GOEs: Defunding a canonical mandate

The Rev. Canon Dr. Raewynne J. Whiteley posted, on the bishops and deputies listserve, a thoughtful exploration of questions surrounding the defunding the General Board of Examining Chaplains (GBEC). A history and the purpose of the GBEC and its canonical mandate can be found here. She writes:

I have been following the discussion of the defunding of the GBEC closely, as a reader, nominee for the GBEC, and past member of two Diocesan Commissions on Ministry. I note with concern a number of issues:

1. The note on the Presiding Bishop's (PB) budget that says, "This budget carries over the intention of Executive Council to eliminate GBEC."

I have read the minutes of Executive Council meetings for the last year, and can find no mention of their intention to eliminate the GBEC. The only reference I can find is on page 21 of the minutes of the meeting in January of this year that says, "Dr Crawford asked why the General Board of Examining Chaplains had been zeroed out and if that would impact General Ordination Examinations (GOEs). The Chair noted that fewer dioceses used the exam results and interest in it was waning." I would have thought a decision of this magnitude, which defunds a canonical mandate, would have merited some discussion that would have been worthy of minuting.

2. In the PB's budget, GBEC is relegated to the category of "Governance," along with other Committees, Commissions and Boards (CCABs). Why are they not listed under the appropriate marks of mission? Surely if House of Bishop (HoB) costs, including the College of Bishops, come under Marks 1 and 2, so could the GBEC.

3. In the discussion on this list, I have heard anecdotal evidence that fewer dioceses are using the GOEs, that fewer people are taking it, that questions are uneven, that grading is inconsistent, that dioceses ignore the results, etc. What are the numbers? To what extent have they changed? It would be helpful to have data ranging back over the time the GOEs have been in place showing:

How many dioceses use them?

How many people take them? What is this as a percentage of the total number ordained? (We would also need to take into account which of those ordained the dioceses require to sit GOEs - vocational deacons? those coming from other denominations?)

What steps do dioceses take when a candidate does not sustain an answer? How often do they re-read and change the assessment? How often do they assign remedial work?

4. Some areas are not covered, eg. congregational development.

As a homiletician by training, I wish homiletics were included as an area of competency, especially given that priests are ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament (the relationship between Word and Sacrament in Anglican tradition was the topic of my doctoral dissertation). However, surely working towards canonical amendment of the competencies required of candidates for the priesthood would be a better way of dealing with this concern, than eliminating the examinations altogether.

In order to decide if the GBEC and GOEs should be eliminated, it seems that we need to ask at minimum the following questions:

- Do we need some form of church wide standard of theological competency and pastoral readiness for those to be ordained priest? Why or why not? Has that need changed over recent years?

- Is theological competency and pastoral readiness best evaluated through written examinations? Are there other models available to us? What are the benefits and costs of other approaches? How do we (if we think it is important) ensure that both lay and clerical perspectives on readiness are incorporated into the process?

- How have the shifts in theological education, away from the traditional three-year seminary residency, affected the effectiveness of training? What are the implications of the increased use of non-Episcopal seminaries, online learning, etc?

- If a decision is made to eliminate the GBEC, how do we envisage phasing it out? What support would be given to dioceses in developing means of assessing theological competency and pastoral readiness? How would varying standards (across dioceses) impact the work of our seminaries? What of the seminarians already preparing for the 2013 GOEs?

- If we believe we do need church wide standards, what is the most cost effective way of ascertaining this? Is this something that should be paid for in the budget passed by General Convention, or should the cost be shifted to dioceses? What implications might this have for their budgets?

And of course, if the primary reason for this is financial - needing to find budget savings - why the GBEC? Is it just that it is not particularly popular (few of us actually like exams)? How do the expenses, for example, of the readers conference (at which GOEs are evaluated) compare with meetings of other CCABs? (At first glance, it seems to me that the average cost per person, per meeting, of under $1000 is significantly lower than, say, Executive Council).

