There have been several references in the Episcopal blogosphere today of the beginning of the GOE’s. Perhaps the best comment I’ve seen so far has been over at the blog Gower Street. There Jason has listed “Father Jason’s Tips for Taking the GOE’s (redux-redux).” It’s an excellent post.
I was struck particularly by tip #7: “Don’t pad.” It took me back to my own canonical exams, almost twenty-six years ago now.
Note that I say “canonical exams:” I didn’t do as well on GOE’s as I had hoped. Indeed, I was considered deficient in Scripture, Theology, and Ethics (notwithstanding that in the objective multiple-choice section of the GOE’s I scored well above the mean in all areas). Now, my bishop and canon to the ordinary were supportive, pastoral, and encouraging. (I remember my bishop, then a member himself of the Board of Examining Chaplains, saying, “We tell them not to be snide!”) Both told me that my answers were fine, and my readers inadequate.
That did soothe me somewhat, but it didn’t change the fact that the deficiencies had to be addressed. In my diocese at that time, that meant taking written canonical exams, prepared and evaluated by the diocesan examining chaplains, in May. Some complained that this was a “double jeopardy” arrangement. It was presented to me, and I really embraced it as “double opportunity.”
There were, of course, other events going on in my life. The most important was a decision, supported by my bishop, to undertake my first CPE residency, beginning the fall after my graduation from seminary. There were some things I needed to learn that I felt could best be learned in that environment. My bishop was sufficiently supportive as to continue the small but important diocesan contribution to my expenses while I was taking this additional year of training.
There was, however, one consequence of this decision on my canonical exams. The canonical exams took place during a retreat for new ordinands. It was also during that retreat that new deacons-in-training would meet their new rectors and learn about their new jobs. Since I wasn’t going that route, there would be no one to meet.
So, in due time we came to the evening in question. It was midweek, and was, in fact, Wednesday. The bishops (Ordinary and Suffragan) were both coming, along with my colleagues’ new bosses. I had completed my exams in Theology and Ethics, and had nothing to do for the evening. So, at the cocktail hour (such things used to be more common at clergy meetings) I had an extra drink. And at dinner that night (steak, in recognition of the bishops) I had an extra glass of wine. (Yes, the mathematically inclined will recognize that indicates at least two of each.)
I was just beginning to savor that extra glass of wine when the Canon to the Ordinary spoke up. He was to my left, sitting with the Canonical Examiner in Scripture. “Mr. Scott!”
Now, this was unusual address. The Canon and I were on a first-name basis, and had been for some time. I was immediately aware that what was coming was a matter of some solemnity. “Yes, Reverend Canon?”
“Mr. Scott, the Examiner in Scripture and I have been discussing your circumstances this week. As you are not meeting a new rector, you have nothing scheduled after you complete your exam in Scripture, and a subsequent oral exam with all the examining chaplains. You are scheduled to take your exam in Scripture tomorrow morning with the candidates for the diaconate. However, if you will commit to us not to reveal any of the contents of the exam, the Examiner says he will allow you to take the exam tonight. He will grade it tonight, and we can schedule your oral exam for tomorrow morning. Once that is over you will be done. Mr. Scott, would you like to take your exam tonight?”
I paused for a moment, and stared at that one extra glass of wine. I wasn’t usually particularly foolhardy. I could feel my cheekbones tingling. However, in that moment I wanted badly to get one with things. I said, “Yes, Reverend Canon, I would like that very much.” Then I began to knock back cups of coffee.
One thing I had learned well before that night was that whether or not there was truth in wine (“in vino veritas”), I knew there was no BS in wine. That is, I knew I couldn’t pad when I’d been drinking, whether to dazzle with brilliance or to baffle with bull, as the saying goes. What I did feel confident of, however, was my ability to get the important facts down, if in a straightforward, declarative style that would overwhelm a newspaper editor. It probably wouldn’t be elegant, but it probably would do the job.
And so at 8:00 p.m. I was handed the test, a set of twelve questions, I think, of which I was expected to answer eight. I was told I have two and a half hours to complete my work, and sent off to the room where I had already set up my typewriter and paper. I did take with me one extra cup of coffee.
I sat down at the typewriter (an archaic device, children, with no screen, and no convenient way to correct mistakes), put in a piece of paper and looked at the first question. I had something to say about it, and so I began. I don’t remember too much about the test. I remember one question was, “Discuss the Synoptic Problem,” for which my answer began, “The Synoptic Problem is that the Synoptics don’t agree.” That wasn’t all I wrote, of course; but that was the style with which I wrote that night.
I wrote on enough questions. On those questions I wrote what I thought needed to be said, and not a word more. I had no more in me to write, although by the time I was done I was more tired but less tipsy. I looked at my watch when I felt done: I had written for an hour and a half. I knew I had another hour, but I didn’t feel another word in me. So, I tidied up and took my paper to the Examining Chaplain. He thanked me and promised to return it to me before Morning Prayer the following morning. I then went and found my Examiners in Theology and Ethics, both of whom had very good news for me, and a couple of extra drinks.
The next morning I was up and ready, waiting outside the chapel at 7:15 a.m., to meet the Examiner before 7:30 Morning Prayer. He was, as always, punctual. He said, “Good morning, Mr. Scott,” picking up again the formality of the previous evening.
“Good morning, Reverend Sir.” I waited, hardly breathing.
“Mr. Scott, I have completed grading your exam. I will allow you to see it, but I must have it back.” He handed it to me. At the top was the grade: A-. He went on to say, "I want to have it back because I want to show it to those who will take the exam this morning. I want them to see that the test can be answered adequately, and even well, and still be concise. You did very well. I only found one thing I had to count you off on. Although we know that the Holy Spirit does not have gender, it is still traditional to speak of the Holy Spirit as 'he,' and not as 'it.' " I handed him back the paper, and together we went into Morning Prayer.
Now, I don’t recommend this to anyone taking any exam. It is certainly not a strategy that I ever used otherwise. At the same time, it assured me of two things. First, there are opportunities even after such setbacks as bad GOE’s. For all the anxiety we had put into them, and for all the anxiety I had felt when I received my results, I had been able to use the grace of my diocese and come back. It was one of many experiences of grace in those early days of my ministry.
And second, I can claim to know more about Scripture drunk than most people know sober.