The 2012 TEC General Ordination Question on Holy Scripture

Posted by Kendall Harmon

LIMITED RESOURCES: A printed one-volume annotated Bible and a printed 1979 Book of
Common Prayer but no electronic or Internet resources.

Throughout history, communities have maintained their identity by passing on their traditions (stories, laws, songs, prayers, etc.) from one generation to the next. One of the tasks of a priest specified in the ordination rite is to be a teacher, an educator who passes on and interprets the tradition. The following texts are from the propers for education in the BCP (931):
Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 20-25 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5

In no more than 750 words, taking into account the historical, literary, and theological background of each passage, briefly identify the important highlights of the tradition – the
community’s “story” -- to be passed on to the following generations of the community to which the passage is addressed. (NOTE: Your answer should demonstrate an understanding of the historical, literary and theological contexts of these passages. It should not include a detailed exegesis of the texts.)

In no more than 750 words, briefly summarize at least two biblical traditions that you consider most important to be passed on to the next generation in The Episcopal Church, drawing on the material you have presented in Part 1 and any other relevant biblical texts. Provide a rationale for each of your choices, including an example of a situation in the contemporary church where this tradition would be especially pertinent and useful.

Filed under: * Anglican - EpiscopalEpiscopal Church (TEC)* Christian Life / Church LifeParish MinistryMinistry of the Ordained* TheologySeminary / Theological EducationTheology: Scripture

Posted September 3, 2013 at 6:15 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. Katherine wrote:

I’m not at all familiar with the exam or its scope, or how it is now vs. how it was in decades gone by.  But:  This is “The” question on scripture?  That’s it?  It treats “traditions” as small items of possible interest to “communities” at different times, and seems not to refer to “Tradition” at all.

September 3, 8:30 am | [comment link]
2. Jill Woodliff wrote:

The context is more important than the content?  Pitiful, just pitiful.

September 3, 9:50 am | [comment link]
3. Dan Crawford wrote:

The GOEs continue to be a disgrace. During the 90s, I wrote letters to the administrators of the GOEs asking for data on the tests’ reliability and validity (did they really have any relationship to performance in ministry and how consistent were their results?) The answer I received was no, the GOEs are not subjected to such research. I asked for accountability data on the exam readers - none, of course, was provided. There are other issues around the GOEs, and they too have never been addressed. Yet they do serve, contrary to their explicit intent, as instruments to screen people out of ordination and screen people in who subscribe to the latest fads in church policy and theology. They deserve no respect at all, and we should not be surprised at how weird they have gotten.

September 3, 10:47 am | [comment link]
4. dcreinken wrote:

I read this differently - the question is asking the student to draw from Biblical scholarship (historical, literary, theological - very broad range there) to answer the question, and not just the chosen passages themselves. Context also includes the context of the passage in relationship to the larger book, letter, or Gospel it comes from.  So, context isn’t bad.

The question also seems to be very clear that as cultures have their ways of passing on their norms, Scripture is the normative tradition for the Christian community, and priests are responsible for handing it on and interpreting it.  Presumably, one would want to see how adept our future clergy are at doing that.

The example chosen is from the propers for education - without having read them, it would seem that they would have a lot to say about the importance of faith formation - surely something any religious community would need to be adept with. 

The repeated emphasis on awareness of the historical, literary, and theological background seems to stand in contrast to doing an outright exegesis.  In other words, just like in sermons, don’t waste your 750 words on scholarly exegesis, but still show you know what you are talking (writing) about. 

Then, the student is required to provide two more example (in addition to the education example given by the exam) to do the same thing.  What freedom of choice!  The student could choose among sexuality, marriage, politics, social justice, healing, salvation, messiah, worship, eschatology, sin, forgiveness, family, labor, prayer, peace, war, all kinds of things.

I’m not seeing a forced agenda here, but a question that allows students of our various seminaries, from varied church traditions and dioceses, to put make their best cases on what they think is most important for the church today.

It’s possible to not have trust in the readers of the exam, though there are some of all theological perspectives who feel that way.  I personally was dinged for giving a high-church type answer by someone who was clearly a low-church reader, but it had no negative affect on my ordination or future ministry. I know the readers try very hard to be impartial, with the expectation being that the student knows whereof he or she speaks (writes). This question in and of itself doesn’t seem to be harmful or lacking for what the GOEs are.

Dirk Reinken

September 3, 11:08 am | [comment link]
5. Pb wrote:

This question will be aced by EFM graduates who understand all about biblical stories and their stories. EFM was used in my former diocese for years to weed out “fundamentalists” from ordination. The basic understanding is that nothing really happens and that biblical stories are just other versions of someone else’s stories.

