A Pagan's Blog

A Pagan's Blog

The Perils of Pagan Clergy: First Argument

This is my first post on the issue of why I am very skeptical of having a Pagan clergy.  I will come at it on an angle.

To have an official ‘clergy’ is to have some organizational structure with authority to say who is clergy and who is not.  But organizations tend to become corrupt, confusing their interests with the interests they are supposed to serve.  It happens everywhere, but is particularly tragic in religious organizations.

The past, recent and apparently ongoing moral depravity of many in the Catholic hierarchy (NOT Catholics in general) supplies one reason why I oppose even small steps towards institutionalizing Pagan practice through official ‘clergy’ UNLESS it is crystal clear that this term ONLY reflects their capacity to offer counseling or other secular professional skills.  This is my sole concession to what I have learned since first making my case against it in Pagans and Christians.

Consider the hideous behavior of Archbishop Jose Cardoso Sobrinho of Brazil who recently excommunicated the doctors who performed an abortion on a nine year old girl who had been repeatedly raped by her father.  He also refused to excommunicate her father because his crime was not as bad.  Just the actions of one man?  No.  The Vatican came to his defense when decent people were appalled.

Consider also the record of the Church hierarchy covering up the records of pedophile priests.  I live in northern California, where pedophile priests were actively protected by former Santa Rosa bishops Mark Hurley and John Steinbock.  The abuses went on for two decades.    I wrote about them in the early 90s.  They continue.

Consider Bernard Law, Cardinal and Archbishop of Boston, Massachusetts, resigned after Church documents surfaced suggesting he had covered up sexual abuse committed by priests in his archdiocese.  Earlier when the media began emphasizing these scandals, Law spoke out powerfully: “By all means,” he said at the time, “we call down God’s power on the media, particularly the Globe.” For reporting on the scandals.  This was supposedly “anti-Catholic.”    After his resignation, Law moved to the Vatican, received a new post, and later gave a funeral Mass for Pope John Paul II.  

My point is not that pedophilia occurred in the Catholic Church – abuses like that happen in any large organization and the number of priests involved is small. This issue is not unique to the Catholic Church.  According to Christianity Today it happens in many other churches.  My point is the organization’s complicity in covering up the crimes, protecting the perps, and when discovered, blaming others.

Consider the current Pope’s lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying right -wing Bishop.  Days before his being readmitted to the Church, Richard Williamson said on TV that the historical record indicated that there had not been any gassing of 6 million Jews.   Defend excommunicating doctors who performed an abortion on a nine year old who had been raped, and welcome back a so-called ‘bishop’ who was a holocaust denier.  

My point is not anti-Catholic – this is my second explicit statement on that issue – but a much more interesting one.  Organizations tend to become corrupt.  (See my Why Organizations Lie.   ) Religious organizations are no better, and possibly worse, than secular ones.  As we grow in numbers and influence there will be demands for Pagans to become more institutionalized, more organized, more “like everybody else” so Christians can better relate to us.

This is but one reason among a number we would be making a serious mistake to follow that beguiling logic.

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David Dashifen Kees

posted March 10, 2009 at 9:30 pm

How are you defining pagan clergy, Gus? To me, a clergy person is no more than an individual trained in pastoral counseling, leadership, community organization, and specific religious rituals to be performed for their congregation, and I use that term generally. In this capacity, pagan clergy would not be assumed to speak for all pagans. Nor would all pagans have to accept the word of these clergy persons. I just don’t think we work that way.

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posted March 11, 2009 at 12:30 am

I have found that pagan clergy do tend to take themselves a bit seriously–but those I know would be horrified at the suggestion you make here.

