Unpopular things I think and say #2

I think that people who are going to be ordained should have a degree in theology. (Not a one year Masters, either. I mean the equivalent of a Scottish BD).

This week, there are a lot of people in the US who are sitting an examination. Its the week of the year when the General Ordination Examination papers are being sat over there. We have nothing like it. It is a week of quite intensive examination. The papers are not graded but rather “evaluated” and the results sent to dioceses where bishops (presumably taking the advice of others) then decide whether someone should proceed to be ordained.

I think there was a GOE in Scotland at one point, but no more. Did we just bolt on to the English GOE? I’ve no idea.

It is worth pausing for a moment to look at what the US examinations cover. A Short Summary of what GOE candidates should know is available online. There are also some past papers available online here and here.

Now, I’m not going to play a game of looking over the pond to claim that the grass is greener over there. I’ve no doubt that the examination is pretty daunting for some candidates. It might be interesting for some of the critics of the US Episcopal church to cast an eye down the syllabus. Celebrating pagan masses, becoming a priest who is also a muslim, blessing polygamous relationships or being obsessed with same-sex marriage somehow do not seem to be at the forefront of what it means to be an Episcopal priest in the States.

However, it does remind me of the number of times I have said in meetings that people should have degree level training in theology before being let loose in congregational ministry. The kinds of things I learnt when doing my BD which overlap with the things that are in the GOE summary above are things that I would regard as being basic tools for my ministry. I don’t think that rigorous academic theology is an optional extra.

Doesn’t make me popular, that view. I don’t think that theological training based fundamentally around theological reflection comes anywhere near giving people the skills they will need in congregations. It might give them some tools they can use as use as helpful pastoral carers, but that is not the full extent of what priesthood is about.

Do I “reflect theologically” from time to time? Of course I do. Is that theological reflection enhanced immeasurably by having done a couple of theological degrees? Of course it is.

One caveat that I would add to the claim that people need to do theological degrees is that if they do them at institutions which have a stated or assumed doctrinal position then the person should also have to do (and be expected to enjoy doing) some theological work with people from other theological positions.

Can wisdom be measured with an examination? Can spirituality be quantified by what you can write down in three hours on a bit of paper? Can someone’s potential as a priest be distilled down into a week of examination papers?

I know that the answer to these questions is obviously “no”.

Does that change my assertion that I think people who want to be ordained should have degrees in theology.

Apparently not.


  1. The GOE’s are formidable. I have two theology degrees (as you do) and I know I would have to work very hard indeed to pass the GOE’s — mostly because even with my BD and MTh, (and TISEC) the courses were not available to help me learn much of what the GOE covers, and the courses that overlapped were not at the same depth.

    Now, there are other things I learned that some of my friends training in the States probably didn’t — and I did some things I learned in greater depth. But I still marvel at the GOE’s and the CPE courses, and know how very underqualified I would feel if I were to go back to the States.

    Remember the raised eyebrows at synod when we realised that the SEC was funding ordinands in developing countries to do degrees, where no such funding exists here? Perhaps we could convince TEC to honour it’s roots and fund the occasional Scottish ordinand for a year of GOE training…

  2. p.s. — it occurs to me that ‘unpopular things #1’ and ‘unpopular things #2’ bears a certain resemblance my everyday blessings. Are you going to aim for 365?

  3. fr dougal says

    I totally agree with this: an MTh in a narrow specialisation (say a former doctor reflecting on pastoral care of dying children) is good and excellent, but cannot make up for the broad theological knowledge and familiarity with history philosohy biblical scholarship and doctrine that a BD or equivalent gives.

  4. Hi Kelvin. How to win friends…!

    I guess that I don’t quite fit in to your requirements as I didn’t complete honours so am just a BA theology – but it’s a start…

    I also think it’s interesting what you say about training somewhere different if you were somewhere with a doctrinal statement. Although my degree is from/validated by Aberdeen University I studied at ICC which does have such a statement. However, I have also found some of my TISEC experiences (although largely the practical ones) where I have been able to experience quite different ideas to be very useful and thought provoking. (Fomational, even?!)

    Anyway, simply my musings.

    BTW – Happy New Year to you too.


