Thursday, January 2, 2014

Blogging the GOEs, Part III: Question 1: Cuz the Bible Tells Me So

Raise your hand is you cried when Spock died.
Well, it's come to that again:  the annual General Ordination Exams of the Episcopal Church, where Crusty puts his years of graduate education and full-time ministry in the church to use as a glorified exam proctor because we can't trust people to do a take-home examination but will ordain them to have access of people's most intimate and personal experiences.

Since everything that comes around a second time for Crusty is some permutation of "Breakin 2:  Electric
Boogaloo," because this is the third time COD has blogged the GOEs, we will call this "Blogging the GOEs, Part 3:  The Search for Spock."  However, unlike Spock's famous dictum ("The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few", and yes Crusty knows that was uttered in Star Trek II, not III), in way too many of our churches it is catering to the needs of the few that outweigh the needs of the many.

First off, an important ground rule:  COD will only post when it is absolutely clear anyone who is taking the GOE will already have received the question.  Crusty will not have anyone finding out what the question is from reading this blog.  My blogs will only be posted five hours after the posting of the
5 hour delay in case Milton is taking GOEs.
question...thus when a question is posted at 9am on the East Coast, my blog will appear at 2pm, so that anyone who is sipping a Mai Tai on the beach in Hawaii and taking the GOEs will not have a head start.

Secondly, COD will be bringing back the Crusty Ranking System, last used in his General Convention 2012 preview to rank GC resolutions.  All questions will be ranked on the following scale:

WTF:  an ungodly sh*tstorm of a question.  Like this one.

Meh:  not great, could have been better phrased or framed, but not a WTF question.

Axios! (Greek for "worthy", what is shouted by laity at ordinations):  a question which actually does what it's supposed to do, provide an opportunity for a student to demonstrate competency in the relevant canonical area.

Crusty wishes the General Board of Examining Chaplains would structure the GOEs in the same order as the areas of competency are listed in the Constitution and Canons, to satisfy his inner inner J on his Myers Briggs.  Sadly, they do not, but we get a glimpse of what could be since we begin  #GOE2014 with Holy Scriptures, the first canonical area listed in Title III, Canon 8, Section 5 (g) (1).  Here is the question:

Set 1: The Holy Scriptures 

LIMITED RESOURCES: A printed one-volume annotated Bible; a printed one-volume concordance. NO electronic or Internet resources.

The Church teaches that Holy Scripture is an authoritative source of direction for addressing the challenges of contemporary faith and living. The Bible helps us understand what God has called and is calling the people of God to be and do.  Sometimes, however, it would seem the biblical direction in which we are to walk is not clear. This is true when we look at the issue of violence.

Consider, for example, the following pairs of texts from Old and New Testaments:
Isaiah 2:2-4
2In days to come
  the mountain of the Lord's house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
  and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3 Many peoples shall come and say,
'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
  to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
  and that we may walk in his paths.'
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
  and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4He shall judge between the nations,
  and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
  and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
  neither shall they learn war any more.

Joel 3:9-12 
9Proclaim this among the nations:
Prepare war,
  stir up the warriors.
Let all the soldiers draw near,
  let them come up.
10Beat your ploughshares into swords,
   and your pruning-hooks into spears;
   let the weakling say, 'I am a warrior.'
11Come quickly,
   all you nations all around,
   gather yourselves there.
Bring down your warriors, O Lord.
12Let the nations rouse themselves,
   and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat;
for there I will sit to judge
   all the neighboring nations.
Matthew 5:9
9Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Luke 22:35-38
 35 He said to them, 'When I sent you out without a purse, bag, or sandals, did you lack anything?' They said, 'No, not a thing.'36 He said to them, 'But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. 37 For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, "And he was counted among the lawless"; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.' 38They said, 'Lord, look, here are two swords.' He replied, 'It is enough.'