I love reading GOEs. It's one place in the wider church where I have expertise to contribute, and I have to admit to finding inspiration from many of the answers (how else would I have talked about Constantine in my sermon today, without one of this year's questions prompting me!) My own experience in grading them is that there are some candidates who are well prepared (and whose papers are a delight to read), but others woefully unprepared. I myself did not take GOEs, having been ordained in another branch of the Anglican Communion. However, our dioceses had a much greater degree of control over the content of our theological education, including determining which Anglican theological college we attended, all of which were either part of a nation-wide network of theological colleges governed by General Synod, or part of ecumenical consortia, what subjects were studied, and assigning us to field education *every* year of seminary. Furthermore, a four year program of theological study was the norm. Even so, I see real benefits in this form of church wide evaluation, particularly given the mobility of clergy in The Episcopal Church.

The Rev. Canon Dr. Raewynne J. Whiteley
Rector, St James Episcopal Church
Canon Theologian, Diocese of Long Island

Comments (24)

I think all the questions asked in this post deserve answers before such a decision is made. It seems like it could be part of a broader conversation about what is expected of priests in the church that is called for in a proposed resolution this year.

It is also important to reckon with the fact that few dioceses (in my experience) appear to take the GOE results particularly seriously. We can't fund things just because they're a rite of passage.

It bothers me to see policy decisions like this made in a budget with so little explanation. It makes it seem like a small group of people are making all the decisions. That has always been true, I know, of any organization but that kind of process does seem to make a mockery of all the other carefully-drafted resolutions submitted by so many people from across the church, not to mention the actual canons of the church.


Eliminating the GOE is merely one of many steps needed to adjust TEC's cost structure and move to a more flexible organization model. I've always thought it bizarre that after having carefully gated people into the ordination process for the priesthood and then spending on the order of $150K to educate them, there's a need to verify that they've been educated properly. If people are coming out of the pipeline unprepared, then there's something wrong with the pipeline. Don't try to fix it with a post-process at the end; the money educating the person has already been wasted.

TEC is in desperate need of a new model to train future priests. What role examinations should play in that process is a good question, but I think we can safely scrap the GOE and start over.

Using distance learning and leveraging the resources of non-Episcopal seminaries is a great idea.

There was a time before the GOE and there will be a time after.

Although this seems a backhanded way of doing things, it is a reality check. It does smack a bit of the unsavory practice of vestries tying a rector's hands by not funding things the rector wants -- like a curate! -- but this may be an effective way of sending a message that is otherwise not being heard.

Chuck, my concern is not only there that is not enough control of the pipeline, but that there are too many pipelines. We have denominational seminaries (only one of which receives significant support from General Convention, IIRC); there are Anglican Studies tracks in a number of non-Episcopal seminaries; there are diocesan programs of varying structure; and there are folks educated in non-Episcopal seminaries who later seek Anglican Studies in one or another of those varying programs. Now, I have seen unqualified folks come from Episcopal seminaries (although not many); and I have seen really well prepared folks come from diocesan programs (although fewer who had any breadth to their perspective on the whole Episcopal Church); but with so many "pipelines," good control in the process is complicated.

Too, I've known too many times when Commissions on Ministry and/or bishops simply said, "This person feels called; and who are we to argue with the Holy Spirit? Let the (seminaries; diocesan programs; someone else?) really test to see whether they're called and/or prepared. In the meantime, we can't provide money while they're in the process, and we can't promise a position when they graduate, so we have little reason to really monitor their preparation." All too often I have seen Commissions on Ministry pressed by the vagaries and politics of bishops or cardinal rectors or influential lay leaders to "just accept" a favored candidate.

I live in an environment of Performance Improvement. Few understand better than I the problems of quality testing at the end of the process. But until we're able to do as you suggest, and have a better handle on the process itself, I think we need the GOE's or something like them - unless we're really prepared to give up a tradition of clergy who are not only "educated," but also formed specifically for the Episcopal Church. (And think what the uproar would be about power and authority if we really tried to gain tighter control over the process!)