September 3, 11:09 am | [comment link]
6. David Keller wrote:

I agree with #4 that the question is not bad at all.  However, based on the state of our seminaries, except Nashotah House, I bet some of the answers were doozies.  But, I’d love to see the actual answers; especially from someone I was thinking about hiring!

September 3, 12:41 pm | [comment link]
7. Cennydd13 wrote:

I’m going to be kind by saying this is a piece of trash, and considering from whence it comes, that’s an understatement.

September 3, 1:58 pm | [comment link]
8. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

Well, personally, I don’t think the question is all that bad either, except that it’s really hard to provide a suitable answer to such a complicated, multi-part question in less than 750 words.  But I’m sympathetic to Jill’s complaint (#2) that it seems to make the various contexts (historical, literary etc.) more important than the biblical content itself.

My own experience with the GOE’s back in the mid 1980s suggests that the real problem is probably with the selection of the people grading the exams when it comes to the essay questions (there’s also a more objective, multiple-choice section less subject to personal bias).  So although my own experience may be purely anecdotal and not representative, it’s still disturbing.  When I took the GOE’s around 30 years ago the theological rot and moral decay was already far advanced in TEC.  One of the short-answer, “coffee-hour” type questions that year (similar in ways to the 2012 question cited above) had to do with the baptismal formula.  The ultra-liberal UCC had already, even back then, voted to allow ministers to baptize people using the “inclusive” language:  “I baptize you in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.”  We were asked to evaluate that liturgical innovation and state whether or not we found it acceptable for use in TEC.

As regular T19 readers might guess, I answered that I found the UCC alternative formula completely unacceptable, because it amounted to the ancient heresy of Modalism, treating the Trinity as if there was only one God who revealed “Godself” in different modes at different times, with Creator=Father, Redeemer=Christ, and Sanctifier=the Holy Spirit, implying that there weren’t actually three etenrally distinct persons within the Trinity, and also lmplying wrongly that only Giod the Father was involved in the work of creation, or only the Son was involved in redeeming the world from sin and death, etc.

What was shocking to me was the evaluation of that answer I got from my anonymous reviewer.  He (or she) basically chided me for being too picky about theological details that weren’t nearly as important as the cause of advancing social justice!!  I was left stunned.  Now I still passed the exam and got ordained (in the conservative Diocese of Albany, where my orthodoxy was appreciated), but I’ll never forget my strong reaction to the low grade on that question.  I thought then, and still tend to think now, “Boy, it’s a good thing you’re evaluating me here, and not vice versa.  Because if I were grading the GOE’s and you gave an answer like that, I would FLUNK you!”

That’s what I mean when I say that I think the real problem is that unworhty people are being chosen to grade the GOE’s.  I suspect, although I can’t prove it, that there is a strong liberal bias in that crucial selection.  And yes, I agree with Dirk (#4), that there is a huge problem in that there is way too much secrecy and not enough transparency and accountability about the whole GOE process.

David Handy+

September 3, 4:56 pm | [comment link]
9. TomRightmyer wrote:

I worked for the General Board of Examining Chaplains from 1986 to 2002 as assistant to the administrator. I did the clerical work and kept the information on GOE Candidates who were recommended by their bishops or by seminary deans. I remember the request of Don Crawford (#3) above. We would have been happy to supply data but no research design was ever submitted. I did keep statistics on results.  On average over the 16 years from 1988-2002 about half the GOE candidates were found proficient in all 7 areas, about 15% were found proficient in 6 of the 7 areas. So about 2/3 of the GOE papers were found satisfactory. Of the others, about 25% were found proficient in 3, 4, or 5 areas, and about 10% in 0, 1, or 2 areas. One year we wrote to all those who had been found proficient in 5 or fewer of the 7 areas. All but one person had been ordained. Dioceses had a number of programs for review and local retesting. The one person who was not ordained retook the exam the next year and was ordained. So performance on the GOE was not a barrier to ordination. The office followed the students who did poorly on the exam. Almost all had had academic difficulty in seminary; GOE results were no surprise. A few students simply failed to answer the question asked. They wrote interesting essays on the general topic of the question but not to the point asked. 

