Monday, January 7, 2013

Bloggings the GOEs: Question 6 "Happens"

OK, Crusty is now freaked out.  Remember when COD thought the General Board of Examining Chaplains was surreptitiously spying on him, by coming up with a question asking students to "explain the Trinity" when Crusty tells students to reassure them, "Don't worry, they're not going to ask you to explain the Trinity."

It's pronounced Vorms, not Worms.  And it wasn't that important.
Well, this morning COD was reassuring one of the test takers on the Church History section. "It's a no resources question," Crusty said, "they can't ask you to be overspecific when there's no resources allowed.  It's not like they'll ask you to describe the Concordat of Worms."

Well, it wasn't about the Concordat of Worms, they did get pretty specific.

Set 6: Church History

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church begins its definition of a council as: "A formal meeting of bishops and representatives of several churches convened for the purpose of regulating doctrine or discipline." (ODCC, 3rd ed., [1997], p. 422)

The authority and impact of three "councils," thus broadly construed, form the basis of this question.
1. The Council of Nicaea (325)
2. The King in Parliament in relation to the Church of England in 1533
3. The General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America in 1789

A. Choose two of the three "councils." In two essays of approximately 250 words each, set each one in its historical context, describing the circumstances for calling the "council," the issue(s) that the "council" had to address, and the impact of the "council."

B. In an essay of approximately 500 words, compare the sources, exercise and reception of the authority of the Council of Nicaea to the sources, exercise and reception of the authority of another "council" you have chosen.

C. Based on your discussion, evaluate in an essay of not more than 500 words how successful Church "councils" have been in regulating doctrine and discipline.

You and did that "happen"?
1)   Crusty actually for once enjoys the wording of a question, albeit in a sort of perverse way -- in this case the "thus broadly construed," turn of phrase, his first LOL moment of the GOEs.  We'll know Bruce Springsteen had a hand in writing Set 7 if we see "in some fashion," a phrase Bruce likes to drop in interviews.  Use of "broadly" is probably the only way to link together gatherings as disparate in purpose and membership as the ones given in the question. The wording also allowed Crusty to chortle (trust me, not a pretty sight) at the way "council" had to appear in quotation marks in the  A, B, and C sections, and made him wish he could find a video link to Sheila from Say Anything to provide the necessary air finger quotes.  The conciliar question is an interesting one, because it's a concept which may seem more readily apparent than in reality.  The ODCC (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church) has a definition which is correct in its essence but also reveals that the reality of what makes a "council" can vary incredibly.  How does a handful of lay people and clergy and only three bishops (two of whom who would not be in the same room with one another), gathering in Philadelphia in 1789, not even representing every geographical area of what would become the new church, compare to a monarch gathering what is the legislative body of the nation (albeit which included bishops as lord spiritual), compare to a gathering of bishops invited by the emperor?  You could argue more properly that options 2 and 3 are more akin to a "synod" convened for dealing with more "local" issues of doctrine and governance than a "council" as is generally understood in the history of the church.  And BTW this disparity can be extended to so-called "ecumenical" "councils" (COD using separate quotes to differentiate that the terms themselves are individually problematic, not just collectively) themselves; do we really want to consider the Fifth Ecumenical Council (otherwise known as Constantinople II: Electric Boogaloo), when Justinian kidnapped the Pope and held a rump gathering in Constantinople for the sole purpose of trying to ram through his own ecclesiastical compromise, an ecumenical council?  (Yes Crusty is still bitter at the condemnation of the Three Chapters)  Further, "councils" are complicated because of the ecclesiological freight (what is their authority?  what makes a council?) that they carry and the different ways they have been interpreted.  The Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Church both have reserved the right to define what makes a council truly "ecumenical" and binding on the church as a whole, to the extent that they do not have the same list of ecumenical councils.  So why even use "council" in quotes?  Why not "ecclesial gatherings" or some other circumlocution?  And yes, there may be one person out there (if my doctoral advisor is reading this, otherwise there is no one out there) who might point out, "In your dissertation, Tom, [he was just Tom, not COD, when he wrote it] subsequently published by Brill in the series Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae (shameless plug; yes, it's expensive, but on the plus side, it's available through Amazon Prime!  You'll save on shipping!), you repeatedly used the word 'Arianism' in quotation marks."  Ah, phantom interlocutor, Crusty did so because he outlined how anachronistic and ineffectual the word is, and was deconstructing the term.  Using the inverted commas acknowledges that a term or category already is not helpful or accurate.

2)  But on to the question itself, which Crusty will break down by each subsection.  But overall,  Crusty likes it.  Some might opine that this question is asking people to do too much.  As one reader pointed out, a previous question gave a 500 word limit for a response, and just one of Crusty's several digressions was 227 words.  Hell, point #1 above was over 500 words, which is more than is allowed in section C! Keep in mind, this is a "No Resources" question, and you're asking people to do this from memory -- so if the General Board outlines a fair expectation for readers of what should be covered within these word limit constraints, this should be OK.  So let's take them in order.

