Saturday, January 4, 2014

On Church History, Chimps, and Clericalism: A WTF Question

[Disclaimer:  You know, Crusty can be serious at times (well, often, actually) and here is a very special message from COD:  These  blog postings are really about me arguing with the questions, and really are not intended to be a kind of GOE forum.  Crusty welcomes comments and feedback, but please do not discuss answers in the comments section, since the GOEs are a double-blind process -- readers aren't supposed to know who you are, God forbid any of them should stumble across this site.  While Crusty thinks the GOEs need some pretty substantial if not radical revamping and restructuring, he's also a firm believer in them, or something like them, and feels we need to follow the process in place while having discussions about what changes might be needed.  We do need a GOE forum, and Crusty has tried at times to try to get one going, and would welcome anyone who wants to grab their torch and pitchfork and join him.]

On to Set 5!  Yeah, I'll get back to Set 4, Crusty also needed to write his sermon for tomorrow and got a little backed up yesterday.

That's right, Grumpy Orthodox Cat.

Set 5 is Church History, the canonical area close to Crusty's heart since his PhD is in church history and that's what he teaches.  Church History has been on a roll in recent years, coming out with short, mostly straightforward questions that have asked people to discuss a big issue (like councils in the church), go into a little depth on one specific area, and then connect it in some way to the Episcopal Church.  In general COD has been fine with how church history has been handled in past years.  Occasionally church history questions have even been timely; for the 2012 GOE, Crusty warned the students to expect something on church-state issues, since it was a presidential election year (and COD was correct in that prediction).  In a "no resources" church history question one must necessarily paint with a kind of broad brush and work with larger movements and contexts.  Crusty thinks what church history is all about is looking at the past to help make sense of our current reality and resource us as we figure out where God is calling us next, and has appreciated efforts in past years to construct questions that reflect that.

And then there's this question.  Congrats, #GOE2014.  It took three days and five sets of questions, but we have our first question getting the rank of WTF! in Crusty's grading system.

Set 5: Church History 

An enduring theme of church history has been the relationship between the sacrifice of Christ on the cross of Calvary and the holy Eucharist. This development has had a substantial effect on the history of ordained ministry in the Church.

Part A: Write an essay of 500 words on each of the two topics below:
1. Considering the Church in its first four centuries, discuss the development of a sacrificial understanding of the Eucharist as it affected concepts of ordained ministry. Give two specific examples of historical texts and/or historical figures who contributed to this sacrificial understanding of both Eucharist and/or ordained ministry. How did these two examples influence this historical evolution?

2. During the English Reformation of the 16th century, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer rejected the concept of the Eucharist as a sacrifice and the priest as the minister of sacrifice, and both Cranmer's 1550 Ordinal and his work on the 1552 edition of the Book of Common Prayer reflect this rejection liturgically. What were two historical figures or texts that lay behind Cranmer's thinking of the Eucharist as a sacrifice of praise, if a sacrifice at all? How did these examples influence Cranmer?

Part B: Write an essay of 500 words that discusses an example of how the issues of the Eucharist as sacrifice and/or the priest as minister of sacrifice have continued to shape Anglican belief and practice since the Reformation. Also explicate an example of how these issues remain significant in The Episcopal Church today.

Crusty gives this the WTF ranking because he does not accept the premise of this question.  The relationship between Christ's sacrifice on the Cross and the Holy Eucharist is one of the most enduring themes in theology, not church history.  And that's just the first sentence!  In the second sentence, students are then asked to reflect on the relationship between this  theological (not historical!) theme on the "history of the ordained ministry."  [On the topic of "substantial effects", personally Crusty thinks the adoption of the cursus honorum from Roman society had the most "substantial effect" on the development of the ordained ministry.]