  5. I’ve looked at the papers, and quite apart from the question of whether I would be able to tackle them, I don’t see how you can do justice to these complex topics in one, two or three pages. The essay I am trying to prepare on the Trinity for my M.Litt. (which is two years, by the way, not one) requires me to write 4500 words.

    On a related matter: spare a thought for those of us who came to vocation in circumstances in which a four-year theology degree was not a feasible proposition. Not only are some of us working hard to make up any shortfall in our theological education, but we have reason to be grateful for the educational provision that exists in the SEC. And I like to think that the Church appreciates the contribution that we are making to reducing, if only a little, the chronic shortage of ordained clergy.

  6. Just to be clear, Eamonn, I’ve not said that I think everyone needs to do a four year full time theology degree.

    I’ve said that I think that someone needs to have acheived a theology degree before being ordained.

    It might be interested in someone trying to persuade me that this should be a requirement for being in charge of a congregation rather than being ordained, but so far, no one has tried that out on me.

  7. Blimey! I do have a BD but I’d be struggling now to do justice to even half of those topics. But I’d love to have had a Theological College which offered that level of training. I certainly wouldn’t feel qualified for the job I do without having had the 4 year university experience.

  8. Gosh. I agree. Is this a first?

  9. Contrapositive anecdote time:

    We encountered a (possibly CoE??) church last year, whilst on holiday, describing itself as “We gather as Christians Together in …” but in practice it was was a slightly strange mix of evangelical-style songs, a minister with collar but the “talk” part was some eminently lay person playing a video on a notebook. Oh, but they had children, many youths, and were basically welcoming… but no formal liturgy, no real structure to the show.

    I *like* to go to church to listen to what there is to be said in the sermon. If I get the feeling some random human off the street has got up on their hind legs and pontificated at me, beyond the scope of their expertise, I’ll feel short-changed. (This is a different phenomenon from “if I’m bored I’ll nod off”.)

    So to the extent that qualification provides that expertise, and helps guide the whole congregation along a discussive theological path (and it does!), I agree too.

  10. David | Dah•veed says

    There is one accrediting body for theology schools in the US and Canada. Folks who have formal theology educations in the US and Canada have seven years of education under their belt because most main stream denominations require a Master of Divinity for ordination. Most graduate seminaries require a bachelors degree in some field, which is traditionally four years, and then the MDiv, which is three. If the bachelors degree did not include philosophy, then a concurrent course in philosophy is usually a first semester/year requirement for the MDiv.

    There are folks who have read for orders in TEC with no formal degree. There are also folks who have read for orders with bachelors degrees in various fields as well as those with an additional Master of Theological Studies (MTS) or Master in Religious Education (MRE), which are two year degrees.

    The MDiv is considered to be a professional degree which can lead to a Doctor in Ministry (DMin), but not usually the academic degrees of PhD or ThD. There are also those of us with academic masters degrees. I have a Mexican Licenciatura in Human Behavior (4 years in psychology & sociology) and have completed a US four year Master of Theology (MTh or ThM) and could teach in undergraduate university or enter an academic doctoral program.

    However, I have not pursued ordination. Not my calling after all.

    I think that if you look closer at the GOE it is less daunting than at first glance. A lot of it is open book with the stated resources that you may use. The biggest requirement in a written exam is well organized thoughts beginning with a thesis statement and then followed with logical supporting argument.

    My experience in US/Canadian theology schools is that there are two forms; the schools with a doctrinal statement which spoon feed the statement as their curriculum and the schools with no doctrinal statements which equip their students with the tools to do modern critical theology. I find the graduates of the latter type better equipped.

  11. Rosemary Hannah says

    Well, looking at some of the questions in section 7 of 2003, I could come up with some splendidly short answers which would I suspect be unpopular things to think and say.

  12. In response to something that Eamonn said earlier, I think that being able to sum up and say something about a meaty doctrine in the space of a couple of pages (preferably whilst being erudite and witty) is a core task for all priests.

  13. Yes. We should all have good degrees obtained at real universities, not just accredited by one. Also, we should be paid accordingly. Perhaps if we had high standards and were seen to be treated in our employment as skilled professionals, we would get a bit more respect off all those teachers and doctors etc. in our congregations who think they can do our job just as good as us and who believe theology is a purely personal matter that one decides for oneself without reference to any learning and certainly nothing to do with years of study both at college and ever since.

  14. Funny to bring teachers into it – if anyone has to earn respect, a teacher does. I’d have thunk the same might go for a priest. No?