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posted March 11, 2009 at 4:50 am

If I may add a perspective as a non-Pagan outsider:
We’ve had a similar situation in the Buddhist world. There are highly hierarchical Buddhist organizations in which it is very precisely defined who is allowed to teach and who is only allowed to learn. But there is a more amorphous cloud of followers who move in and out of these organizations, and in this cloud you can get a reputation as someone worth listening to. On top of this, there are people who are good at organizing, at setting up the next retreat, again both formal and informal. These two categories, the teachers and the organizers don’t always coincide, but collectively, they make up what the Buddhists themselves regard as their “clergy”.
I would suggest that in this sense, you already have a “clergy”. The one who makes sure there is a place and time reserved for the next ceremony and sends out email notifications. The one who gets listened to when she speaks at that ceremony. Gus, for all I know, you might be “clergy” yourself in this sense. This sort of thing develops organically. And if you stop being an efficient organizer, or if you stop making sense, then you stop being clergy.
Sunni Islam has something like this, BTW. You can go for studies to as many madressas in Pakistan as you like, but you won’t be an imam until the people in your local mosque are impressed by your demeanour and start calling you that. Of course the Muslims have their own legal system to tie them together, but I digress.
So we already all have our defacto clergies and that is unproblematical. The problem arises when the outside world demands regular contact points. In the country I live in, it is only recently that clergy other than Jewish and Christian ones have been appointed as wedding officers. Whoever you are, you need to do a little exam on the legalities of marriage. But you also need a certificate from your religious organisation stating that you are a fulltime clergyperson.
Again, if you are going to do prison ministry, you’d better have a piece of paper giving you status. Armed forces chaplain? Don’t even think of telling them, “hey, the guys in my local meditation group love me”. Modernity values pieces of paper rather more than human beings.
In terms of the Buddhist situation sketched above, it immediately becomes clear that the hierarchical organizations are going to have a clear advantage: if you need the documentation, you just pass up the request an it appears. This does mean that some of the most gifted and valuable members of the Buddhist world are exluded from such functions, because they spend their time in the “cloud” rather than the hierarchies.The only way out seems to be to create what are, in effect, dummy corporations, statewide or nationwide Associations that exist only to deal with the non-Buddhist world. Unfortunately, Buddhism tends to attract a lot of rugged individualists, who would rather reign in the cloud than serve in the Association (pace Milton). But slowly, all over the western Buddhist world, the dummy corporations are taking shape. They have functions other than “appointing clergy”, of course, but that certainly is one of them.
From what I’ve seen of Paganism (and I’m open to correction on this point), your situation is similar, except that you have less hierarchy and even more cloud than Buddhists do. The real question is, therefore whether the need to deal with the outside world outweighs the danger of religious dummy corporations morphing into real centres of power. I can’t presume to answer that for you, I’m just reporting that other groups are experiencing similar problems.

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posted March 11, 2009 at 7:57 am

Gus, I am sorry. You are being pretty anti-catholic here. And worse yet, you are not being factual. I happen to know the background of the excommunication story. The interview where the bishop denounces holocaust has been recorded a long time ago, and released only after the pope announced lifting the excommunication to make it scandalous.
The man was excommunicated in the 1970’s or so because he was initiated into office by heretic Lefébre (those guys who rejected the II Vaticanum). By lifting the excommunication, the Pope is trying to enter into dialogue with this right-wing sect. He has never in any way applauded holocaust denouncing.
So you pretty bought into the same media hysteria as everybody. I suspect the rape case was reported in a similar way. Hardly does one get any other reporting about the Catholic church other than scandals these days. It’s becoming more and more yellow press.
I’ve been reading your posts here for a few weeks and to be honest it’s like reading a parish newsletter, just a Pagan one. Appreciate your heart felt interest in some issues, but I’d expect more intellectual background in our elders. As someone who is living in one of world’s most atheist countries, I wonder whether there is anything left when you take away the whole Christian topic from American Neopaganism.

