The committee overseeing ordination exams for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has been called out for its selection of a so-called “text of terror” for this year’s written examination all candidates must complete.
The passage from Judges 19 involves gang rape, torture and bodily dismemberment of an unnamed woman. It is one of the texts cited in Phyllis Trible’s 1984 book Texts of Terror — a name that has stuck to passages from the Hebrew Scriptures that are so horrific and triggering that they are seldom used in public worship.
Yet this is the single passage all candidates for ordination in the PC(USA) are required to write about at length in order to prove their theological worthiness for ordination. The selection was made by the Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates but was not widely known until candidates began taking the exam Jan. 28.
The selection shocked not only this year’s ordination candidates but other Presbyterian ministers. A petition has been launched at Change.org to demand the PC(USA) adopt policies to prevent such insensitivities from happening again.
“Is there some new initiative to wake us up to the horrors of sexual abuse and how commonplace it is?”
“I wonder why the Presbyterian powers-that-be chose this passage. Is there some new initiative to wake us up to the horrors of sexual abuse and how commonplace it is? I don’t see other markers of such an initiative,” said Ruth Everhart, transitional pastor at Leesburg Presbyterian Church in Leesburg, Va., and a sexual abuse survivor herself.
“If students could choose this passage as an option among others, I might be supportive of the denomination’s choice,” she added. “We need to talk more openly about the horrors of sexual assault, but we need to exercise wisdom. I fear that this requirement — of students who may not know that they can refuse — will cause harm.”
Judges 19 does not appear in the Lectionary, the three-year cycle of Scripture readings commonly used to plan sermons and worship in PC(USA) churches. That it is excluded from the Lectionary “makes sense,” Everhart said. “I would wager that very few, if any, pastors have preached on this passage. While there is much to be said about this text, it is not fodder for the pulpit.”
As someone deeply concerned about sexual abuse, she has “wrestled with this text over the years,” she said. She even considered addressing it in her book about the church’s complicity in sexual abuse and misconduct.
“I considered using Judges 19 in my book. After all, this would be an appropriate use of the text and it certainly speaks directly to the horrors of sexual assault. But as I worked with the material, I decided it was simply too horrible to include. Readers would already be wrestling with difficult, graphic material. I couldn’t ask them to confront gang rape and dismemberment. I drew a line.”
The Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates also should have drawn a line, according to Everhart and other PC(USA) pastors.
In 2021, 55% of active candidates and inquirers for ordination in the PC(USA) were female.
“The probability that this passage in this exam context caused a trauma reaction in someone is close to 100%.”
“The probability that this passage in this exam context caused a trauma reaction in someone is close to 100%,” according to PC(USA) pastor and author Traci Smith. She cited data that more than half of all U.S. women have experienced “sexual violence involving physical contact” and one in six has experienced a rape or attempted rape.
“I’ve been ordained for 15 years, and I’ve never, not once, preached on this passage,” Smith added. “I don’t intend to preach on it either. Ever. I’ve not chosen it for Bible Study or lifted up in any public way with my congregation. The reason is simple: The study or proclamation of a passage like this requires pastoral sensitivity and care. It requires such sensitivity and care, in fact, that I’m not confident I have the proper training.”
Critics then want to know: So why should seminarians seeking ordination have to devote grueling days of study to interpret it in order to move forward in ordination?
In the PC(USA), candidates for ordination must take a series of ordination exams intended to assess “readiness to begin ministry.” The biblical exegesis exam assesses whether a candidate can exegete a text, demonstrate knowledge of the biblical language and apply the passage in preaching.
Candidates have just under five days to complete the assignment, which may not be discussed with anyone else and which involves a text they do not know until the day the exam begins.
Faced with widespread outrage and criticism, Robert Lowry and Beth Garrod-Logsdon issued a response from the Bible Exams Task Group
That letter said the PCC Executive Committee met on Feb. 1 “to consider the concerns and requests that have been communicated about this exegesis exam.”
The task group pointed out that previous exams have included “scenarios that address issues of sexual abuse and trauma” but the PC(USA) always “carefully considers the appropriateness of the topic to the examination.”
While no warning apparently was given to those taking the exam, the task group did include an alert to those who will read and grade the exams.
The response of the committee has not satisfied critics of the way the exam is administered and the potential trauma already inflected on candidates.
That note read: “The members of the PCC are aware that the selected passage for this exam (Judges 19:1-30), like many other passages in Scripture, is difficult to read and may elicit a wide range of personal emotions and reactions in both the exam takers and the exam readers. We also recognize that a necessary skill in ministry is to develop an awareness of the emotions that some passages bring to the surface in our lives and hold those in tension with the academic exercise of interpreting and presenting these ancient texts to a modern world.
“Readers need to be alert to how this passage may affect you personally, as well as, how the exam’s responses address the emotions that this story may have raised in the candidate’s life and in the hypothetical lives of the participants in the Bible study.”
While it is not possible to undo the testing cycle that already has begun, the Executive Committee has approved a waiver that would allow any candidate who is unable to complete the exam “because of the passage that is assigned,” to be enrolled in the spring exam cycle without additional fees.
Again, the response of the committee has not satisfied critics of the way the exam is administered and the potential trauma already inflicted on candidates.
“My own opinion of the response is this: It’s not enough,” Smith said. “It defends the status quo. It hides behind clunky process instead of defaulting to a caring and pastoral response to trauma. There is no apology nor recognition that any of the pain and trauma response we’re talking about is real. Women in ministry have enough trauma as ministers in ministry. We’re harassed and assaulted in our own churches. We need our national office to back us up and listen to us when we say we are hurting. More listening. Less defending. We’re begging our national leaders to listen and to hear.”
The Presbyteries’ Cooperative Committee on Examinations for Candidates will join a meeting of the Association of Mid Council Leaders this Wednesday, Feb. 8, to discuss the matter further.
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