Taking seriously the need for biblical direction and the differing perspectives taken by the Bible on violence, in an essay of 1,500 words:

1. Exegete either the Old Testament or the New Testament pair of texts, analyzing and presenting their literary, historical, and theological characteristics. Your exegesis should clearly explicate the purposes of each text. (1,000 words)

2. Apply your exegesis to a contemporary issue of violence. Your argument should honor the integrity of the Bible and take seriously the church's call for authoritative direction. (500 words)

OK, Crusty has no major beefs with this question, but several minor ones.  COD feels the emphasis in the Scripture questions for the GOEs should be on exegesis in the service of application of Scriptural interpretation.  Part of what's wrong with seminary are elements related to the preponderance of an academic model.  Read, go to class, write paper.  You get a PhD by reading books and writing papers, so often we have a bunch of people with PhDs which they got by reading books and writing papers asking people to preparing not for a PhD but for ordained ministry to read books and write papers.  Don't get me wrong; reading books and synthesizing that in writing is an important skill as well as fine pedagogy.  But integration and application are also essential.   Crusty, for instance, is fond of giving oral final examinations one-on-one with students where he asks "coffee hour" type questions for them to answer (like, "Did Henry VIII really found the Church of England?").  Students seem terrified when they hear this, but COD says, "You're rarely called to write academic papers but will be explaining things orally all the time."  Clergy don't write too many exegesis papers after graduating, but are called upon to interpret, explain, and apply Scripture in a wide variety of contexts (homiletical, pastoral, inside and outside of the church, etc.) and in a wide variety of formats (oral, written, social media, etc.).  This question is an effort to strike that balance, picking a relevant topic and asking the student both to exegete some passages, and to apply Scriptural interpretation to a contemporary issue.

So no major beef.  But Crusty has some issues nonetheless.  Seriously, would you be reading this if COD didn't have issues?  This whole blog is about my issues!  Don't you read this for my low-grade cursing and high-grade snark?   Some day maybe COD will publish the outtakes, where he includes the edited comments deemed to smarmy even for him.

The issue with Question 1 is clarity.  One of the major problems with the GOE is lack of clear definition.  For instance, Crusty was not pleased with what he felt was a poorly framed and worded Ethics and Moral Theology question from last year's exam (you can read about that here).  Lack of clear definition is a problem especially when it comes to reading the GOEs.  Crusty, as a seminary dean, gets copies of students' results from the seminary and reads the readers' comments.  Sometimes as a result of poorly worded questions,  readers seem to be specifically looking for things in answers they did not specifically request, and then tell the student they didn't give them what they hadn't specifically asked for.

Thus while COD thinks the question is a serviceable effort to strike a balance between exegesis and application, he has some issues with how the issue of "violence" is framed -- or rather not framed in any way, shape, or form.  "Violence" is introduced with no clear definition of how it should be understood:  "This is true when we look at the issue of violence."  COD re-read the question to see if a section was missing which provided a little backdrop.  Crusty wants to ask:  "What do you mean by violence?  Violence perpetrated by individuals?  By the state? By God?  By the church?  Physical, emotional, or other kinds of violence?  Just and proper use?"  It is simply dropped in there.  Now, given the way the exegetical portion is framed, Crusty hopes the readers are allowing for a very wide leeway in how students may understand the term.  The Old Testament readings are very different from the New Testament readings, and students are asked to exegete *either* the OT or NT.  If you choose the OT readings, that will shape how one frames the whole question of violence in a different way than the NT readings.  But would it kill them to add a sentence or two breaking the concept of "violence" down? "Violence can be..."

On a side note, COD is glad they chose Luke 22: 35-38, which made the list of Top 10 Most Difficult Passages to Preach compiled by young COD and his seminary classmates.

The absence of any effort to frame questions with more specific detail or explanation continues with the instructions for the portion of the essay where students are to focus on application of their exegesis.  They are asked, in 500 words, to "Apply your exegesis to a contemporary issue of violence. Your argument should honor the integrity of the Bible and take seriously the church's call for authoritative direction."  First off, it always cracks COD up how much students are asked to do within the word limits constraints.  This blog post, even without quoting the question, is already well over 500 words.  Second, what the hell do they mean by "honor the integrity of the Bible" and "take seriously the church's call for authoritative direction"?   These concepts materialize as if out of nowhere, having not been introduced in the opening section.  What is "integrity of the Bible"?  Having spent 1,000 words exegeting two specific passages, do they know have to be conversant with how violence is dealt with throughout the course of OT and NT?  If not, what is meant by "honor the integrity of the Bible"?

