Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Blogging the GOEs, Question 4: The Mawwiage Trap[door]

[Disclaimer #1:  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 are not intended to be any 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 stumbleacross this site.]
[Disclaimer #2:  Last year for some strange reason Crusty was elected to the General Board of Examining Chaplains. To prevent any appearance of conflict of interest, Crusty has recruited Dread Pirate Crusty to fill in this year as GOE blogger.  While COD is allowing Dread Pirate to remain anonymous, rest assured the Crust is strong in DPC.]

Greetings, Crustaceans! Our GOE test takers are taking a well-deserved break today for Epiphany. (Way to go! You’re over halfway through!). As much as Dread Pirate Crusty may whine, moan, and critique the GOE questions, it should be noted that DPC has infinite respect for those kick-ass folks who are taking the examination this year.  The GOE breeds its own paranoia - and often, the clergy who have gone before aren’t of that much help. Candidates go through seminary hearing constantly about the traumatic experience of the GOE, how it is a hazing ritual, how this or that person was abused by their readers, and so on - and that re-enactment, before their eyes, of a trauma not their own only heightens anxiety as the exam happens. So if you’ve been wondering the best way to support GOE test takers this week - just give them a shout out. Remind them that they’ve got this. Give them your confidence and your love. Give them high fives, buy them dinner, tell them you care about them. And when it’s over, help them celebrate. To any GOE test takers who may be reading DPC’s rambling treatises on the questions they’ve had to answer: DPC salutes you. And not only that… you’re almost done.  BTW, DPC also respects the GBEC and the difficult task they have been given, especially since no funding was provided at General Convention 2015, despite the fact this is a canonically mandated commitment of the church.   All of the critique here is in the service of hopefully strengthening future iterations of the process.

But, DPC, you ask, don’t you have a question to eviscerate with your laser eyes approximately 12 hours ago? Why, yes. Yes, dear reader, there is another question. We just wanted to make sure you had something to feast on during the GOE day off.

Set 4: The Practice of Ministry

You are a recently ordained priest in a rural diocese. Your bishop appointed you Priest-in-Charge of a pastoral-sized parish with an average Sunday attendance of 80. The parish is in a small town with a population of 500 in a county with 15,000 people. A veteran priest, who serves a 45-minute drive away, is your mentor. Your bishop is headquartered a five-hour drive from you.

Soon after you arrive, a newly retired same-sex couple, who are Episcopalian and have recently moved into town, approach you with the request that you preside at their wedding. No such liturgy has previously been performed at your parish. The couple quotes a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision as inspiration for the request. Your bishop has issued a pastoral letter indicating that General Convention has authorized such rites in The Episcopal Church, though, in accord with our canons, a priest can decline to solemnize any marriage.

Construct a pastoral response to this situation in a 1,000-word essay. Explain how the practice of ministry interplays with a theology of marriage in The Episcopal Church. Refer to the appropriate canons of The Episcopal Church and/or resolutions from General Convention that will guide your pastoral response. Identify the key parties involved, and tell how you would engage those various parties in this situation. Include what considerations you might give to those who hold different views.

Dread Pirate Crusty notes that if you didn’t expect this question to come on this year’s GOE, that DPC has a nice, big, beautiful bridge to sell you in Brooklyn. GBEC loves to take a “hot” issue - whether in the church or the world at large - and get it into the exam each year.
This question is a dream within a dream.
Andcertainly, mawwiage, er, marriage, was among the big developments in both the church and the United States over the past year. Mawwiage, that bwessed awwangement, that dweam within a dweam. With those two stwains bwought togethew, thew was wittle douwt that GBEC would use mawwiage somewhere in this year’s GOE. DPC hopes that test-takers felt very prepared as this question appeared.

GBEC’s prompt places the test-taker as a newly ordained priest in a rural diocese where the bishop has authorized same-sex marriage, in a parish of 80 in a town of 500, where an retired same-sex Episcopalian couple approaches you to marry them. The parish has never celebrated a same-sex wedding before. GBEC wants the examinee to construct a pastoral response to the situation.

