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Monday, January 05, 2009


Today marks the first day of the dreaded GOEs = General Ordination Exams.

Seminarians and those who are otherwise candidates (or, in rarer cases, who hope to be candidates) for ordination to the priesthood in The Episcopal Church are sitting for a week of exams.

The canons of the church (Title III, Canon 7, Section 5a) require that before ordination a candidate must be examined and show proficiency in:

1. The Holy Scriptures
2. Church History, including the Ecumenical Movement
3. Christian Theology, including Missionary Theology and Missiology
4. Christian Ethics and Moral Theology
5. Studies in Contemporary Society, including Racial and Minority Groups
6. Liturgics and Church Music
7. Theory and practice of Ministry

These exams are not designed simply to assess a seminarians knowledge in these areas. Seminary has, hopefully, already tested that. The GOEs are really designed to test whether or not a seminarian can integrate that knowledge.

For example, a question about Christian Ethics and Moral Theology may be asked about Holy Scripture.

The whole process is anonymous. That is, the writer has no idea who will be reading and evaluating her paper and the GOE readers will not know anything about the author. This is to insure that the paper is being read on its own merit, without bias.

The GOEs are then rated good (demonstrated proficiency in 6 or 7 areas), fair (demonstrated proficiency in 3, 4 or 5 areas), or poor (demonstrated proficiency in 0, 1 or 2 areas).

What happens then? Well, it really does depend on the candidate's bishop. It varies from diocese to diocese, with some remedial work required by most in areas of concern.

That being said, I've never known a bishop or a commission on ministry to deny ordination to someone who did not do well on GOEs. I'm not saying it has never happened. I'm just saying I've never heard of a situation where that occurred.

Delayed, yes. Denied, no.

So, what's the point?

Well, you know what? Beats the heck out of me.

Okay, so I suppose every profession needs to have a qualifying exam that sets the bar for a standard of knowledge and proficiency. That's the good part. The part that doesn't make sense - well, at least to my little pea brain - is how bishops and COMs treat the information.

Then again, I approach this whole subject with a hermeneutic of suspicion. The GOEs didn't come into existence until 1970. Until then, the 'old boy's network' worked just fine. Or, so I'm told.

When it became clear that the reality of the ordination of women was fast approaching the church, Voila! The General Board of Examining Chaplains came into being by order of General Convention 1970.

By 1972, they administered their first exam.

The 'Philadelphia Eleven' were ordained in July, 1974.

The Episcopal Church regularized their ordinations and allowed for the ordination of women to all orders of ministry in July, 1976, and the ordinations began in January, 1977. (You can check out the time line here.)

Coincidence? Oh, yeah, sure.

Well, good or bad, right or wrong, the GOEs are a fact of life - at least for this week. I know a few folk who are sitting for these exams this week.

Of your kindness and mercy, please keep them in your prayers.


ROBERTA said...

whoa - i did not know the timeline of the GOE's - why are men so terrified of us? sigh....

i will be praying...

Muthah+ said...

I know of one who was refused ordination because they couldn't pass the GOE's. But the way it was handled was the big problem.

Pray for your favorite seminarian!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Because they should be.

Elaine C. said...

GOE's have always felt like hazing, pure and simple, to me. As a timed exam it disadvantages many, many people who will be great clergy, but just don't quickly write clear, articulate essay answers. Ideally, giving bishops the freedom to discern "what GOE grades mean" is a counter-balance to this particular "hoop" in the process.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

BTW, my last post was in response to Roberta's question: Why are men so terrified of us?

My answer: Because they should be. We have a different perspective. A different world view. A different way of experiencing and understanding how the world works and how God interacts with the world. We change things. Complicate matters. That, for some, is terrifying.

In terms of GOEs - yes, Elaine - this is a form of 'institutional hazing'. No question in my mind. It was done "privately" in the Bishop's office prior to 1970. May still go on, for all I know and some of what I've heard.

Now, there are 'institutional reasons' for the hazing and the hoops which may - or may not - be the antitdote to the hoops. Sometimes, the GOE is fine but the bishop and the COM use them to create an institutional hoop of their own.

And other times, they just make stuff up. Drives me CRAZY.

Allen said...

If I recall correctly, the same convention (was it 1970?) that authorised the ordination of women to the diaconate also extended the chalice to lay persons. A similar thing happened in 1976 when General Convention, in additon to authorizing the ordination of women to the priesthood, also relaxed the formation (and education) requirements for the priesthood in special ircumstances.
Actually, both lay eucharistic ministers and relaxed requirements for priests ministering to physically or culturally remote communities are a good thing, but the timing was interesting to say the least.

Theodora May said...

What happened to listening to the Holy Spirit. Does She have the final say on this? And yes, I do pray for these people on these exames.


I actually dug through my files looking for my old GOE answers ... couldn't find them (in the time I gave myself to dig!) but I DID find that the questions are "Google-albe" ... and boy howdy, did reading them over "take me back!"