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posted March 11, 2009 at 12:03 pm

Thank you Noira for weighing in. One small correction: Bishop Williamson was excommunicated in ’89 with three other bishops for participating in an illicit ceremony where he and two other bishops were ordained. The SSPX may have been declared illicit in the late sixties for their rejection of Vatican II and not recognizing the validity of the Novus Ordo Mass. No members were formally excommunicated at that time.
Williamson wasn’t ‘welcomed back’ per se; the lifting of the excommunication was merely a formality removing a barrier for future dialogue with the society. Full communion being established with the Holy See would follow the recognition of Vatican II and Papal authority.
As for corruption, it would still exist in a vacuum of visible authority. In African nations where anarchy thrives and warlords are prevalent, influential leaders still emerge even though they’re not openly declared presidents, dictators, what have you. I suspect the same may be true in contemporary Pagan society though I cannot verify this. At least with formally declared hierarchy accountability can be assesed to specific figures and questionable policy can be scrutinized.

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posted March 11, 2009 at 12:41 pm

While organizations can become corrupt, so do individuals who are not accountable to anyone or any organization, which can be the case with our self-appointed Pagan clergy (who are taken by other people to represent their faith the way other clergy represent theirs). Clasqm’s comments are apt. I have been involved in a couple of dummy orgs in order to meet bureaucratic requirements, tho we didn’t intend them to be dummies – just that fellow Pagans had no interest in them so they became shells. I’m not sure dummy orgs solve any problems – they only give autonomous ‘clergy’ a false appearance of being authorized that backs up the idea people already assume.

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Your Name

posted March 11, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Pointing out EVIL and overt systematic, organized, uncorrected, corruption, racketeering, fraud, obstruction of justice, among the curia, documented in verified & vewtted reporting DAILY at, is NOT “Anti-Catholic”. In point of fact, St. Paul to the Ephesians, 5:11, notes: “Do no deal in fruitless deeds of darkness, but expose them.” The financial cost alone to the laity, paying all the bills, is in the documented mutiple tens of billions of diverted and squandered laity paid for assets, as well as laity offetory plate monies. Until overtly guilty cardinals and bishops, like Bernard Law and Roger Mahony, are removed and severely punished, there is no incentive for true organization Curch institutional, secular, or religious orders’ reform. The Curia has repeatedly in history proven itself incapable of self policing, and the current pervasive and wilde spread crimanility and cover-up is no exception. The civil, crminal, and canonical courts, as well as reform legislation domestically, have been totally gamed or sand-bagged. Edmund Burke remains correct: “The only condition for the triumph of evil is for good men (or women) to do nothing.” THE SOLUTION? As St. Peter Damien eloquently and correctly suggested: “STOP DONATING LAITY”. The boys across the Tiber pretend to GET little, but move when the revenue dries up. Emptying pews, and plummeting revenues, are not a result of global economic ills, they are a direct laity response of NO CONFIDENCE, based on continuing criminal behavior of the curia, who is the problem. Fiat Lux & Veritas! Albino Luciani, MUDERED POPE, Not Smiling, From Heaven

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Your Name

posted March 11, 2009 at 1:25 pm

I agree with the spirit of this blog in that to be totally heathen one has to embrace the savage and defy organization, hierarchy, traditional learning and dogma. Just like in Zen, the more you try to define it the farther away you get from it. Also there is a good deal of deniability and distance in pagan movement as long as there are no defined rules and no one is in charge. Also, does anyone really want to go to school or train to become a heathen priest? I suppose priests could dress like the ancient Druid priests, but that opens the floodgates for all sorts of abuses (or alternative services if you prefer) such as human sacrifice (throwing sacrificial victims into bogs to appease the spirits.) Blaise Pascal said things are best when they are young so let’s hope the movement stays young.

