I continue with another reflection on thirty years, then and now.
As I publish this, candidates for ministry are taking the General Ordination Exams (GOE’s). The Canons of the Church require that an ordained person be competent in seven areas of study: Scripture; Church History; Theology; Ethics and Moral Theology; Studies in Contemporary Society (in my day called Church and Society); Liturgics; and Theory and Practice of Ministry. While not required by all dioceses (some have alternative processes), for most of us the GOE’s were and are the critical demonstration of our competence. Pray for all those taking the GOE’s this week.
As with any other educational endeavor, the GOE’s have changed over the years. I’m not suggesting better or worse here, although at least one change I think has been an improvement. I’m just conscious that the experience now is not the same.
Thirty years ago, the GOE’s were as much a physical challenge as an intellectual one. Remember, this was in those ancient days BC: Before Computers. However, we were expected to produce two perfect copies. Almost everyone employed a professional typist, one who was prepared to type well, quickly, and late into the night.
The last was no small thing. This is how the program worked. The greatest part of the GOE’s was made up of complex, open book tests. On Day One, a Monday, we received a page of questions, of which we were expected to answer three. We had 48 hours to research and write our responses, have them typed and copied (blessedly, copy machines had been invented; blessed were our predecessors who had to contend with carbon paper), and turned in on Day Three. Day Four was divided between a morning of short essay questions using only Prayer Book and Bible and an afternoon multiple-choice test of 180 questions in 120 minutes – some hope of an objective measure in the midst of what was essentially a subjective evaluation. At the end of the day we received another page of questions, to be completed and turned in on Day Six. Day Seven was Sunday, and we had a day of rest. Then on Day Eight we received another set of questions to be turned in on Day Ten.
The questions were more programmatic than academic: “Plan an eight week adult education program for Sunday mornings on the subject of Christology. Include suggestions for hymns and prayers for the Eucharist to complement the program.” Two questions have stayed with me over the years, one from my own GOE’s and one from GOE’s of a previous year, given to us as a mock test. The first was, “A woman has come to you saying that she hears a voice talking to her, and she thinks it might be God. How would you respond to her?” The second was, “Mrs. Smith has called you at 2:00 a.m. She says that she has come to understand that the Junior Warden is having an affair, and she wants to know what you’re going to do about it as Rector. She says, too, that if she is not satisfied she may withdraw her $50,000 pledge toward the new Education Wing of the Church. How will you respond to her?”
About twelve years ago, I had the opportunity to proctor a candidate taking the GOE’s outside the context of a seminary. I was struck by how things had changed. Granted, there was no need for a professional typist, what with computer editing and all. However, I noted more that the questions were more academic than programmatic. More significantly, the questions were no longer open book. The candidate had access to Bible and Prayer Book, but to nothing else. It was a better measure, perhaps, of what information the candidate had retained after graduation from seminary. It was not perhaps as good a measure of the candidate’s creativity in applying that information in practice.
Again, I’m not making a comment that one exam model was better than the other, although I completely approve of making GOE’s less of a marathon experience (no, I’m not one to say, “It was good enough for me, so….”). Rather, I think it suggests shifts in what the General Board of Examining Chaplains and others responsible for setting educational standards think the Episcopal Church needs. I’ve lived long enough to know that such shifts take place over time, both in the Episcopal Church and in the larger community.
Once again, pray for those taking the GOE’s this week. Pray, too, that the Episcopal Church might continue to be served by a body of educated clergy; and that the Episcopal Church might appreciate and support the education needed to keep such a body prepared to serve.