After reading the first sentence, COD double-checked to see that this wasn't really the Theology question, but  scrolling back up saw that it does indeed say Set 5: Church History.  Now, don't think
Like Leo McGarry, COD has been rejecting premises of questions since the Hoover administration.
COD doesn't think theology and history are related, even integrated -- far from it.  When Crusty was asked to teach the Anglican studies stuff at another seminary, he said, "Yes, but only if you let me revamp the courses."  At that time they had a separate "Anglican History" course and "Anglican Theology" course.  COD said, "Theology is contextual, and I'll only do it if you let me teach one, year-long Anglican History and Theology course instead of two courses which perpetuate some kind of artificial distinction between history and theology."  The person called my bluff and agreed, so COD then actually had to do it.  Crusty was interviewing for a job at a different seminary and was asked, "Are you a historian who teaches historical theology or a theologian who looks at the historical development of theology?"  Crusty replied, "I don't accept the premise of the question because I don't accept those categories or distinctions."  (He had already discerned he was not a good match for that institution.)  

So don't think Crusty believes there's some hard-and-fast existential divide or matter-anti matter relationship between church history and theology and the two should never mix.  Far from it. Theology is contextual, and we can't look at theology without looking at the communities that produce it and how those communities were shaped by broader movements in their culture.  Crusty's whole dissertation was arguing that the church historians of the 4th century were actually writing theology!  (And you can buy it here.  It's currently ranked #7,494,121 on Amazon.)  A major issue here is that this is primarily a theological question that is grafted onto asking people to do some historical reflection. And a pretty
Sometimes the historical text and historical figure are one and the same
difficult question, too.  COD has a PhD in Early Church History, and it took me a couple of minutes to scratch my head and come up with historical figures and/or texts as examples.

And not only are students being asked to do a lot of theological reflection here, there's also the topic itself.  When COD first read it, he thought, "Really?  Really? Of all the topics, this is the one we are looking at to ask people to demonstrate competency in church history? The history asked for here is the history of the ordained ministry!"  There's nothing existentially wrong with this topic itself, it is something COD might consider as a paper topic, or maybe a question on a midterm examination, but thinks it is out of place as being the basis for competency in the canonical area.  Now someone might argue that looking at issues of ordained ministry and the sacrament of the Eucharist as it pertains to Christ's sacrifice on the Cross is something that we should absolutely expect people preparing for ordination to be able to articulate.  Most of the people taking this exam are going to be priests, not professional historians, so asking something related to ordained ministry is germane.  Fair enough, Crusty supposes, and he assumes that's part of the reasoning behind this.  But it also strikes COD that focusing on this in some ways continues to abet a kind of over-sacramentalization of the priesthood, and makes church history complicit to that by framing a question this way.  When interviewing for ordination and asked why he felt called to be a priest, COD replied, "I feel more called to be a presbyter.  Presbyter speaks to the broader understanding of the office -- preaching, teaching, pastoral care, leadership in a community, governance in the church and, yes, presiding at the sacraments.  After all, you could probably train a really smart chimpanzee to preside at the eucharist, but you can't train that chimp to connect how
Also a great tune by Wilco.  Is it obvious Crusty is oblivious to himself?
presiding at the Eucharist relates to other aspects of the Christian life."  For nearly 30 years processes of discernment for ordination in the Episcopal Church have, at times, tended to be almost solely focused on why someone is called to preside at the sacraments, which can warp overall understandings of the presbyterate (it's more than just presiding at the sacraments!) and exacerbate a church rife with clericalism.  To focus the church history question on this smacks of clericalism, when there are so many other things we could be asking about in church history.  Frankly, given the massive changes going on in the church globally and the way in which we are being called to transform many of the structures and institutions we have, Crusty is stunned that a clerical, inside-baseballish question like this is asked.  (Yeah, COD realizes most of you rolled your eyes and said "I can't believe he just knocked someone else for being insider baseballish! Pot kettle black, Crusty!")