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William Hood

posted March 11, 2009 at 1:49 pm

There isn’t any possibility of a “Pagan Clergy,” because Paganism is not a single religion. By that token, one person has no right to dictate to “Pagan” religions that he is not a part of whether they should have organization and clergy or not. I like your blog, Mr. Dizerega, but I always have a problem with anyone trying to speak about Paganism as a monolithic thing where one answer to an issue fits all who are referred to as “Pagan.” Some Pagans desire order within their specific tradition, but that does not reflect on whether every tradition should have the same type of order. As to the notion that organization is inherently bad, I also have to disagree. To me, this seems like a knee-jerk reaction to the “mainstream” of religion. Pagans seem to often feel the need to be purposely different for no other reason than difference itself. There were organized clergy and organized groups in many ancient pagan religions, and their jobs differed greatly from what we see as “clergy” today. They were people learned in the traditional rites of their culture and were responsible for carrying them out. They were not intercessors between people and the Gods and they were not required to live in unnatural ascetic conditions, in contrast to your example of Catholic priests, who I honestly feel are led to negative behavior because of these two qualities of what clergy are in their church. Should Pagans model their organizations and various clergy based on Christian conceptions of organization and clergy? Of course not, but they also shouldn’t go in the other extreme and be contrary in eschewing any organization just for the sake of being “unique.” Well, that’s my general take on the matter anyway.

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posted March 11, 2009 at 2:21 pm

While I understand your deep concerns about having clergy in place in the manner you describe, I would rather we have them than not. We have several people in our public, prisons, and military who go without the counsel and support of good, informed and well-trained (for counseling and support) clergy. We have few enough contact points with the general public with which we can say to the media, “this is a reliable source” or “this person represents this Tradition.”
Having been a Catholic, and now a Neopagan, I can understand the hierarchical structure worries people. Given my experiences with the Catholic Church, I can see the potential problems that that kind of structure can bring. However, I don’t think that we need to go to that kind of deep hierarchy. We simply need people willing and able to step up and represent our religion, both personally and in the spotlight, for those who do not have the ability or desire to do so. Not everyone wants to be a Priest/ess, nor should they be forced to be so.
Our public alone has a hard time parsing what religious input they can derive from books and UPG (Unverified Personal Gnosis) enough on their own; our prisoners have an even harder time, what with the lack of access to materials and input from the community. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a soldier without access to materials, support or community, in an environment in which there are exceedingly few clergy of your faith to help support you.
I don’t think that providing these services which have been relegated largely to mainstream clergy systems would make our individual Traditions or ideas of structure dissolve. I think that it would be a step in the right direction for those who don’t wish to, or cannot, provide clergy-oriented services for themselves and/or others.

