The question of a national system of ordination examinations was a topic of major discussion during the first seven decades of the 20th century. The 1970 meeting of the General Convention of the Episcopal Church created the General Board of Examining Chaplains to form a standard process of canonical examination for ordination.
The first General Ordination Examinations were administered between January 31 and February 5, 1972. The Rev. Canon Bernard Iddings Bell (1886-1958) was a prominent writer and public intellectual in the first five decades of the 20th century.
A prolific author and regular contributor to The Living Church, Bell was dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Fond du Lac, from 1912 to 1919 and served as warden of St. Stephen’s College, Annandale-on-Hudson (now Bard College) from 1919 to 1933.
Richard Mammana, series editor
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By Bernard Iddings Bell
The Living Church, February 22, 1936, pp. 233-234, 239.
Two years ago, I spent the whole summer in a careful study of theological education in the Church of England, a study in which I had the advantage of many years spent in general education administration, and also the generous help of the Anglican Church officials, of a number of English university dons, and of the staff members of a score of British theological colleges (or, as we Americans call them, seminaries). The general conclusions that resulted from that study were embodied in a series of essays published in The Living Church in the winter of 1934-1935.
Happily, those essays aroused much interest, not only in England but the more especially in our own country. They have brought to me a considerable number of thoughtful letters from bishops, from priests, from prominent laymen, and from theological educators, all of whom are deeply concerned about possible improvements in our American training of ordinands and interested to see what, if anything, we can learn in this respect from our English co-religionists. These letters, in turn, have resulted in many personal conversations, among which the most illuminating, perhaps, have been talks with those seminary professors in whose charge our young men are usually placed for preparation. The entire faculty of the General Theological Seminary, for instance, has been good enough to invite me to confer with them, to learn their difficulties, and ascertain their points of view; and this has greatly helped me. Similar invitations from other seminaries I have had to decline for lack of time; but professors from these institutions have been good enough to write me, sometimes in extenso. I have also personally conferred with bishops, including some of those that have the largest ordination lists. For all the kindness that has thus been shown me, by many people, I am deeply grateful. It has vastly increased my knowledge both of what is being done by way of pre-ordination training in the Episcopal Church and also of much that is not being done, together with some of the difficulties actually and stubbornly in the way of any basic reform of our admittedly faulty practice.
As a result of all that has been told me, and of many suggestions made of possible improvement, and of my own digestion of the same, I venture to write this paper and one later paper, to make a few concrete recommendations. What value they may have comes not from any cleverness of mine but from what they reflect of a considerable and objective knowledge of the facts and a willingness to listen to the ideas of many people actively engaged either in trying to train ordinands or else—and this is equally illuminating—in attempting to make use of the young men when once their training has been completed. The suggestions that I feel prepared to offer for consideration are definite and concrete and, I am convinced, practicable. The first, dealt with in this paper, is a matter for the general Church to handle. The others, in the next paper, must be dealt with, if at all, by the seminaries themselves.
The creation of a system of uniform examination of all candidates for ordination, in the factual side of theological knowledge, to be conducted by a central board of examining chaplains, demands immediate attention of the whole Church.
There seems to be an almost universal recognition of the need for this reform. As things are at present, with each diocesan bishop having a board of examiners of his own, there is no uniformity of expectation. It is next to impossible for a candidate to discover what sort of tests he will have to face, or for a theological seminary to know for what tests it must prepare him. In some jurisdictions the examinations are ridiculously easy; in others they are extraordinarily difficult; in many they are “spotty,” in that the examiners contain one or more erudite specialists in a given field or two, who insist that in those fields the examinees must have proficiency all out of proportion to the value and importance of those fields. Sometimes an honors graduate both of a university and of a seminary will be failed for lack of minute information in a secondary subject, or of a minor field within a major subject. But far more common is the passing of men who ought not to be passed at all. A premium is put by our present system on the exertion of improper pressure by some prominent priest-sponsor, pressure hard to be resisted by his fellow-presbyters in a local diocese, to pass a candidate whose ordination is much desired by the sponsor but whose qualifications are sketchy. Sometimes the bishop himself exerts this pressure, doubtless with the best of intentions. And finally, it is hard to find, in every diocese and missionary jurisdiction, men competent as examiners, since not only a considerable scholarship is required but also training in the technical art of how to examine.
