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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Friday, March 16, 2007

Matthew, Mark, and . . . um, those other guys. . .

In the Episcopal Church, the Board of Examining Chaplains in each diocese is charged with evaluating candidates for ordination, and certifying that they are "proficient" in seven different areas required by canon. In this diocese, our bishop does not have his seminarians take the national General Ordination Exams, or GOE's. Instead, he has them take diocesan canonicals, administered by our local board. For reasons known only to God and my bishop, I was appointed a member of that group; one of the areas for which I have been given responsibility was examination in New Testament Scriptures.

Recently we have had occasion to examine someone preparing to graduate from seminary in June. As part of that process, we inquired: what sort of coursework had the seminary offered in biblical studies?

The answer, apparently, was, "not much." Biblical studies, it seems, consisted of preaching and teaching classes-- where scripture was referenced, but not studied in significant detail. For example...
  • Some of the Wisdom books were read, but not the Psalms.
  • OT prophets were touched upon... some of them, anyway. When they were written, or which communities they addressed, not so much.
  • Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John were read, in part; but not Luke.
  • Skimmed through some of the Epistles, sort of; any distinctions (Pauline or not) or themes were largely left unclear.
  • Textual and some small amount of historical criticism were the only critical methods to which the student was exposed.
I'm sorry... but Whatthe#$%? What are they thinking? No Psalms?? Exilic vs. Post-Exilic distinctions don't matter?? HOW DO YOU SIMPLY SKIP A GOSPEL???

No, I am not making this up. And neither did the seminarian-- I checked the seminary's course catalog to be sure.

I am not naming the seminary, only because I do not care to get into the possibility of having this come back on the student in question. I will note clearly, however, that this is not my alma mater. Seabury has its faults, and as an alum I know them as well as anyone-- but I will state clearly that our education in the Holy Scriptures was solid, and any lacks in my knowledge base are due to my own inadequacies in memory or effort, and not in any way the fault of insufficient opportunity or lack of concern or challenge provided by superlative professors (thank you, AKMA and Frank!).

By the time I got done listening that afternoon, I was seething-- at the sort of school which would graduate a candidate for Holy Orders without offering the basic, foundational grounding in scriptural studies that any priest needs to serve the church in any capacity.

In the Episcopal Church an ordinand is required to certify that "I do believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God, and contain all things necessary to salvation." With this sort of "preparation," how can one even be prepared to take those vows honestly? And if our clergy cannot find their way around the Word of God, how in heaven's name can we encourage others to do so?

6 Comments:

Blogger Rev Dr Mom said...

It's not my alma mater either! (GTS)

And it is sort of mind boggling to think that one might be so light on biblical studies. Wonder what time was devoted to instead.

March 17, 2007 3:13 PM  

Blogger Sophia said...

I am trying to wrap my head around this and figure out what school this is... I KNOW it's not my nyc seminary b/c we require ALL of those things... No Luke? No Psalms? No in depth look at Paul? Have they lost their minds???? Very scary! I hope this person you were examining has been able to learn a lot of this on their own, or something. Yikes.

March 17, 2007 3:52 PM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am a seminarian also (and at my seminary, we didn't skip Luke). But your post has made me angry. Perhaps your diocese should reconsider its GOE stance, because at least the GOEs were created as an attempt to try to make some semblance of sense of wildly diverse diocesan requirements. Your poor seminarian now has to deal with you, a brand new examining chaplain with very definite ideas about what seminarians should be taught. What DID the seminarian learn? Did you ask that, or did you only focus on gaps? I imagine s/he has learned something in three years. All of the accredited Episcopal seminarians, presumably, know something about seminary education, and must have reasons for their curricular choices. I even imagine some discernment has happened. Why do you presume to know more than they?

April 02, 2007 4:49 PM  

Blogger Jane Ellen said...

Dear Anonymous:

With due respect, I think there are some inaccurate presumptions in your otherwise valid question.

First, it is not "my diocese" which makes the decisions about whether or not to use the GOE's as an evaluative tool; that is the bishop's prerogative.

Secondly, we are not working through "wildly diverse diocesan requirements," but inquiring into the basic proficiency required by the national canons of the Episcopal Church, which cover all dioceses.

Thirdly, we certainly did inquire into the skills and training of the seminarian in question-- which, I might add, are significant in many ways, and will lead eventually to the ordination of a good and godly priest. However, the subject of my post was more about the curriculum of the seminary, and not about the individual abilities of the person they trained.

I would not "presume to know more" than anyone about the various areas of study that are offered in an effort to strengthen a seminarian's fitness for ministry. Indeed, this is a very good reason to have a variety of seminaries, with highly skilled teachers to provide training to those who are answering God's call to ordained ministry in a variety of ways.

However, the basic areas with which an Episcopal priest in whatever capacity should have some proficiency are established both by canon and tradition-- and whatever else is covered, must necessarily include more than passing acquaintance with the Biblical foundation of our faithful Christian practice.

An Episcopal priest is required to vow before God that I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation... Later, he or she promises to endeavor so to minister the Word of God and the sacraments of the New Covenant, that the reconciling love of Christ may be known and received.

How can one do that if one has not been exposed to the whole of the canon, in a deliberate and intentional manner? To ask an ordinand to take those vows and to live out a call as a Christian priest without thorough grounding in Holy Scripture is wholly inappropriate, and unfair to the ordinand as well as to the larger church.

April 02, 2007 6:43 PM  

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fair enough, and I am sorry for being anonymous, but as a seminarian, I don't want it getting back to my diocese that I am frustrated by the way we in the Episcopal church evaluate. Until I am ordained, I have to watch what I say. And you are right, I made assumptions, and I apologize.

I should not have written the previous post when I was angry. I was not reacting to you, but to my frustration at all the varied expectations on us. I am an honors student who has been told by examining chaplains in my diocese that I have to do some remedial work, and I am frustrated by what appears to me to be assumptions that scholarship is the same today as when some examining chaplains graduated ten or twenty years ago. Also, passage rates on the GOEs used to be much higher. This year, according to the statistics, average scores were passing (3) in only TWO areas. Seminaries seems to be teaching something other than what the National Board of Examining Chaplains find fundamental.

I am deeply committed to Scripture, and guess I frankly have trouble believing that a seminary doesn't require the Gospel of Luke. I wonder if the seminary in question has a system like that of EDS, which allows students to design their own curriculum within the seven canonical areas.

At any rate, there has been a struggle the past two years between seminaries and Boards of Examining Chaplains, and some dioceses don't require GOEs and then come up with their own canonicals, and we in seminary are caught in the middle of it. I had no right to lash out at you anonymously on your blog, and I apologize. But we are pulled in so many directions, and it is terribly frustrating to feel like some of us have finally figured out what our seminary wants, and then have our examining chaplains focus in on a narrow area and discount other work that we have done. (I recognize that the Bible is not a narrow area...I think I will stop talking now! Again, sorry!)

April 02, 2007 7:08 PM  

Blogger Jane Ellen said...

Anonymous: I am not in general fond of anonymous postings; but given your circumstances I can understand a desire for anonymity. The process toward ordination can be fraught with pitfalls, and the authorities involved are not always clear in their expectations, or... wholly imbued with a Christian focus.

I can also sympathize with your frustration in the evaluative process. I took the GOE's two years ago, and though I sustained in all subject areas, I cannot say it is my fondest memory. It is dissatisfaction with that system that causes our bishop to use local canonicals, rather than the national exam-- and part of the reason I agreed to accept appointment as an examining chaplain.

Please know that you will be in my prayers this evening, as you continue to answer God's call on your life.

April 02, 2007 8:32 PM  

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