All in all, Dread Pirate Crusty is quite pleased with this question. So pleased, in fact, that DPC wishes to dispense with the negatives first, so that we may dwell togethew in the positive.

First, Dread Pirate Crusty must rail against the greatest, grossest implausibility present in the question. A newly ordained priest gets to be PIC in a parish where 16% of the town’s population attends their church on Sunday? Where is this parish, Colonial Virginia? I mean,
Scram.  This is an Episcopal town.
that is one freakin’ impressive ASA figure over and against the general population. DPC would kill for that sort of attendance figure, if only because it would mean there would now be something like 1,600 people attending DPC’s parish on Sundays. (But when that’s the worst implausibility of the question, you’re doing alright. Well done, GBEC.)

Dread Pirate Crusty has often been castigating GBEC for not including necessary details to provide sound answers to the questions. In this case, though, GBEC could dispense with lots of details that are distracting, or are likely to lead to typecasting. The ASA example is one piece of that.

Here’s another: why stereotype our rural dioceses as examples of places that haven’t had to wrestle with the emergence of changes in our understanding of marriage in church and society? It wreaks of the worst sort of assumption - that our rural congregations are places that are just now receiving word - possibly by carrier pigeon, telegram, or Pony Express -
Maybe Errol from Harry Potter delivers to this parish.
that GLBT Episcopalians exist, and what’s more, they’re in love and interested in getting married! Puh-lease. Dread Pirate Crusty is willing to sell a few more bridges, this time in the Bay Area, if it isn’t equally true that there are plenty of urban and suburban churches that haven’t wrestled with marriage and human sexuality as well. This isn’t a “practice of ministry” question that’s confined to our rural parishes. Don’t stereotype our rural parishes as backwaters unaware of what’s happening in society and the church at large.

GBEC could reframe the supporting information quite simply, and avoid some of the typecasting:

You are the newly ordained priest in charge of a congregation of an ASA around 80. For the next three months, your Bishop is on sabbatical, but you have been paired with an experienced mentor whom you trust, and who is reasonably available to you.

But beyond GBEC’s loathsome typecasting of our rural parishes, the rest of this question itself is, in Dread Pirate Crusty’s opinion, solid, with one major caveat, which DPC will discuss later.

First major congratulations: the test-taker is asked to explain how their pastoral response interplays with “a theology of marriage in The Episcopal Church,” not with “the theology of marriage in The Episcopal Church.” They are given the Book of Common Prayer, the Canons of the Church, and General Convention Resolutions as suggested sources. (DPC does wish that scripture were listed as a resource, as well, but it’s open resource.) As the preceding years and numerous blogposts have made clear, we don’t have a single theology of marriage. Many Bishops in our church have authorized marriage rites for same-sex and opposite-sex couples equally; many Bishops in our church have not and will not authorize them. Some bishops are trying to find middle ground with varying degrees of success.

We don’t have one theology of marriage - we have tons of them. And the question, as GBEC writes it, recognizes this reality, and leaves it to the test-taker to respond appropriately. DPC hopes that tired test takers were able to note the choice of an indefinite article here. The question was well crafted in making everything licit in the hypothetical, but leaving the choice to proceed in the hands of the test-taker, and the test-taker alone. No person is asked to violate the boundaries of their conscience in answering the question, or defend a theology that they cannot hold personally. But the question expects that the test-taker’s response is given roots, and is not flippantly held. All in all, DPC perceives this to be a good thing, indeed.

A second plaudit for GBEC: the situation is entirely practical. DPC notes that the couple seeking to get married cites the 2015 Supreme Court ruling, and not their life in the church, as the impetus for their marriage. While it may not be this exact motivating factor for all couples that come into DPC’s office for marriage counseling, on the whole, 95% are inspired to marriage for reasons outside their lived Christian faith. As such, priests will have to construct a pastoral response to every day to engaged couples for every potential marriage - regardless of whether they are same-sex or opposite-sex, because they have to communicate what marriage means in the church, not just what it means in society writ large. Bravo, GBEC!

