Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Blogging the GOEs: Question 2, Church History

Crusty Old Dean managed to survive his first day as administrator of the General Ordination Examinations -- though not without incident(s).

For hoary old curmudgeons like COD who took the GOEs when the ink of the Elizabethan settlement was still drying on the parchment, it may behoove my handful of readers to get a refresher in how the kids these days take the exam. Each candidate is given a log-on with password, they go the GOE website, click on "exam" and at 9 am (or 12:30pm for afternoon session) the Exam question magically appears. They type their question on their computer, then upload it to the website when finished.

Sidebar: when COD took the GOEs, you had to physically go to the exam site, pick up the hard copy of your question, and return to your hovel to write. The clock, however, started at 9 am. Thus if you live 10 minutes away like COD did in his squalid off-campus apartment, too bad. You lost 10 minutes walking back to it and 10 minutes you needed to leave early to physically hand in your question. Plus, COD had to walk uphill to get his question. And it snowed every single day. Thus, it is true, for once COD is not exaggerating: COD walked uphill in the snow to take the GOEs. In a major advance soon after COD took the exam, students taking the exam off site were permitted to use owls to receive and submit their exam.

Yesterday morning, as COD prepared to settle in for quiet morning of reading White & Dykman (the 1954 edition), he received 3 cell phone calls within 50 seconds of one another, followed by footsteps in the hallway. None of the students taking the exam at Bexley could "see" the question on the website. COD emailed the question (COD has them all, in sealed envelopes, much like Oscar winners before the ceremony) to the students and disaster averted. After a call to the General Board of Examining Chaplains (7WD, COD will explain later why we have so many "General" things) the problem was solved. Apparently, the General Board thought that Bexley Hall was in the Central Time Zone. COD wanted to assure them that Bexley Hall had been in the Eastern Time Zone for 93 years, since the Standard Time Act enshrined them in 1918, and has occupied what would be the Eastern Time Zone for 94 years prior to that, for a grand total of 187 years in this time Zone. But COD had an exam to administer.

In a previous post, you can see Question 1, which dealt with liturgy, and which was the occasion of a truly rare event: COD had nothing to add, nothing snarky to say, and really nothing to bitch about. For a list of the half dozen times this has happened, consult CODW (Crusty Old Dean's Wife). Question 2 follows below.

COD finds this one very interesting. The fact it is "no external resources" shapes the way in which the question is asked -- one must necessarily work with broader themes rather than particulars if examinees are not permitted to consult any external resources, with only their noggin to which to resort.

COD warned the students in GOE prep to keep their eyes open for something which might have to do with church and state -- it's an election year, and church-state issues are precisely the kind of broad themes a no resources question can work with. Plus, as an issue which the church has dealt with at all times and in all places, it is suitable to comparing and contrasting different eras and contexts.

COD does have some thoughts on this question. For one thing, the question represents the difficulty in addressing church-state issues. It uses the dreaded inverted commas -- for "Christian" society, and for "church" and "state". Putting things in quotes is academic shorthand for, "we know these terms suck but can't find a better equivalent." One way to avoid this is to avoid the terms. In his dissertation, COD used "heresy" in the introduction but not thereafter, instead talking about "non-Nicene" Christianity. Why not just use different phrases? For instance, for the purposes of this question the definition of "church" put forth is OK (Christian leaders, institutions, movements) but not one COD would use in a class on ecclesiology. Why not come up with better terms than "church" and "state" after introducing them?

Which leads to a second thought: COD is not thrilled with the "civil government" and "state" categories here. One of the biggest problems COD deals with as someone teaching church history is getting students to realize that "church" and "state" have operated in contexts completely different than 20th century America. It gets down to what COD likes to refer to as the "Princess Bride Conundrum", for when the Spaniard says to the Sicilian, after the Sicilian's use of "Inconceivable!" repeatedly: "That word you keep using, it does not mean what I think you think it means." "Church" and "state" do not mean what they mean in our context, no matter how many times we use them. Not just the concepts, but the very words themselves, have meant different things in different historical and cultural contexts, and not only in the past but the present. Ask someone in Saudi Arabia, or Greece, or France, or Canada, Japan, or even in our own country what "church" and "state" mean -- let alone their relationship! -- and you will get some interesting answers.

For instance, there is no concept of "civil" government in the first two examples mentioned below, no boundary between religious expression and temporal authority -- and in the third example there is a very different interplay between religious expression and temporal authority (see, COD is avoiding the definitions in the questions, it's not that hard, and yes, COD knows his definitions are really no better than the ones used -- but I am not perpetuating the Princess Bride Conundrum).

That said, it's an excellent question: the relationship of political/temporal authority and Christianity is something that Christians in all times and in all places have and will continue to struggle with; it's firmly rooted in the New Testament; and also something which Christians inherited from their Jewish context. The examples chosen are excellent ones; COD also thinks asking about the way Anglicanism in the colonial period had to adapt to the changes brought about by the Constitution of 1789 and Bill of Rights would also have been a good one to add.

Part 2 is just as important -- it fulfills that most important function of history, namely, reminding us that almost all of what we struggle with now are things that others struggle with, and that we can learn from those previous encounters, as well as current struggles in different contexts from our own. Especially for students of theological education, integrating church history into interpretation of our current context is simply essential, otherwise we will be dominated by the normal shallow discourse that echoes shrilly in the church -- to give a few examples:

"The sky is falling!" (no, it hasn't, Christians have been saying for 2000 years the sky is falling)

"We've lost our way from the INSERT ERA 20 YEARS PREVIOUS WHEN EVERYTHING WAS PERFECT!" Christians have always looked back to a golden age which didn't exist, when, in fact, even the quickest perusal of any primary sources from that Golden Age shows most people were bitching about how much everyone was arguing and how we needed to go back to the previous Golden get the drift. After all, the government in England banned (well, technically, the monarch went prorogue on them) the clergy Convocations of York and Canterbury from meeting from 1717 to 1852 (Canterbury; 1861, York) because all the clergy ever did when they got together was fight and complain.

"How will we deal with question we haven't had to face before!" There's nothing that the church hasn't had to face before, albeit in slightly different contexts. Newsflash: the period from 1-200 was a period of upheaval, tremendous religious and cultural diversity, political polarization, and advance in communication, trade, and transportation which lead to a kind of globalization. And guess what: Christianity flourished.

Kudos to the GBEC for another good question, which should have been submitted with the necessary glosses from COD above. Question 2 follows. Enjoy!

General Ordination Examination 2012

Set 2: Church History


Throughout the history of Christianity, both civil governments and religious forces have played active roles in shaping the character of “Christian” society. In a 1,500 word essay:

  1. Choose two of the following historical examples. Explain the social and political issues that lay behind each of them and the respective roles played by “church” (Christian leaders, institutions, movements) and “state” (the civil government) in the resolution of each.

a. Constantine and the Council of Nicaea (325 CE)

b. The Elizabethan Settlement (England, late 16th century)

c. The abolition of slavery in the United States (mid-19th century)

2. How do the issue of the relative roles of “church” and “state” raised by the examples chosen in Part I continue to play out today in the United States or in another country where The Episcopal Church is present?

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