2A)  You basically just have to hit each point with one sentence -- historical context, circumstances for calling the council, issues addressed, and impact.  You write one decent sentence or two on each of these, that's your 250 words for the section.  It's not like they included the the Council of Lyons or the Latrocinium (look it up!), as a standard for competency, COD would hope students could come up with 250 words on two of these three "councils" at this stage in their education.  They even give you an out by making you only choose 2 of 3.  Crusty hopes students of his who may have been bored to tears by his breaking down of the 1789 General Convention are praising him.

Sidebar:  COD ponders how the GOE format might make it harder to answer the questions.  COD tells students that the GOE is as much an exam of test-taking as anything else:  you're not being asked to write a paper or argue you a point, you're being asked to show competency based on the question asked.  ANSWER the question, exactly as asked, is Crusty's first and last point in GOE prep.  Crusty mentioned he failed the history section of the GOE, which is funny because he got a ThM and PhD in church history.  Well, that, in part, explains why.  He knows you may find it hard to believe, but when he took it Crusty thought the history question was stupid and instead of answering the question tried to argue a point.  Kids, don't do as Crusty did.  Anyway:  when you used to get the question in hard copy format, either when it was handed to you, or when they experimented with emailing it to people, you could have it in front of you, scribble on it, outline it, underline it.  COD, for instance, would underline each of the four things asked for, x2 for each example, in 2A.  He wonders if candidates will have a harder time answering the question when asked if they don't print it out and keep it in front of them.

On to the next subsection.
2B)  This portion acknowledges the differences in what constitutes a "council" by asking to differentiate between Nicaea and another council that should have been chosen in 2A by the candidate -- thus a kind of stealth deconstruction of the whole term "council."  Bravo, GOE.  You introduced a term you acknowledge to be problematic and in the question itself ask candidates to point out the very differences in the constitution and authority of "councils".  Thereby co-deconstructing.  Very Foucaldian of you.  Nicely played. COD does feel the need to point out that if you choose options 2 and 3 in 2A, you still have to know from Nicaea in 2B.  Which is fine; if a working knowledge of Nicaea isn't something somebody's picked up by now, then we got problems somewhere in the system.  Of course, if a candidate actually reads and outlines the question, they can simplify things by choosing Nicaea as one of the options in 2A so they don't have to end up writing something about all three examples.  Which then leads to

Councils are not only in ages past.
2C)   If there's one critique Crusty has (yes, he knows, everyone just raised an eyebrow and said "one"?) about theological education, it's a lack of holistic efforts to integrate theological education into theory and practice of ministry and to a student's experience and self identity to what we are studying.  Put another way, reading a different seminary's website, Crusty sputtered when it said it provided an environment where students would be "steeped" in the traditions of that denomination. Crusty snarled, "Students aren't f****g teabags and tradition is dynamic!"  They are people who come with gifts, abilities, and talents, and theological education should be a place where that meets with a process of education and formation to co-create something new, out of one's tradition(s).   The preceding sentences have been a precis (in the midst of a digression) to wondering:  are we afraid to let students try to integrate what they are learning to real, current, and practical situations, or bring their own perspectives (while of course respecting the fact that they cannot reveal anything about their secret identities in their answers)?  There was an effort to get at something like this in the Theology question, asking candidates to explain why the Trinity mattered in daily life.  But yet in another question on social justice, there was no effort to try to link that with any of the issues currently rankling the Communion.  And frankly, in this question, Crusty was dumfounded there was not more an effort, hell, if that there wasn't even a hint, to invite reflection in 2C on what has been happening in the past decades in the Anglican world.  Are we not in the midst of a profound ecclesiological debate (even though many would not characterize it that way, it is an essential component of what's happening) on the relationship between understandings of authority of different "councils"?  Provincial synods/General Conventions, Lambeth Conference, Anglican Consultative Council, Primates' Meeting, Windsor Report, Anglican Covenant, and so on?  You could argue that it would make the question even more difficult to throw this into 2C; fine, then rework or even eliminate section 2B.  I'd rather students apply historical understandings to a current and critical ecclesiological issue central to the future of Anglicanism than compare two "councils," the most recent of which met 223 years ago.  Demonstrating competency, which is the standard on which the GOEs are based, should not only be on issues from ages past except for Studies in Contemporary Society and Theory and Practice of Ministry and Liturgy questions.  Otherwise we run the risk creating silos:  the study of history, or ethics, should be to inform our present, otherwise don't study it at all.  Part of what's happening in Anglicanism right now is a profound ecclesiological question that has never been answered: what is does it mean to be an Anglican, and on what basis is that determination made?  Crusty understands you can't have an exam where every question involves some sort of integrative component like this: but is it asking too much to have one?