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Gus diZerega

posted March 11, 2009 at 3:24 pm

First, many deep and sincere thanks for the very thoughtful commentaries, both sympathetic and critical. I learned a lot from them, and likely will for more to come. Perhaps the best thing to come from this particular argument is that we discuss the pros and cons.
Please remember, I accepted the argument that we need some kind of ‘clergy’ for responsibilities requiring professional quality counseling skills. I have myself been involved in “prison ministry” at the pen in Walla Walla. Without formal clergy credentials. As I look back on that experience, I would likely have done a better job if I had had training in counseling prisoners – but that’s it. As for the rest – marriage, funerals, and so forth – I think we should stand pretty firm against the notion because it does not fit the kind of thing that we are.
I will elaborate on this next point n a second post, but look in a thesaurus for synonyms for priestess, priest, and clergy. There is little overlap between the first two and the third. Words have power, and the words we use to identify ourselves have a reciprocal impact on how we come to see ourselves.
My own professional training is in the social sciences, especially political science, which is the study of organizational behavior to a large extent. I have been enormously impressed with how organizations change over time, and in the process transform their focus from mission centered to organization centered.
The crucial transition seems to be when the organization grows big enough that people begin to look upon their calling as a career. The Gods forbid I attack careers in general, but it seems to me a career orientation is inappropriate to spiritual work. Seeing what we do in terms of a career leads to our loyalty to the organization as the vehicle for getting ahead competing with our spiritual priorities. All too often this leads to picking and choosing what should be done with an eye to its impact on the organization, and the larger task can get lost, the organization losing its way. No bad motives need be involved here, but it changes the tone of what is going on, a change that gets stronger over time.
Along with my Catholic examples, which with the possible exception of Bishop Williamson where yes, I relied on the media, in the case I linked, to the Jewish media BTW, I stand firm. Noira, despite my trying to make the point so clear that I thought anyone could see it, said I was headed towards being anti-Catholic. Well, if discovering pedophiles and covering up for them and transferring them to other parishes without telling parishioners is Catholic, then yes, I am. If continuing to give former Cardinal Law a prominent place in the Church is Catholic, then yes, I am. But I always thought these things were not the essence of how Catholics see themselves. I am sure Noira would agree with me here. In my view, she seems to evidence a example of confusing the spiritual task with respecting the secular hierarchy. And that is just my point.
My target is the organizational mentality that puts the well being of the hierarchy above service to its congregations. This is different from people being corrupt. It happens when non-corrupt people begin to identify with the organization more than with its task. Good people can, and too often do, act badly when they identify too closely with an organization.
If anyone reads the paper I linked to, you would see that I find this problem ubiquitous. For an example not in that paper, Roderick Nash does a good job of contrasting professionals and volunteers in the conservation and environmental movements in his Wilderness and the American Mind. There professional organizations are necessary, far more necessary than for us by far – and the problem is significant.
At the moment we have little problem because our organizations, such as COG, have no authority beyond the power to persuade and no or little real professional staff. I want to keep it that way.
I dont see his post yet, because for some reason Beliefnet asked me to approve it before posting. I did. It’s still missing. Baruch mentions the Unitarians as a counter example to my argument, and his example is well chosen. Have they been lucky, or what? I honestly do not know. But because there are so many less happy examples, I am very cautious.
Organizations usually start out small and undemanding, staffed by dedicated people, but over time they have a tendency to grow in size and the demands they make, and their personnel shifts as people in them come to identify their own well-being with the well-being of the organization. I would be interested in how Unitarians have prevented this. But now that we are getting big enough that issues such as clergy are raising their heads, I want to push for extreme caution here and take pride in our diversity, lack of clergy, and lack of Pagan Federations with authority over members beyond expulsion from that particular group.
As we attract more mainstream members of society we will be under increasing pressure to become more like society as a whole. This is natural, and the world being as it is, a growing religion changes society and is changed by it in turn. The crucial question is – in what proportion? American society today is fundamentally anti-spiritual in any Pagan sense, and so accommodation, while to some degree inevitable, is also very risky. We should approach this issue with great care and some trepidation.
I agree organizational corruption is not a looming threat, and is a thousand miles from the minds and hearts of those why want a Pagan clergy. That is why we should begin to appreciate the strengths of our decentralized forms now, so we will not be tempted to throw them away or undermine them in some future crisis.
I am convinced we need some function analogous to clergy counseling, so I want to keep it utterly separate from the calling of being a high priestess or priest. NOW is the time to appreciate this issue. One concrete possibility – before getting counseling credentials, a person must first get standing as a Elder in some tradition, quite separately from the organization that provides training in counseling. No ‘seminary’ should ever be able to ordane/initiate/invest anybody.
I really like Clasqm’s description of how the Buddhist community grapples with this issue. I think it applies to us pretty well. I really like the Pagan emphasis on small groups, groups that are far too small to support someone economically. This prevents careerism being a temptation. One is a High Priestess or High Priest from commitment alone.
It seems to me much of the interest in having Pagan Clergy is in order to jump through hoops erected by a Christian oriented society when the task should be to change the hoops in the name of religious freedom.

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posted March 11, 2009 at 3:51 pm

Gus, I certainly understand why the idea of “Pagan clergy” could be off-putting. Even setting aside for the moment the specter of corruption, WHO gets to decide who is given that label?
There are so many different branches of Paganism. Are any excluded or are all equally welcomed? Personally, I don’t see a problem with having Pagan clergy to offer counseling or perform weddings, funerals, etc. It shouldn’t be done to “appease Christians” (I don’t care a jot what they think, I only ask that they leave me alone) but to help fellow Pagans in times of joy and sadness. Is there some big push I don’t know about to extend their role beyond this?
Just out of curiosity, have you ever checked out what Circle Sanctuary is doing regarding Pagan clergy? “Circle Sanctuary is an endorsing organization for Wiccan and Pagan ministers doing religious services, chaplaincy support, and related work in hospitals, hospice, state and federal prisons, college and university campuses, and US military installations.”
They have a list of Pagan Public Ministers; you can see them at:
I receive their quarterly magazine “Circle”, and I have great respect for the work of Selena Fox. (I wish there was a way I could attend the Pagan Spirit Gathering 2009 in June but it just isn’t possible for me.)