And now I'm taking myself back to work ... to getting the Advent/Christmas review meeting set for tomorrow; to calling back press with questions about the CA Supreme Court Decision today on the property disputes here in the Diocese of Los Angeles; to nagging our webmaster to get our website up to date before Ed is on Oprah on Wednesday and we get (I hope!) a bazillion hits; and to putting together the Epiphany Season Adult Ed schedule in time to get it run off for Sunday.

You know ... all those things we do all day that the GOEs never touched with a barge pole!

Paul said...

The GOEs also fail to touch on the care and repair of furnaces, toilets, and faulty wiring; contract negotiation; and church finances - all way too much a part of a parish priest's life.

I was a reader of GOEs for three years, then took a break, then sat for them myself, then tutored someone who failed, and eventually spent several summers working with folks who did poorly on behalf of my diocese. They all made it through. One thing I was especially intentional about was providing a space in which they could heal from the trauma of the GOE and of not doing as well as they hoped.

For my money, the entire process is hazing of the first order, with rare exceptions. While testing of vocation is certainly called for, far too much abuse creeps in.

I will say this about the GOEs: they provide a more consistent standard across the church. Some diocesan exams or special arrangements are far more difficult and irrelevant. The horror stories there make this GOE veteran quail.

Peter Carey said...

I also know of several people who were denied ordination based on their poor showing on the GOEs, I also know some who were delayed in their ordinations due to poor (actually, not really so poor) showing on the GOEs.

On another note, I know of at least a few people who failed nearly all of them, but left TEC for CANA or one of its other incarnations...and others who "nailed" all of them and left for CANA...

There are also several bishops who ordain people to the diaconate before taking the GOEs, and who have told these seminarians that it does not matter what they earn on the GOEs...while on the other hand, bishops refuse ordination based on them...I think GOEs are an issue to be examined by the HOB, it seems to me that there should be some kind of consensus about their use...

I agree that it is hazing, but quite inconsistent hazing...


IT said...

Every profession has its hazing rituals. A doctoral oral exam or dissertation defense is highly subjective depending on which faculty are on the committee (as our hostess well knows). I have seen students who are natural test-taker romp through them and students who aren't, freeze like mice and stumble out to vomit in the hallway.

Agreed that the quality of the intellect does not correlate with the response to these kinds of exams, but on the other hand, if you pass everyone, where is the assessment of qualification to occur?

Fran said...

As you know Elizabeth, I am having my own struggles around this.

That said, I am praying for those who are taking these exams.

The timeline is fascinating.

Yesterday I was really brought to my knees thinking about women in the priestly ministry and the high price extracted from a church that does not create the space for this.

Of course, I am not even allowed to be discussing this.

Anyway, I continue my prayers for those working towards ordination.

Jane R said...

1) Thanks, Elizabeth. Circumstances (you can easily imagine which) prevent me from commenting more in public, but thanks. And do pray for all people in the ordination process and for those who process them.

2) One of my (male, Baby Boomer age) clergy friends says that the current process stems from the Vietnam years (which were of course the same years as the rise of other movements for social change, including that particular phase of the women's movement) when so many men were entering seminary that the Church had to figure out something to weed them out since not all were there for, shall we say, genuine vocational reasons, and also because (my friend continues) previously the ordination process was a case of sit in the bishop's office, have a conversation, get approved, with few open criteria.

I don't think it's either/or. The current process including the GOEs may well be due to a convergence of circumstances.

I once led a workshop on Alumni/ae Day at Harvard Divinity School on "things they didn't teach us and we wish they had" -- in my case it was all kinds of stuff on sexual misconduct and how to do an intervention (with clergy colleagues, among others...) which no one ever talked about in the 1970s when I was getting my M.Div. We were talking about gender at the time --it was right in the beginnings of feminist theologies and other theologies of liberation and we were also doing the first pieces of work on gender-inclusive language in churches of various denominations -- but rarely about some of the issues of power and sexuality that have since come out into the open and some of the institutional and psychological realities related to them.

I also always tell folks that a lot of ministry is moving chairs around (stacking them, and unstacking them, putting them in a circle...). No romance in that one, but church work doesn't happen without it, at least in this part of the world where most people sit on chairs.

Fran, you are allowed to discuss this. There is a powerful women's movement in the Catholic Church - including though not limited to the women's ordination movement, which also exists (and not just in the form of the current "irregular" ordinations). Of course I'm a fine one to speak since eventually (though not for a long time) I left for the Episcopal Church, but I stay in touch with colleagues and friends and I continue to think that the Catholic women's movement probably has the best critique of clericalism around. (Which all churches need - a gender critique is vital, but alone it's not enough.) Anyway, more off-blog and blessings and love to you. And thanks again, Elizabeth. And prayers for all GOE-takers this week.

By the way, there was a great spoof on the GOEs circulating around the internet a few years ago. I have tried and tried to find it (it was in e-mail form in the pre-blog days) and cannot. If anyone has it (I've googled already and not found it) I'd love to see it again and share it. It's a riot. One of the questions is something like "Speculate on what would have happened ot the history of salvation if Abraham had not left Ur."

Sorry to be so long-winded.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks to each and everyone of you for posting your thoughtful comments. I know some of the folks taking GOEs and they have been very much encouraged by what you've written and feel the support of your prayer.