Friday, January 4, 2013

Blogging the GOEs, Question 4: The Race Card Not Played

[Hello all:  beginning with a disclaimer.  Crusty seems to have touched a nerve with my first post on GOEs (one of my most-read postings).  Apart from being perpetually stunned anyone cares what he has to say about anything (he mainly does this to spare CODW his rantings and provide an outlet), Crusty does want to say one thing.  He's not opposed to GOEs, and sharply criticized the decision to defund them in the original draft budget proposed last summer.  He would, however, like to have a discussion about a thorough overhaul, and you can read some of his previous thoughts here.]

Today is not only No Resources Day, it's the Longer Titled Canonical Areas Day.  This morning we had the Dept of Redundancy Dept Area, Ethics and Moral Theology (seriously, a good question would be, "Set 3:  Ethics and Moral Theology.  Question: In a 1250 word essay, explain title of this canonical area.")  This afternoon's full canonical title is "Studies in contemporary society, including the historical
and contemporary experience of racial and minority groups, and cross-cultural ministry skills."  Thank God it's a No Resources question, huh?

And here it is:

Set 4: Contemporary Society [sic, not the actual canonical area's name in the canons]


This is the only Crane position COD knows.
You are the rector of a congregation in a medium-sized city with a centrally located church building. For several years, yoga groups have met in your parish hall; a number of your members attend these classes. More recently, under the leadership of the last rector, the rise of interest in meditation brought a Zen Buddhist meditation group to meet in your chapel once a week; a few of your members participate in these meditation sessions. A group of Muslims has now approached you to ask if it could rent space for Friday prayers because the lease has expired on the last place it met.
Canonically, you know that the use of space is the rector's decision, but you wish to involve vestry members in replying to the request and setting future policy. They are looking to you for guidance.

In an answer of 1,000 words:

1. Relevant to the decision you must make, describe how these three religious practices (yoga, Zen meditation, Friday prayers for Muslims) relate to Christianity.

2. Explain how the relationships identified in Part 1 inform your decision about whether or not to agree to the request of the Muslims and whether or not to continue to allow the other two groups to meet in your facility.

Well, how about that.  The GOEs just went New Age on us!

In all seriousness, great setup.  Crusty served for two years as a part-time college chaplain, at a chaplaincy that owned its own building, centrally located on a large Big 10 university campus.  (Hint:  Crusty was known to Jump Around.)  Crusty dealt with space requests from all sorts of campus groups.

Great setup because missionally we need to find ways to connect to our communities, and one asset churches often have is location and space.  COD enthusiastically responded to student usage requests as chaplain because it got people into the building and helped get us known in the broader community.  What minimal rental fee we charged paled in comparison to what we got from the free word of mouth that came with it.   Plus, as a progressive campus organization, we often provided a needed meeting place for groups not welcome elsewhere.  In 1969, one of the first gay student organizations on this university's campus got its start meeting at the Episcopal chaplaincy.  An important missional mantra of Crusty's is:  find out what the needs of your community are and what you have to offer.  Often one thing we have to offer is space and hospitality.

These decisions also involve a broader community.  While the Rector does have say over the use of the buildings, buy-in from stakeholders and constituents (neighbors, Vestry, etc.) is also essential.  So telling you to consult with the Vestry is also a good thing, as is setting policy (rather than responding continually in an ad hoc manner to requests).

Sadly, probably what most Americans know about Ganesh.
Great setup in the way it also inserts us into some of the tensions current in this religiously pluralistic society we call the USA.  In fact, if anything, American religious history is the story of a culture continually waking up to the fact that a previous paradigm has shifted (white Protestant hegemony in the wake of massive Catholic migration in the 1800s; explosive growth of Pentecostal and Holiness traditions in the 20th; shifting patterns in immigration due to changes in the 1965 immigration law bringing large numbers of Muslims and Asian religious practitioners, and so on) and concurrent tensions resulting from that.  Everything from burning of Catholic churches by mobs in the 1840s to a low-grade war with the Mormons to the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque" controversy to the mass shooting at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin demonstrates the at times difficult and at times tragic struggles American society goes through adapting the issue of religious pluralism.  Of course, it was always there -- in a pre-9/11 world, much of American society was still cossetted in some notion of being a white Christian society that had long since ceased to exist, if it ever really existed, but in the past decade this religious diversity has been thrust into a spotlight it didn't ask for and the level of denial or fantasy from those who held the power to new realities was no longer tenable.  Put another way, Crusty turned to his boss when the second tower fell in 2001 and said, "Interreligious relations just changed forever."