A third huzzah for GBEC: it does realize that there are plenty of parishes that haven’t encountered this specific situation before, and that presents challenges that the candidates will face in their ministry (the fact that they seem unaware that this is equally a rural and suburban/urban issue notwithstanding.) When Dread Pirate Crusty began parish ministry, DPCM (Dread Pirate Crusty’s Mentor) gave DPC one big piece of advice: “don’t move the
You're growing on me, Question 4.
furniture without talking to the congregation first.” By furniture, DPCM meant anything from the actual furniture, to the liturgy, to the landscaping. People need to be prepared for big changes. Dread Pirate Crusty is a full-throated supporter of marriage equality in the church, and yearns for the day that we don’t have to write about “same-sex marriage,” and can just say “marriage.” But for many people beyond the couple themselves, this would be a big change, and one that no priest would be advised to try and “sneak by,” hoping that nobody notices. Some would laud the change; some would hate it; all are part of that priest’s flock, and need to be responded to pastorally. The fundamental skills at work in this question apply even if the issue isn’t marriage - there will always be some big change requiring a thoughtful, grounded, theologically astute practical response. It’s a real dynamic present in parish life, and the test takers are asked to be prepared for it.

So Dread Pirate Crusty was prepared to give this question an AXIOS. Dread Pirate Crusty wanted, yearned deeply to give this question an AXIOS. But this does not happen at this time. (I say that because you’re looking a little nervous, and I don’t want you to be worried.) One reality, outside of the bounds of the question itself, prevents full plaudits from being awarded.

That reality is rooted in the sticky spot of being a seminarian, not yet given the canonical protections afforded to those in Holy Orders, and being constantly judged and evaluated by Bishops, Standing Committees, Commissions on Ministry, examining chaplains, and Rodents of Unusual Size. This question may be an unfortunate trap door.

Consider a hypothetical. A seminarian from a diocese where the Bishop has declined toallow for same-sex marriages to proceed is acutely aware of the requirements of their bishop, and the scrutiny of the Diocesan examining chaplains, and so constructs an answer
The only marriage traps we like have Hailey Mills.
in which they decline to solemnize the wedding. They know the watchful eye of their Bishop is upon them, and as such, construct an answer in which they decline to solemnize the marriage. (An answer in the affirmative could, hypothetically, lead to their dismissal from the process, a student loan debt of $100,000 for seminary education which they cannot use in ordained ministry, and a quick trip back to square one.). A reader from GBEC doesn’t like the answer - and marks them as non proficient - not because it isn’t sufficiently supported, but because of the choice itself. The person without any power here - the seminarian. The question, as written, allows for a pastoral response where the answer is “no.” But the graders may not look upon that decision generously, and mark it down. (The past experience of many has shown that GBEC readers are not as impartial as we might want them to be on less “hot” topics.) Hello. My name is GBEC reader. You hurt my feelings. Prepare to die.

Or consider the converse: A seminarian from a diocese where the Bishop has authorized same-sex marriages writes an answer laying out their plan for the couple in a parish. But there’s a few people on the Standing Committee, or the Board of Examining Chaplains, or the COM, etc., who oppose same-sex marriage in the church. Upon reading the answer to the question on marriage, they are unwilling to even think about the the rest of the candidate’s answers. The answers were thoughtful, theologically astute, and (in the Standing Committee members’ minds) wrong. COM and Standing Committee and diocesan Boards of Examining Chaplain members are not bound by the rubrics that the GBEC has set up for itself for evaluation responses.  They can interpret the answers by any metric they deem fit, regardless of what the GOE readers say.  So they vote against endorsing the ordination. And, in doing so, the candidate is unable to proceed in the process.

These are hypotheticals, but sadly, they are more real than DPC would like to admit. There are remedies - a COM could (and often do) ignore the GBEC Readers’ evaluations altogether; the Bishop can go to bat for a candidate with a COM and push them through (it happens), a Standing Committee may not be provided with GOE answers/summaries (I think very few are, but again, hypotheticals.).