In sum, though, Crusty is pleased (yes, it does happen).  GOEs seem to be on an upswing: COD approved of the theology question and, in general, approves of this question.


  1. This is the sort of question I'd been expecting on the GOE's when I took them back in 2009. As a teabag steeped at GTS, I was prepared for this kind of question, which kind never showed up.

    Regarding your sidebar above, I found it helpful to have a stack of 3"x5" cards in order to organize each question and then--get this--answer it.

    I did quite well on these exams by focusing on answering the dang question. Much smarter teabags than I floundered by trying to show off or argue points. The best advice available for those entering the annual hazing is to answer the question . . . that much I know.

  2. Um, what *did* happen in 1533? I'm trying to recall while not looking it up. If Henry VIII was in, I'd think it was too early to begin the Reformation stuff, and I thought dissolution of the 'steries was in the 1540s.

  3. Don't get Crusty started. He was perplexed 1533 was chosen, which seemed to focus things on the king's annulment -- 1533 was when Cranmer annulled the marriage and the Act in Restraint of Appeals was passed, which forbade appeals to Rome, thus making Cranmer's decision final. Why not 1531, with the Submission of the Clergy, or 1532, with the Act in Restraint of Annates, or 1534, with the Act of Supremacy?

  4. Well, as an old biology student I guess the first thing I'd say about all the questions I've seen discussed is that I could still answer all of them pretty well with about 2 weeks preparation and still keep up with chemistry, biology and genetics classes. What a lame thing it is to see Episcopalians need *3 years* of study (of what?) to get to this point in their knowledge. Sigh.
    To start with one might notice Nicea was Catholic, a foreign concept to PECUSA students. It's already a confusing question for them. Every bishop in the Catholic Church east and west believed it give or take some Arian holdouts and later Monophysites. It should be noted that in the DIocese of Olympia the bishop must *order* his clergy to say the Creed derived from that council and Constantinople that followed it. No such creed (or demand for its recitation) derived from the later councils mentioned. The later two of course did *not* deal with anything approaching catholicity, just smaller and smaller slices of Anglicanism. 1533 involved someone who would loved to have been as powerful as Constantine (I think the only council called by and presided over by a catechumen). Most places in PECUSA follow closer to the last council and have as little to do with 325 as possible, many congregations (Gregory of Nyssa, SF for one) simply drop the Creed altogether. How many words left...?

  5. When I worked for the GBEC 1990-2002 each year I ran the statistics on responses. On average in those 12 years about half the candidates "demonstrated proficiency" in all 7 areas, about 15 per cent in 6, about 25 per cent in 3,4,or 5 areras, and about 10 per cent in 0, 1 or 2 areas. The Administrator and I carefully read the last 10 per cent to be sure evaluations were fair and accurate. About half of these poor papers resulted from students spending too much time researching answers - in those days open book questions were popular - and not having time to complete answers. A few of the rest were downgraded because they did not show any familiarity with the area, a few more for lack of any coherent structure in the paragraph, and the rest of the rest for just what COD has recognized: a bright student wrote an excellent essay that simply did not answer the question asked. These last were not easy to catch. Readers frequently were delighted to read the essay and it was the supervising chaplain who had helped write the question who noticed the disconnect.

    But the experience has encouraged a seminary dean to remind GOE candidates to answer the question asked, and I consider that a success.

    In 2001 I ran a comparative analysis of the 16 years of results at hand. On a running average each year GOE candidates demonstrated proficiency in 80 per cent of the areas. The spread by seminary was about 5 per cent - from 78 to 83 per cent. Every seminary was above average at least once in the 16 years and every seminary was below average at least once. One year a small seminary had 10 candidates; all passed all 7 areas. But no seminary had a year in which students did really poorly.

    Between a quarter and a third of GOE candidates each year were not M.Div. candidates from Episcopal seminaries. These included people prepared at other seminaries, students at Episcopal seminaries who were candidates for a different Masters degrees or certificates, M.Div allumni/ae of Episcopal and other seminaries, and each year one or two who had read for orders. These "others" did almost as well as Episcopal seminary M.Div. degree candidates.

    Tom Rightmyer

  6. To respond to Bob's comment above: The General Board includes 4 bishops, 6 seminary faculty, 6 parish clergy, and 6 lay people. In my time the parish clergy and lay people were drawn from former seminary faculty, college faculty, and people with graduate degrees. The goal was to be sure the Board included experts in all the canonical areas.

    The goal of the fall meeting to write questions was to prepare an exam that most students could pass. The stastics above show that the goal was met. A careful reader of the Church's Teaching series could write an adequate exam, and when students occasionally wrote the Board office to ask about preparation I suggested they review that series to be sure they knew the basics.

    I note that the questions this year all require limired resources. That has both advantages and disadvantages. It makes writing the question harder, but it does save GOE Candidates' time looking for "the answer."


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