  15. What’s wrong with a degree that has been accredited by a “real university”?

  16. I think it is better to start out respecting someone and then stop respecting them if they let you down. Anyway, teachers are predisposed to evaluate and correct which they will insist on doing at the door after church on Sunday. It doesn’t work the other way though. If a priest tells an English teacher that he’s got his grammar wrong the priest might as well pack her bags and get the next bus out the parish.

  17. Well, natch. 😉
    Unless s/he’s correct, of course.

  18. Roddy says

    A comparison with medicine is helpful. Although there are many specialties all of us started off doing a 5 year medical degree. The purpose was to give a basic medical education as a foundation for further, more specialised study and practice in the future.

    Now, given that there are more universities in the UK than motorway service stations and that the quality varies (please don’t tell me a degree in classics from Oxford has the same merit as a degree in golf course management from an ex poly), it seems odd that theological education nowadays either seems to go for specialisation first with a poor grasp of the basics or feels that the basics doesn’t really warrant the best in educational provision in the first place.

    BTW, don’t get me started on the subject of teachers. Just let me say that being a teacher and being able to access the internet does not make you a consultant haematologist…….

  19. Roddy says

    Kelvin, I’ve also just noticed that your site has a link to RockBridge Seminary which will give you an online ministry degree in three years for $10500! I don’t mean to sound picky but, given the thread, WTF!!!

  20. I think the links (in the sponsored ads bit) are random albeit supposedly related to the thread in question. Am currently getting a link to the lighthouse project ( http://www.lightproject.org.uk/statement_of_faith.html ) who are members of the Evangelical Alliance (!), University of London and ‘Book an Eye Exam Today’.

  21. I’m currently getting a link to “pass the GP Stage 2 Exam”. It doesn’t look that hard. Are you earning your money under false pretences Dr Roddy? Yes, I know you’re not a GP, but if you stick in ……

  22. Jimmy McPhee says

    I believe in education and it’s obvious if someone seeks a position where a degree is required then they will have to gain that degree to be considered for the position.
    But I feel that Christians need to remember that the Sanhedrin accused Christ of not having the authority to teach because he was not from the stock of what they considered to be the educated and appointed elite.
    All their education could not teach them that Jesus was the Christ only God could reveal that to them by a spiritual insight from the Holy Spirit.
    The teaching throughout the New Teastament is that the church is created added to maintained and nurtured by the Holy Spirit and it is by the gifts of the Holy Spirit that the church grows in the grace and the knowledge of God. Nowhere in the New Testament does it say that the church is dependent upon the intellect of man.
    Incidentally the teaching that – All is well we will all be saved there will be no judgement there is no hell – Is the consistent message of every false prophet in the Old Testament.

  23. The OT’s ‘Sheol’ isn’t the same thing as a fire-and-brimstone ‘Hell’, Jimmy.

  24. Having sat through too many sermons by ‘graduates’ of some of the C of E’s less rigorous training schemes, I wholeheartedly agree! My current gripes include the apparent lack of any knowledge of the church’s early christological controversies, no understanding of hermeneutics and no grasp of basic critical methods. By the way, has the SEC formally done away with the Canon requiring knowledge of Greek and Latin? I was always appalled that it didn’t include Hebrew (and Aramaic) but we are now at the point when most clergy being ordained have never been anywhere near the original texts… Middle-aged rant over.

  25. The requirement for Greek and Latin is long gone.

    As it happens, I did Greek (at St Mary’s, St Andrews) but not Latin. However, I also did Hebrew and enjoyed it more than the Greek.

    The level of Hebrew teaching in TISEC when I was in it was a single lesson in which people were shown a page of Hebrew “to remind us that the Bible wasn’t written in English and to show us how lovely it looks on the page”. (That’s not a joke, by the way, its true).

    The session ended with a reading of a psalm during which all the students were encourage to make the noises of the wind rushing through trees from each of the four corners of the room. I think it might have been Psalm 80, though I am not 100% sure.

    I also remember most vividly the look on the face of Jim Martin who had been my Hebrew teacher in St Andrews and who happened to have been brought in to attend the TISEC residential in question.

  26. If there is a sound of wind during the next singing of Psalm 80, we will all know now from which corner of the Cathedral it emanated.

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