So Crusty loves the setup!  This is "Studies in contemporary society, including the historical and contemporary experience of racial and minority groups, and cross-cultural ministry skills," after all.  Gosh Crusty gets mentally tired just reading the title of the canonical area, let alone the question proper.

However, about that requested answer.

1)  Crusty counts himself lucky that he served for a decade as Ecumenical and Interreligious Officer for The Episcopal Church.  In that role, COD dealt with a variety of religious traditions and went to churches and synagogues and mosques and ashrams and all sorts of places.  He counts himself lucky because he found himself saying, "Hold up, did they just ask a question about interreligious relations?" If so, Crusty can't remember the last time they did on a GOE.

While Crusty would normally be thrilled about an interreligious relations question, he found himself scratching his head on this one -- is it fair to expect students to have a working knowledge of the spiritual practices listed here?  Crusty 100% of GOE takers would have such a working knowledge.  Crusty is working to include a multicultural experience requirement as part of the Master of Divinity curriculum.  In a society becoming increasingly diverse and pluralistic, The Episcopal Church skews shockingly old and white.  Crusty wouldn't belong to a country club or pretty much any organization whose membership and leadership looked so out of whack with demographics as the church usually looks.  And (shameless plug) Crusty has developed an Ecumenical & Interreligious Relations course which will include site visits and worship experiences with other traditions.

So as I say, Crusty found himself asking, is it fair to ask students how this practices relate to Christianity?  Perhaps it depends on what they're asking.

There is [yet again] a clarity question:  what do they mean by "relate"? Theologically (do Muslims pray to the same God as Christians)?  Their parallels to certain Christian spiritual practices (meditation is like centering prayer)?  Some other manner of "relating"?

Then there's the fundamental issue of comparing these practices to one another, let alone to Christianity, in whatever way "relate" is supposed to function here.

These are practices that can be are incredibly different depending on their American context, let alone other contexts (in this question we're talking about Zen Buddhism in a medium sized American city, not Little Tokyo in LA, let alone Real Tokyo).  Here we have one practice which has, for a lot  (but not all) people in America, a tangential connection to religious tradition (yoga);  another which is more connected to a particular tradition (meditation and Zen Buddhism); to one that is actual, integral worship (Friday or jumma prayers). Would we call Sunday morning liturgy for Christians "a spiritual practice"?  Crusty realizes there will be variations, and in some places the connection between yoga and Indian spiritual disciplines may be quite well integrated, and there's probably Zen Buddhist centers where the meditation may be completely divorced from any spiritual or religious practice.  However, it's COD's universal experience that jumma prayer is nothing but jumma prayer and its relationship to Islam is pretty clear.  There's a kind of an apples to oranges dynamic here lumped under "spiritual practices". Contorting yourself into a yoga position at the multipurpose room in the Y is different from meditating which may kinda look like what a "real" Buddhist might do and both are fundamentally different from Friday prayers. 

2)  So Part 1 is problematic.  And then part 1 becomes the basis for part 2 -- and Crusty thinks the question could have been framed differently.  The basis for the decision on whether to allow Muslims to meet -- and whether to throw out current tenants already meeting! -- is here based on how how we interpret their relationship to Christianity:  "explain how the relationships...inform your decision."   So the decision is to be based on how these "spiritual practices" some "relate" in a undefined way to Christianity.