Likewise, what do they mean by "church's call for authoritative direction"?  What kind of direction are they talking about?  Counseling someone in a domestic violence situation who refuses to leave her abuser because of the biblical imperative to obey your husband?  Protesting an unjust war?  Boycotting a company that exploits migrant workers?  Submitting a diocesan convention resolution that will change the world?  Crusty finds it astonishing no context is given here: what kind of direction?  By whom?  Authoritative in what sense?  Personal belief, official church teaching, Deep Magic from Before the Dawn of Time?  Providing some-- heck, providing ANY kind of marker, explanation, or example would have been helpful.  Why not some kind of setup/scenario?  Personally, given the way issues of gun violence have been brought to the fore in the past year, COD thinks an opportunity has been missed.  Then again, Crusty also knows damn well most clergy are too damned scared or timid to provide any authoritative guidance on anything, let alone anything even remotely
The most important part of direction is doing the directing.
controversial, so perhaps providing any specific examples would be a waste of time.  Crusty went to church the Sunday after Sandy Hook, and it was mentioned only in the Prayers of the People.  No preaching on it.  It's one thing to be able to outline the "church's call for authoritative direction," it's another to do the hard, complex, sometimes thankless, sometimes transformative, work of actually providing that direction and grounding it authoritatively.  As Jerry once famously said in Seinfeld to the rental car agency that didn't have a car for him despite making a reservation, "You know how to take a reservation, but not hold a reservation, which is the really important part."  How often is the church like that rental car agency?  Do we honor the reservations we make?

In the end, though, perhaps the ambiguity in framing important components of the question may not bean issue if the readers are willing to be flexible and see how students manage creatively to apply Scripture to a complex issue...yeah we'll see how that goes.  The words "ambiguity", "creativity", and "flexibility" do not go together with "GOE."

On another note, Crusty was also surprised to see that the General Board of Examining Chaplains, apparently, can define things on their own.  The question notes in the opening that "The Church teaches that Holy Scripture is an authoritative source of direction for addressing the challenges of contemporary faith and living."  Really?  Scripture is like a Garmin or GPS, providing a "source of direction."  Does it tell us, "You are deviating from the prescribed Biblical direction"?  Also, where does "the [capital c]Church" teach this?  The catechism in the Book of Common Prayer doesn't mention anything like this in its explication of the Scriptures, nor do the Articles of Religion.  You could extrapolate something like this description from the the various ordination rites, where each order is described as having a slightly different relationship with the Scripture (bishops to guard doctrine; priests called to preach the Word; deacons to model life on them).  To be clear, Crusty  agrees with the statement.  But if you're going to start saying "The Church teaches..." you damn well better be able to back it up.  There are plenty of efforts in Anglicanism to break how the Anglicans understand Scripture, from Lux Mundi through the Windsor Report (which COD thinks has an excellent section trying to come up with a description of how Anglicans read and interpret Scripture) to the Bible in the Life of the Church project.  GOE questions don't need to read like ee cummings or a Hemingway short story, it might be OK to provide just a little more background.

Crusty gives this question a solid:  Meh.  Not even close to WTF, but with some better definition and little more explanation, could have been at least been in striking range of Axios!


  1. I like the first part of the question because it addresses the importance of the contexts that gave rise to the passages. As to the part about "authoritative direction," our authoritative direction is well articulated in the Baptismal Covenant. How can we address issues of contemporary violence without that?

  2. Your last issue, about the GBEC blithely asserting "the Church teaches . . " is what leaped out at me about this one. I smacked my head on my desk so hard at that that I was too dizzy to read the rest of the question. Of course having been trained by Presbyterians, the whole idea of "exegete [a significant text]" and "1000 words" don't belong together either. The exegetical method I was taught and which my PCUSA classmates were expected to use in their Ord exams involved accounting for 11 different factors--before you got to your "application."

  3. Elizabeth, I think the Baptismal Covenant would be a great way to reflect, but it is just one way people to go. I'd feel a lot better if they specifically asked people to look at it from the perspective of the baptismal covenant.

  4. Gillian, even Crusty does not harm himself when faced with the church's goofiness. He would be maimed by now if he did.

  5. not to mention the website was a circus of I.T. glitches this morning!

  6. Katie, at one point I shouted, "Who hosts the GBEC website? Geocities?"

  7. Back in the 1990's when I helped with the GOE the GBEC offered some guidance to readers in evaluating candidates' answers and made these available to seminary deans. Does the GBEC continue to do so?

    Your comment about the context of the answer is right on target.

  8. Maybe the IT glitches thing is required in a rubric somewhere. B/c it seems to happen EVERY YEAR.

  9. Maybe it's my laboratory director brain working overtime, but the verb "exegete" seems to me that the results of that should end up in a specimen cup.


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