But regardless, we shouldn’t be putting our seminarians - at a particularly vulnerable point in their processes - through such turmoil. GOEs are stressful enough - we don’t need our candidates squirming that their Bishops and COMs will use their position to determine their aptitude, rather than their response to the question itself. It is as if GBEC stands in a doorway, waving merrily to the test-takers, telling them “Have fun storming the castle!” while knowing full well this is still a subject that the whole church has yet to calm down about. Dread Pirate Crusty rates the potential political squirming for test takers as a WTF.

DPC’s crustliberations (like deliberations, only crustier) gives this question is a MEH. It’s the average of the question on its own merit (AXIOS!) with the potential consequences to already stressed our seminarians (WTF!).

DPC really does find this to be an excellent question. But DPC also remembers what it was like to be in the position of a powerless candidate for ordination, stuck between a rock and a hard place, where it only takes one jerk to derail a vocation. Because of this, the average prevails.


  1. Thanks for this. In addition to the assumptions about small rural parishes, another difficulty with this question is that it assumes the test-taker is straight and cis-gender. For LGBTQ test-takers, this question asks them to mentally disassociate from an identity that until very recently was not (and in some cases still is not) affirmed by their experiences in the Episcopal Church, which is surely a complicated position to find oneself in in the midst of such a stressful testing situation.

  2. My first call was to a small two-point in Montana. I lived in the "big town" where our population was 700. Diocesan offices were 1 hour, 45 minutes away, so I was beginning to relate to this question . . . up until it said, "a parish of 80."

    Are you freakin' kidding me? Church A in Big Town had 14, church in Small Town had 8. My goal was to get to 70 between the two. The valley we lived in had multiple small towns with populations (in order of occurrence) were 25, 350, 700, 30, 50, 120. Any church in that valley would've loved to have 80 in their congregation.

    Someone in GBEC should go visit a small town of 500 and get an understanding of how it really works.

  3. I actually would've given this an Axios! While I completely understand the vulnerability of being an unprotected seminarian being asked to stake out a position in front of the Bishop & COM etc, I actually see that as an asset. Those of us in church ministry find ourselves in that position before and after ordination all the time! Whether serving on committees, speaking at diocesan conventions, being interviewed for ordination or hiring, or even just preaching on Sundays, seminarians and clergy should be able to do it comfortably. This goes right back to question 2 on obedience. Anybody being ordained should absolutely know how to be faithful to their bishop's wishes, be pastorally responsible, and respect their own theological conscience all at the same time (absent extreme circumstances).

    As for the comment about LGBT folks having to lay aside their own identities, I have to disagree also. I am a proud gay man, and my response to this GOE question would be the same is if I were not. Any faithful priest should be able to manage societal issues that relate to parts of their identity (e.g. racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism etc) regardless of what categories they fall into, without taking everything personally. If a congregation is so anti-gay that they couldn't accept leadership from a gay priest, they wouldn't have hired one. Alternately if a priest can't minister to the congregation because they take any parishioner's objections too personally, they may want to reconsider ordination in the first place.

  4. I have a general question about the GOE. I'm at the very beginning of a discernment process that might lead toward being a deacon. Do diaconal candidates get the same questions as those looking to be priests? If so, it seems unfair to give them questions that relate to a different vocation (on top of being in the hot seat to start with). Just wonderin'.

  5. Alan, deacons do not take the GOEs. They are evaluated under a different canon in the ordination process than those preparing for the priesthood.

    1. Yay! I took the term "general ordination" to mean it was for both orders. I enjoy reading your blog, by the way.

  6. COD, this is COC (Crusty Old Canon). I am somewhat amused at the naivete of the question. I was ordained before the GOE's (1971) and we had to demonstrate competency in theology,scripture and history. Not sure any of that mattered in the actual practice of ministry. I was confronted early on with the devastation of the destruction of the steel industry in a rust belt community. How does one minister in this kind of community would be a better question.

  7. I immediately had the same reaction of trying to decide between a SSM litmus test and a pastoral care question. The irony is that going down the "I can't make myself do it" road in answering leads to a much more narrowly determined and hard-to-object-to response than going ahead with the rite. I would only add that my experience in watching the show is that the most dogged resistance is more likely to be found in suburban and some urban destination parishes; people in the boondocks don't have the luxury.


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