For all these reasons—and there are other less important ones as well—it seems certainly desirable to follow in this the example of the English Church and set up a national board of examining chaplains. So great is this desirability that the Diocese of Rhode Island has sent a memorial to the next General Convention, requesting such action. In view of the certainty of general discussion of the matter, I should like to make certain suggestions, the result, may I repeat, of a considerable discussion and correspondence.
It is important that a proper canon be drawn up well in advance of the 1937 Convention. Otherwise any action will be the result of too hasty consideration, or else the whole matter will have to go over for action until 1940—a delay to be regretted. Why should not the necessary discussion take place before the 1937 session? This could be best brought about if the House of Bishops were to consider the whole matter at its meeting this autumn in Chicago, and then appoint a committee to draw up and present the necessary legislation to General Convention. This has the further advantage, over a mere diocesan memorial, that it recognizes the ancient prerogative of the episcopate to choose whom they will to be ordained and to examine the same as they desire.
It ought to be made plain from the beginning that the proposed national board of examiners is to test factual knowledge only and not to determine orthodoxy or personal suitability of the candidates. Otherwise the proposal is sure to receive, and properly, the determined opposition of most of the bishops. In respect to this, the English precedent may well be followed. A bishop ought to have the entire right to refuse ordination if he desires, and without giving any reasons for his action, even though the candidate may have passed every factual test put by the national examiners; and a candidate should be expected to submit himself to such additional tests as his bishop may desire, that the latter may ascertain whether in his judgment a candidate is a fit person. Nor should the bishop be prevented from ordaining a man who has been failed by the national examiners, provided the bishop makes full statement of his reasons for so doing, in writing, for the enlightenment of his fellow bishops. In other words, the national examiners’ tests should be advisory to the bishop, not a substitute for the ancient and unimpeachable right of the bishop to determine the fitness or unfitness of any man seeking ordination.
It ought also to be made clear that after the setting up of the national examiners, as before, the consent of the standing committee of the diocese, or the council of advice of the missionary jurisdiction, shall be necessary before ordination, and that the standing committee or council of advice shall have the results of the candidate’s general examination placed before it, together with the bishop’s reasons for ordaining if the man shall have failed in the examination.
It should be made plain that the national board of examiners is not to be an inter-seminary board. While it is advisable that some of the board should be theological professors, it is obvious that most of the board should represent other interests. This point seems clear to most of the theological professors themselves, who feel that it would, make for a much more healthy seminary technique if the minimum standards for ordination were set by others’ than themselves.
It would be well to have it understood that ordination tests are to discover a minimum of knowledge to be expected, and that passage of the tests is not to be considered as evidence of any profound scholarly achievement. No seminary ought to be content merely to prepare its students to pass such tests, and no student encouraged to believe that passing them is his maximum of duty. That mistake has been made in England, and can be rectified there only with great difficulty. Academically, the English theological colleges are hardly more than “cramming schools” for the General Ordination Examination. We should be careful not to repeat that mistake in the American Church. Neither the present diocesan examinations nor the proposed national examination should be regarded as to test scholarship, but only to find out if candidates have that minimum of knowledge without which it is normally unfitting that men should be priests at all. We must leave, and ought gladly to leave, determination of scholarly efficiency to the learned faculties of the universities and seminaries.
It may well be also required, as the memorial from Rhode Island suggests, that no man shall be ordered deacon until he shall have passed all the tests of the national examiners (subject to the proviso about the bishop’s prerogative noted above). The ordering of a man deacon, with only partial preparation, and the continuance of his preparation, with more examinations to face, during his diaconate, makes the diaconate useless for practical training. Moreover, it results in many ill-prepared men being made deacons, and then being unable to pass the further priest’s tests. What follows then? Such a man is not much good, either as an assistant or in charge of a work, while he remains a deacon; and yet he cannot pass the further priest’s examination. Finally such pressures almost inevitably arise as result in his being made a priest anyway, either with the unwilling consent of the examiners or in spite of them. More men badly prepared get into priest’s orders that way than in any other. It is a lamentable state of affairs. In England, all general examinations must be passed before a man may be made deacon. In all the correspondence and discussion I have had on these matters, not one good reason has been advanced for our not having a similar requirement.
If these necessary explanations are made to the Church, to meet in advance any adverse criticism, and if the House of Bishops will draw up the necessary canon for consideration at General Convention, it is hard not to believe that this reform will be made without delay, to the satisfaction of almost everyone who has given much thought to our problems of theological education and to the certain improvement of the intellectual quality of those in the future to be ordained.