Monday, January 9, 2012

Blogging the GOEs, Question 5: Wisdom from the Buddha

There's a famous Buddhist koan where a monk is tending the garden. He looks up to see his master standing looking at him. He goes back to work and a brick comes whistling right by his head. He looks up again and his master is standing with one foot in the air. "Master!" he said. "You almost hit me with that brick! You could have warned me!" His master replies, "But I stood with one foot in the air." And immediately the monk was enlightened.

Message: we must break ourselves of linear patterns of cause and effect if we are truly to understand the dharma of the Buddha.

Message: perhaps it's similar with the GOEs. In the church history question from earlier in the week, Crusty OId Dean wondered they didn't go whole hog with a "church" and "state" question, and, more specifically, why they chose the question of how the religious organizations dealt with slavery as opposed to, say, something like church-state separation and the impact of religious disestablishment and the Bill of Rights, or even our current context and debates over the role of religious organizations in society.

Luckily, Question 5 was the brick hurled at COD's head. COD is enlightened now: they had ANOTHER "church" and "state" question up their collective General Board of Examining Chaplains sleeves. COD is liberated from the linear causation of numbering questions 1 through 7. Here is Question 5:

Set 5: Contemporary Society


The role of Christianity in civil life and of religion in general, has undergone substantive changes through the centuries. For example, the Anglican Church was the official church in several American colonies prior to the Revolutionary War, only to see its status diminished shortly afterward. In our own age, as another example, the tax-exempt status of the real estate of religious institutions is being questioned by a more secular and pluralistic society. At the same time, some politicians are calling for a greater role for religion in society (sometimes for a greater specifically Christian role).

In such a context and as rector of a local parish, you have accepted an invitation to pray at the inauguration of the town’s mayor.

  1. In an essay of approximately 750 words, address the changing relationship that the church has with a society that questions the privileged place historically given to religious entities. How has this changing place of privilege both supported and hindered the church’s mission “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ”? (BCP, 855)
  2. Compose a prayer of approximately 75 words that you will use at the inauguration.
  3. In light of your analysis in Part 1, in an essay of 750 woreds explain:
  1. Why you accepted the invitation to pray at this civic event, and
  2. The reasons why you have composed this particular prayer in light of both the church’s mission and the currently perceived role of religion in civic life.
The GOE writers are on a roll: in an election year, when religion and politics are going to be everywhere, they have come up with two questions asking people to reflect on the relationship between civil government and religious organizations. Well done: this is something which religious leaders have to deal with in one way or another, in a variety of different contexts. Crusty Old Dean was once accused of preaching "politics" when he replied, "I was preaching the gospel and never mentioned any political party or political issue." You can tackle issues while trying to avoid the partisan manipulation of them by our dysfunctional political process -- an incredibly tricky thing, but what else are pulpits for? When preaching on immigration issues, COD was handed a gift that Scripture says, more or less, "And if anyone who sees these injustices done and does not speak out, they are under judgment as well." Similarly, COD asked his wife, when she was getting a presidential candidate bumper sticker, to get one of those magnetic ones. COD was serving part-time at church, and needed to remove it before going in to the office -- because COD ministered to Obama and McCain supporters equally. Religious leaders walk a political minefield, and this question is a good effort to force the test takers to reflect on these issues.

COD notes those devious GOE writers are as devilish as ever: notice how they do not give one the option to decline or make an excuse to get out of the inaugural prayer. COD must admit the one time he has been asked to do something similar to this, he found an excuse to get out of it without saying no. The GOE writers don't give you that option: sorry, suckers, there's no ducking this one.

Section 1 is a good way to ask people to approach the question: all too often people can tend to get worked up on their particular "take" on the role of religion in contemporary society without being forced to face some of the uncomfortable implications. Christian conservatives can demand that prayer be allowed at public events, but some would probably change their tune if Muslims and Hindus were asked (COD has seen several Christian leaders admit publicly they would be opposed to public prayer if non-Christians gave them) -- sorry, fellas, you can't have it both ways. Can't demand religion has a place in public sphere and then decide which religions are acceptable to you. Likewise penning a tirade here against any role for religion in society can lead to uncomfortable questions: OK, then why do you preside at weddings and accept a housing allowance and are you ready to pay property taxes on church property?

We all have been served a s**t sandwich of thorny intermingling of religion and civic society, and rather than going overboard on either end we need to try to articulate broad principles for how to navigate our this reality, while at the same time acknowledging positive and negative aspects. Precisely what Part 1 tries to do.

COD also notes how even more difficult the question is: the test takers are asked to write a prayer! And this is a no external resources question! Episcopalians can't pray without a book in front of them! 75 words is, more or less, about the length of the average collect (COD just word-countered 3 collect at random and they clocked in from the high 60s to high 70s, so 75 seems like a nice median). Plus, throw in the "O Lord" and a couple of "Let Us" (COD, at times sitting through tedious extemporaneous prayer by evangelicals, refers to such prayers as "salad prayers" because of the excessive let us) and you don't have much to say about church state relations. An excellent twist to this question. While COD has no patience for salad prayers, being asked to prayer extemporaneously and often unexpectedly is something which clergy are often called to do, and you better be able to do it and not sound like a bumbling moron.

But that's OK -- because in Part 3, you get 750 more words to explain all the things you really wanted to say in that prayer. Limiting the prayer to 75 words forces you to get to the point (how many times has COD heard Prayers of the People that were longer than the sermon! Crusty Old Dean's alcoholic, chain-smoking clergy mentor once growled, "Ferguson, just remember -- every Eucharist should only have one damned sermon, don't make the announcements or the prayers or the dismissal into another goddamned sermon.") but section 3 allows you to unpack that prayer.

Crusty Old Dean is holding the GOE writers in increasing awe. Truly, in his interactions in the church, feeling such an emotion this is a rare occurrence. Two relevant church-state question! COD is glad he told the students in GOE prep to beware of a church state question!

On the other hand, COD does not feel any different after having received enlightenment, and is off to consult spoke more Ch'an Buddhist koans for inspiration.

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