Crusty finds this framed oddly because often, in his experience, relationships with religious traditions, both Christian and non-Christian, are informed as much by ignorance, suspicion, race, class, and culture as by theology.  I doubt many people think, "Hey, do you think the way meditation relates to a Buddhist understanding of enlightenment conflicts with Christian understandings of salvation?" when deciding whether to let a Zen Buddhist group meet.  They usually think, "They seem like a fairly innocuous group of mostly white people sitting quietly."  Similarly, how many people ask, "Gosh, last night while reading the Quran I was troubled by the surahs which mention Jesus as a prophet and not Son of God," when pondering whether to let a Muslim group rent space.  And this is not just a non-Christian thing; if a predominantly white church is approached by a predominantly Hispanic church asking to rent space, will their decision be based on whether they're a Pentecostal or Holiness church and the compatibility of their theology with The Episcopal Church?  There's a greater likelihood that the decision would have more to do with being brown than being Baptists.  Instead of theology, these "relationships" and "decisions" can based on ignorance, fear, and downright racism.  Crusty tried his hardest as ecumenical officer to get churches talking more about the ways race, class, and culture were more church dividing than positions on bishops in historic succession or the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

If the question does not fit, you must acquit!
Crusty would love to read the answers to the question, and see how students wrestle with the issues involved, which are critical and important ones.  However, he also thinks an important opportunity was missed by not incorporating more explicitly the multicultural and cross cultural aspects on interreligious dynamics.

For once, he wished the race card HAD been played, and finds himself wondering how we can structure and facilitate the important conversations we need to have about diversity, multiculturalism, race and racism.


  1. Yes, yes. There's the question of whether a soon-to-be-graduated would know enough about the spiritual practices and theologies of these other faiths to frame an answer. There's the problem of which version of these other faiths one might encounter in different areas of the country. -- But for me there's a more basic and practical consideration: how realistic is this question? How likely is a priest to run into this sort of cross-religious (as opposed to cross-cultural) issue? If (as I suspect) most of our new ordinands will end up in small town ministries (like my own), this is not going to happen. I've been in my current parish for ten years and in a similar parish in another state for ten years before that. Both are exurban, nearly rural parishes. I do not encounter Muslims or Zen Buddhists and very few yoga practitioners. I do encounter African-American Baptists and Hispanic Pentecostals. Wouldn't a question focusing on how a white, Anglican congregation can work with these fellow (but culturally very different) Christians be more realistic?

    1. I was ordained almost exactly one year ago, and am priest-in-charge of an exurban, largely white Episcopal congregation. Our church rents space to a Hebrew school, an Indian dance teacher, and the local Hindu community for the celebration of Diwali and other festivals. We hosted the community Thanksgiving service this year, whose speakers included representatives of two local synagogues and a practitioner of "earth spirituality" My sponsoring parish, in another suburb, was actively involved in an interfaith dialog with the local Muslim high school. Even in the suburbs, interfaith relations are increasingly a question for the present.

  2. I'm not going to lie...all four "rants" have been oddly soothing and rejuvenating. The GOEs themselves were one of life's worst experiences for me. I'm sensing some redemption!

  3. Wait a minute...are candidates who've seen all the episodes of "Little Mosque on the Prairie" going to have an unfair advantage on this one? (seems to me this is the whole plot line of that show with a different religion inserted...)

  4. Honestly, I never feel stupider than when I read GOE questions. It's an absolute miracle that I answered the GOE questions that I had to answer when I did - I'm lucky I'm ordained!

  5. But why in the world would it matter "how these religious practices relate to Christianity"? The church is just renting space; I don't think it's actually necessary that it agrees with the doctrine professed by the people who rent it.

    All of the renters are rather mainstream; all of them will, one supposes, respect church property and won't do anything bizarre to discredit the church itself.

    Furthermore, this kind of sharing is already going on! I'm aware of at least one instance locally in which a Jewish and a Christian congregation share the same building - I think one of the original buildings was destroyed by fire - and can't see why this is controversial in any way.

    I don't get the question, to be honest. Does this have something to do with the original consecration of the church? If so, what?

  6. I am one of the lucky ones that got to answer this question. I found it difficult to uncover the complexity. But just like any other "test" you just give your best answer that holds some integrity for you personally. I really was not sure what the group was looking for... it will be interesting to see the remarks.

  7. Considering that Ann Redding of Seattle is both Episcopalian layman in good standing as well as a Muslim, the whole question can be written off as pretty trivial. Though a defrocked Episcopal cleric she goes through Episcopal parishes in the Seattle area and is paid to give seminars on her unique blend of theology. Nothing at all hypothetical; a better question might be "Why is this allowed to continue and why was it allowed in the first place?". I don't need a hymnal for that.


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