In the past decade, in assessing competency in church history, the GOE has not asked anything remotely pertaining to the central issue currently facing the Christian church: the massive changes we are going through in global Christianity, everything from increased secularism and drop in Christian numbers in Europe and North America, the explosion of Christianity in Africa and Asia, issues of globalization and post-colonialism, things that are dramatically reshaping Christianity on a par with the Reformations of the 16th century and other seminal times in church history.  It is astounding to COD that no church history question in years has asked anything about what is happening globally to Christianity and not difficult to rectify.  They could very easily have asked something like, "Throughout its history, the church has gone through periods of change and transformation.  We are going through a similar process, etc." and then asked students to reflect on previous periods of change and transformation (Constantinian revolution, rebirth of Anglicanism following American Revolution, Gregorian Reform movement, English Reformation, Methodist revival, there's so many possibilities) and then asked them to connect that to current issues in the Episcopal Church or Anglican Communion.

Again, COD asks:  Really?  This is how we're asking students to demonstrate competency in church history at time of tremendous change and transformation?  On the one hand, a tremendous opportunity is being missed.   On the other, why are we bothering to ask people to demonstrate competency in church history if we can't ask them to apply it to some of the major issues facing the church?

It pains COD to give the church history question, his favorite canonical area of all canonical areas, a WTF ranking.  But make it so.


  1. WTF. My sentiments exactly.

  2. Why no post on yesterday's Ethics question?

    1. Josh, Crusty was writing a sermon yesterday and unpacking from being away for nearly two weeks. COD foolishly agreed to supply at a church that is a 90 min drive away. Set 4 blog is about half done, mostly notes, will watch football Sunday afternoon and finish it off and post it.

  3. Interrater reliability on the WTF. Well said. Amen.

  4. I specialized in historical theology in my MDiv and I agree w/ your WTF.

  5. I looked at the first question, and wondered: If I had to answer this, would I leave it blank, or invent something out of whole cloth? I couldn’t answer my question, or theirs.

  6. I actually felt like this was one of the more reasonable (if difficult) questions we've had so far. I understand the issue with clericalism, and I definitely had difficulty with the first section (early church history not being my forte or area of great interest, but all in all it wasn't bad. We were asked to track the arc of an idea through the history of the church and were given a good amount of leeway in how we could do that. It was an extremely theological idea, but as you said, its extremely difficult to put much separation between the two.

    The first part was extremely specific, but again, that's inherent in the history question. If it had been on Stuart England or any of a few other areas I would have loved it and knocked it out of the park. But then there would have been people who knew early church. history who would have been out of luck. Personally I'd have rated this on the high end of Meh to the very low end of Axios.

    That said, I still probably failed the crap out of it, so there's that.

    1. So, extremely? :)

      Agree with you that it was more reasonable, and I actually think it may have been the best overall, classic question yet. But yes, very difficult to answer well.

    2. Yeah. Sorry Dan. We may just have to agree to disagree on this one. I think that the question was unfair considering that we did not have any resources at our disposal. If we had, then I think it would have been a completely fair question and agree with your assessment. But, then again, Church history is my weakest area of scholarly understanding.

    3. Yep, Dennis. I had a pretty limited vocabulary at this point. Come to that I had a pretty limited brain function at this point.

  7. It's not that this isn't something people shouldn't study or isn't important, Daniel -- COD's main issue is making this question the basis of competency in church history. Crusty gave Set 3 "meh" because, while I didn't like the scenario/setup, what they were trying to get at is something that I think is worth assessing, namely, how can congregations become agents of transformation and reconciliation. And as you may have been able to discern (he was being rather subtle) COD is sick of reducing the presbyterate to sacramental presidency.

  8. Subtle as a truck! But yes, I agree with you there. I guess (being in it) it was just a relief to have a question that was at least comprehensible and direct in what it asked for a change.

  9. Now I'm curious how my clergy friends would talk to me about being ministers of sacrifice. In all my 67 years as an Episcopalian, I have never seen them that way. I would also like to know more about how my clergy understand presbyter. I agree with your WTF rating. I don't see this as a good question for evaluating competency in history.

  10. Holy Cow! I feel more and more fortunate to have been a 2012er, especially in this question (of course, we had thta dopey question about plowing, so maybe it evens out). No outside resources? I'd have been sunk. And then there's the whole idea of trying to encapsulate one of the most complex and difficult questions of our entire theology into 1500 words, in a category where it isn't usually discussed. Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot, indeed!


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