Marshall Scott

It seems to me that GOEs have already undergone quite a bit of evolution from their beginnings. For example, they now are administered in electronic format -- a huge shift from what I recall 20 years ago as a senior seminarian in an Episcopal seminary. The days of massive amounts of photocopying for reader teams who assembled in pods throughout the country to read hard copy essays are long gone. My sense is that a sizeable portion of the GOE budget historically comprised travel & accommodations for reader meetings. Surely we're managing the reader end in the 21st century in the same way that we're managing the test-taker end.

What hasn't changed speaks to my colleague Marshall's point -- a range of pipelines and the advisability of applying the canonically-required evaluation of competency from as level a playing field as can be made. Especially since, for the time being at least, we ordain priests for the entire church, not simply for a diocese.

Sue Sommer

Thank you for this thoughtful article and all of the questions you raise. It may cost TEC less money if there are no GOEs, but what would be the corresponding cost in time, energy, resources to dioceses. I've seen a glimpse of it already and am grateful that we have a GBEC and GOEs to do this important work. Some of my own thoughts and experience here: http://gracerector.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/preparing-candidates-for-ministry-the-role-of-goes/

The problem is that the GOE isn't a canonically mandated requirement.

It's quite some time since I took them, but at the time I found it a frustrating experience to a great extent, that I did not feel adequately served the assumed goal. As a reviewer of allegedly "inadequate" responses in my own diocese, I have seen just how picky and off-base the readers can be if a candidate pushes the wrong personal pet-peeve button. Frankly, in one case I'd have flunked the reader and passed the testee, as the reader was definitely wrong in their understanding of a rubric.

The GOE is not an adequate diagnostic for suitability for ministry. I'm not saying we don't need one, but the GOE isn't it. (And canonically it isn't it anyway.)

Tobias, can you help me out here? I don't have enough information or experience to have an opinion about whether there should be GOEs or not, but it does seem that we should be able to nail down whether the GOE is canonically mandated. I had assumed it was because that is what I had always been told. You are saying it isn't. Help me out.

Title III, Canon 15 mandates the existence of a General Board of Examining Chaplains. Sec. 2(a) of that Canon mandates the GOE. (I didn't know this until just a few weeks ago.)

Title III, Canon 8.5.(g) describes what the canonical areas are that an ordinand must prove competency in.

At least, that's how I read the canons. Seems to me any proposal to de-fund the GBEC would have to come with a proposal to change the canons.


Jim, Canon III.15 requires the GBEC to "prepare" the GOE and to administer it to "those Candidates for Holy Orders who have been identified to the Board by their several Bishops." But there is no requirement that the Bishops so "identify" their candidates for ordination.

There used to be a requirement that candidates be "examined and demonstrate proficiency" in the canonical areas, but even then the GOE was not specified as the instrument.

The canons no longer require "examination" but are focused on "formation" and "preparation" and the evaluation of the success of that program is in the hands of those administering it, primarily the "seminary or other program of preparation." (See Canon III.8.5, passim.) The only place the GOE is mentioned is in the canon on the GBEC.

ps., the GOE was introduced in 1970. Bishop Bayne was behind it. This was all part of the centralizing mind-set that was current at that time, on any number of issues.

pps, This was also a classic example of Bayne's tendency to get subsidiarity backwards. Formation for ministry is done locally, in seminaries and other programs of preparation, including field experience. It is also best tested and certified locally -- just as it is in every other field of endeavor.

Well, they are canonically mandated:Title III, Canon 15, sets up and defines the General Board of Examining Chaplains. I think we need to thoroughly overhaul and rethink the GOEs, but they are mandated. We will need to vote to eliminate this canon if this budget eliminates funding, because we would not be in compliance with it.

For clarity, let me repeat: the existence of the GBEC and their preparation of the GOE is canonically mandated; but the taking of the exam is not canonically mandated. No one is required to take the GOE.

