-driven, and are easily distracted by shiny objects. (She’d say it better and probably in several languages, but STILL.)

Obedience to humans has to be nuanced and questioning. Obedience to God is a different matter. And the fact that the question elides the two makes me stabby. What sort of backwardsass theology are we asking seminarians to create, that would risk conflating God and humanity?  Augh. No. This issue is too important for it to be twisted in such a manner. I judge this a solid MEH as well.

Now pardon me, as I try to get that image of a beheaded clown out of my brain.

Help me, Dread Pirate Crusty. You’re my only hope,

PS.  You and I both know that Clowns have no place in church.  Serious party foul, GBEC.


  1. I will need to read this a couple of times....but on this 21st anniversary of my own GOE's I can only imagine how terrifying it would be as a seminarian to answer this question knowing the committees and bishops in charge of your particular process would all read it, and with theoretically no lived experience of this kind of obedience lived in the context of a hierarchical church. But on the Clown issue I'm clearly anti clown.

  2. Alternatively: Using any means necessary, construct a square equal in area to the circle given in figure 1. Then, in an essay of 1000 words, explain your construction techniques, defending their Euclidean roots against all critics.

    (For those who do not know: constructing a square equal in area to a given circle in the Euclidean way, that is with a compass and straightedge, has been proven impossible.)

    Essentially, the question gives two different definitions of obedience, then requires ordinands to take a position (without knowing what biases the grader will have on this matter!). In doing so, the writer is to address both definitions, even though one (or both) are going Tom be extraneous to the writer's argument.

  3. Are the examinees permitted using Google to find out the context of the quotes? I hope so. Then that person can speak to the quotes in context.

    I hope the examinees can answer in context, just as we would expect a priest to unpack a scripture passage in context. Otherwise, it is a silly exercise.

    Being able to answer in context should mean there are answers looking like the 2nd DPC comments.

  4. GOE takers are allowed to use any resources for these questions, including internet, so yeah, they certainly could have taken the 5 seconds it took DPC to Google and find the source of the quotes.

  5. Re: Clowns in Church
    What, y'all never saw Godspell? There were clowns all OVER that thing. Or at least clown makeup. And after all isn't that the nub of clown-ness?

    (Ducks and runs with arms over head).