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GOEs: Defunding a canonical mandate

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


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Ann Fontaine

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.

Chuck Till

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.

tobias haller

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!


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

Chuck Till

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.

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