There is also no canonical mandate to pay the GBEC for its work, or even to reimburse them for any expenses. As wisely noted above, the GOE could be prepared and reviewed in the same way it is administered -- via technological means. At present, those taking the exam are charged $500 as an exam fee. This is alleged not to be enough to cover the cost of assembling and grading the test.

Cutting the budget will force the GBEC to find creative ways to do its work, just like the rest of us in times of economic shortfalls.

Please also note that the GBEC website linked above is still quoting an old version of the canons. Canon III.15 is now out of step with III.8.

It's interesting to note that "examination and proficiency" are still required of clergy coming from other churches. (III.10)

There could not have been any national standard for clerical competency for most of Anglican history in most places; bishops in their respective dioceses or those they delegated the task to made such judgments. Things old are new again in many ways right now. It seems that many dioceses have been both using the GOE and some local process, which is tedious.

Marshall, if there are dioceses that choose to establish alternative pipelines, then each such diocese has made a value judgment about what kind of preparations it wants and needs for the priesthood. These answers don't have to be uniform across TEC; they've never been uniform in missionary dioceses or TEC outside the USA.

I believe "control" (a word I'm not entirely comfortable with) can and should be left to each diocese. In the opinion of Diocese A, the process used by Diocese B might lead to under-educated clergy -- or it might lead to over-educated clergy, an outcome that has its own problems. The very fact that alternative pipelines continue to exist in the Lower 48 are proof that diversity always trumps uniformity. Where I live, it's a lot more important that a priest be able to speak decent Spanish than to argue that Origen's views were Platonic or Aristotelian.

I believe local judgments are meet and right for a post-Christendom world. At the end of the day, each diocese -- for better or worse -- should decide what it wants in the way of priests and how to train them. No bishop is compelled to accept letters dismissory, and any priest who takes a non-traditional path to ordination knows that his or her mobility may be limited as a consequence.

Tobias, there are grounds for centralizing, or at least for insuring sufficient consistency of meeting some standards for the whole Episcopal Church.

Chuck, I believe local judgements are necessary but not sufficient. All the old heresies have returned periodically under new names (consider the Donatism/Novationism that has returned in the disagreements when ordination and sexuality intersect; the "theology of taint" infecting the Church of England's mess over ordaining women as bishops is a clear example), so a prepared priest needs at least to know not only what they are, but why the church determined them beyond the bounds. And, no, I'm not convinced that each diocese is sufficient in this. While I don't attribute this to you, this sense of unquestioned "local option" feeds the sort of "diocesan congregationalism" best exemplified recently by South Carolina.

Local differences are important. And still we are all in this together. I remember well before adoption of the current Prayer Book that there were significant regional differences in churchmanship. At the same time (and with less polarization than today) there was a clear sense that had enough demonstrated in common that we were all Episcopalians. How shall we maintain that sense? Our critics abroad (and at home) claim that our outreach to all God's children is succumbing to the spirit of the age. That's not where I see it. I fear we succumb to the spirit of the age when we fail to see how we are one body, with all our diversity - when we fall unquestioning into the "us vs them" that has so distorted the civil discourse around us.

Perhaps the role of the GBEC needs to change from drafting a Church-wide exam process to greater engagement on behalf of the Church with the various education programs. Perhaps the GOE's should be canonically mandated. Perhaps the GBEC working with others can work on a different tool or a different process. One way or another, we are members, and many of us ordained members, of the Episcopal Church, and not just of one diocese or another. We need some sufficient consistency in formation to live this out.

Marshall Scott

Marshall, two things:

(1) Ordination is a diocesan "thing." All of the other steps one must pass through are diocesan and parochial. One is ordained to a diocese, and only licensed or transferred to another diocese.

(2) Even given that I am not opposed to setting church-wide standards -- but church-wide standards does not imply church-wide testing. Testing can still be local. Ultimately it IS local -- as the "readers" and the GBEC are still just a set of individuals, with -- I can tell you from my review of their reading in some cases -- faults and failings. In my opinion the GOE is not a suitable instrument to make the determination it is alleged to make.