Readers were nominated by the bishops, by seminary faculty, and by other readers. In the 12 years I worked for the Board the Administrator was careful to include among the readers all known positions and opinions on church matters. The GOE readers were half lay half clergy and as balanced a group as could be found in the Episcopal Church.  Lay men and women were paired with clergy men and women and care was taken to be sure different opinions were on the same team. Each group was assigned four papers by a system of random numbers. Candidates were warned not to reveal any personal characteristics and any information about seminary, diocese, etc. Reader teams were supervised by the members of the General Board who are elected by the House of Bishops - 4 bishops, 6 seminary faculty, 6 parish clergy (frequently former seminary faculty), and 6 lay people (almost always seminary or college faculty). The supervising Board members had received copies of the papers, read them, and formed an opinion of the candidates’ work.
Each evaluation was read at least three times by the supervising chaplain, and frequently rewritten before being approved. And each evaluation once approved by the supervising Board member was reread by the Administrator and the Chair of the Board - generally a long service bishop.  With all due respect to David Handy I think the reading was as fair as could be.  Over the 1990’s the Board moved to one Readers’ Meeting in February where all Readers and Chaplains could gather and raise questions about the papers. 

The text of the 2013 GOE is on the web. In the past 11 years the GOE has moved away from “open book” to “limited resources” and to shorter, half day, questions.  The short answer “Coffee Hour” questions were dropped in about 2000.  The exam still takes 4 days with a day off in the middle. Seminarians and faculty continue to complain about it, but the bishops seem to want it and General Convention continues to fund its preparation and evaluation.

In 2002 I ran a comparison of individual seminary results. A 16 year running average showed that about 80% of the areas were judged proficient. The spread between seminaries was about 5%. Every Episcopal seminary was best at least once and worst at least once in the 16 years.  Each year between a quarter and a third of the GOE candidates were not M.Div. degree candidates at Episcopal seminaries. These “others” included candidates for degrees other than the M.Div. at Episcopal seminaries (M.T.S. etc.), special students and “Anglican Year” certificates at Episcopal seminaries, Episcopal seminary graduates, students at non-Episcopal seminaries, and others whose bishops nominated them for the GOE. On the whole these “others” did almost as well as the Episcopal seminary M.Div. candidates.

There are lots of myths and legends about the GOE. I hope this note has helped clear up some of them. I’ll be happy to respond to questions.  Tom Rightmyer .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

September 4, 1:01 am | [comment link]
10. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

Thanks, Tom (#9), for that long, detailed, and fact-filled contribution to this thread.  You’ve made a strong case that the GOE’s, whatever their faults or merits, were at least administered in about as fair a manner as could reasonably be exptected.  That’s encouraging, and I’m very glad that you, Tom, had a major role in running the whole, complex operation.

However, let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the selection of readers to grade the exams was indeed fully representative of the makeup of TEC.  That is, let’s assume that the readers exactly mirror TEC itself in terms of the proprotion of folks spread along the liberal-to-conservative spectrum, and likewise fairly representative the proportion of folks aligned with the Low Church, High Church, or Broad Church traditions.  Would this be comforting?  Certainly not to me!  It would simply mean the the same proportion of GOE readers were grossly ignorant and theologically unfit and incompetent as the general pool of TEC clergy.  But at least it would absolve the GOE’s of blame for making the problems even worse than they are.

FWIW, as someone who attended an ecumenical seminary (Yale Div. School and Berkelye at Yale), I think it would be interesting and perhaps illujminating to compare TEC’s GOE’s with the rigorous ordiantion exams of the ELCA and the PCUSA.  I suspect the Lutherans and Prebyterians expect their seminarians to learn more than TEC does.  Maybe not, but, offering merely anecdotal evidence once again, it was my distinct impression at Yale that the Episcopal students were notably worse students than our Lutheran and Presbyterian counterparts.

Anyway, thanks again, Tom, for providing so much helpful background information about the GOE’s.  I’m glad to know that I just happened to get a truly awful examiner when I took the exams back in the 1980s.

David Handy+

September 4, 4:30 pm | [comment link]
11. TomRightmyer wrote:

The members of the General Board are elected by the House of Bishops at General Convention and their names are known. Fitz Allison served in the three ordained categories of seminary faculty, parish priest, and bishop. Bob Duncan was a parish clergy member when he was elected Bishop of Pittsburgh. The Administrators in the 1990’s were Bishop Charlton, retired suffragan of Texas and former dean of the seminary of the Southwest, and Dr. Bowman, retired from Virginia seminary.  I think both were certainly centrists.  Readers were nominated by bishops and others, and their performance was carefully evaluated. Some readers served a number of years; some served one year and were not invited to return. New readers were paired with experienced ones. Almost all the readers I knew were by no means “grossly ignorant and theologically unfit and incompetent.” Almost all were experienced parish clergy or educators and the lay readers were theologically sophisticated.

September 5, 1:06 am | [comment link]
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