Wouldn't it be more efficient to have a standardized test graded locally? Let the GBEC develop an exam, but let the papers be assessed by people who have some knowledge of the candidates. Or trust that the seminaries and other programs are doing their work and conferring degrees and diplomas to qualified persons.

Marshall, yes the same heresies do recur in the church, but passing the GOE (or for that matter, completing an MDiv) is no prophylactic against either adopting a heretical position at some point in a lifetime of ordained ministry or having the details of those recurring heresies gradually fade from a priest's retained knowledge. I'd bet that a substantial number of priests who did pass the GOE 20+ years ago couldn't articulate the details, theological or historical, of all those heresies today. Instead, the academic knowledge imparted at seminary evolves into a working understanding not dissimilar to what's taught in the EFM program. To say it differently, if you required clergy to requalify every 10-15 years, your position might be more persuasive. But no clergy will assent to that. I note that unlike most professions, we don't even require continuing education; we recommend it but rarely fund it. At best the GOE measures what someone knew at a point in time.

I don't hail from South Carolina, so I can't comment on your reference to them. I would suggest, however, that other dioceses with schismatic tendencies -- or as you put it, diocesan congregationalism -- have largely run their candidates through the traditional MDiv/GOE process but are schismatic nevertheless. I see no correlation, much less causality.

A cynic might say that the Anglican Communion has already decomposed into a disparate collection of dioceses that have little in common but history. I believe that's an overstatement, however, and I don't believe TEC is in particular danger of that; nor do I believe that eliminating the GOE would push us over the cliff in that respect. One major problem with consistency has always been, who gets to be its arbiter? The notion of a heavyweight 815 (including extensions such as GBEC) to exercise that role is passé. It's not easy to synthesize new processes and structures that provide the essential glue for TEC, but ultimately such a glue will have to emerge bottom-up from the dioceses themselves if it is to work and to last.

Tobias, Chuck: points taken. You may not agree, but you will appreciate that I believe strongly that it's not "either/or;" and that in fact a position of "either/or" will not have good results for us. I think it needs to be "both/and:" both local circumstances and some sense of Church-wide standards. (And, actually, I don't think you disagree with that much.) I think we can accommodate both, so the question becomes how to do so, both short term and longer term.

Marshall Scott

Marshall, I've never tried to paint this as "either / or" -- just trying to clarify the canonical question, and that the GOE isn't required of ordinands and funding the GBEC is not mandated just because there is a canon saying GBEC should exist. My hope is that the financial crisis may help the GBEC to find more effective and efficient ways to do its work.

I also think that the GOE is not a particularly good diagnostic for what it seeks to measure -- but that is not to say there should not be such an effort to measure. In particular over the last few years of reviewing the GOE I'd have to say that the questions seem less and less to the diagnostic point. I'm particularly bemused by the "closed book" questions -- which seem to me to go against the way I encourage priests actually to work. We have too many folks who think they can "do it from memory" out there!

D'accord. I know there have been concerns about the proper utilization of Canon 9 priests, and also about a potential cleavage of Word and Sacrament in terms of priests who can celebrate but perhaps can't compose and deliver a good sermon, and further about adopting the RC approach of Deacon's masses to serve areas where there aren't enough priests. Those are significant issues, and I agree that TEC should be discussing them -- and hopefully arriving at a consensus, at least at the provincial level.

Chuck - there is no such thing as Canon 9 priests -- all come under the same canon - a priest is a priest. I know in Wyoming where we have more locally formed clergy than seminary formed -- they are great -- have to meet the canonical requirements. As to preaching we also have licensed lay preachers as well as clergy so congregations hear a variety of voices - all who meet your requirements. I doubt you could tell who was formed and ordained either way. A bishop and COM have to attend to this issue and all the ones I know are doing a great job of formation.

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