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Your Name

posted March 11, 2009 at 6:46 pm

Based on the empirical record of pervasive serial criminality, over multiple decades, of tens of thousands of documented sexual assaults on children and minors, at the direct condoning of evil clerics like Roger Mahony & Bernard Law (vetted & verified at, whether you are pagan or not, believer or non-believer, atheist, agnostic, monotheist or polycreation originist, can we all agree there are several hundred current red hats and miters who should be (but are not yet) canoncially censored, removed from office, and placed in a life time of hard forced labor in Gulag like conditions, at a minimum? Caveat Emptor, The Holy Ghost

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posted March 11, 2009 at 9:00 pm

Thank you for your comments. One of the major factors that drew me to Wicca, apart from recognizing the sacred female, was the fact that each of us IS a priestess or priest of the God and Goddess. The individual does not have to go through or depend upon an intermediary (human, church, institution, book) to serve, interpret, worship or live their lives “and you harm none”.
This gives the individual a great freedom but also a great responsibility to learn as much as possible about their path, and to continue growing in their own spiritual depth.
I was part of a circle in which members asked, “who will teach us?”, “where is the temple?” “what are we to do?” My thought, “Dammit why don’t you take some personal responsibility to learn and study and seek. We are the temple, the earth is our temple. Wherever we are is sacred space.
This is my objection to a pagan “clergy” or “official training”. We are setting up institutions and hierarchy that have repelled so many of us in traditional religious institutions. Control is control whether it is Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Druid, or Pagan.
Do we need elders? – yes. And for the most part we know who they are and where to find them. Do we need training? – yes. Go to your neighborhood “new age” store or the internet and you will find training. Do we need a Pagan clergy or institution? I don’t need one, I don’t want one.

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Your Name

posted March 11, 2009 at 10:02 pm

You are so right — organizations do tend to become corrupt and I think religious organizations are worse than secular ones. Take the Roman Catholic Church and its Brazilian archbishop Sobrinho from Recife.
I couldn’t figure out why the Vatican prefers punishing the mother and doctors of 9-year-old girl who was raped and impregnated with twins. They were excommunicated for saving the child’s life with an emergency abortion — for the 80-pound girl could not have carried two babies to full term without probably dying. However, the stepfather who raped her (and is also accused of sexually abusing the girl’s physically-disabled 14-year-old sister)will not be excommunicated says the archbishop.The Catholic Church doesn’t care that the child was raped or that she would die without an abortion. These are the two exceptions to Brazil’s anti-abortion law.
Ethic Soup blog suggests that “the many, many pedophile Catholic priests (most of whom don’t have to worry about ever being excommunicated) must feel a bond with the rapist.” You can read this article at:

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posted March 11, 2009 at 10:22 pm

One area of thought I have regarding “Pagan Clergy” is Chaplains at hospitals.
While I have no arguments with what has been said, I find myself thinking about the needs of Pagans while in the hospitals. Most are Christian, Jewish, or Muslim and the ones I’ve spoken to have no idea of what to say or how to respond to Pagans in need while at hospitals. This is one area I would like to assist in for my Pagan sisters and brothers.
Not everyone who is Pagan has a coven to deal with or has connections to other Pagans. What does a solitary do? Who would they speak to about prayer or ritual?
I’m simply bringing this up to include in the discussion, if no one minds. If it is out of line, I apologize, I’m not quite sure how to bring this into the discussion or if it deserves a separate discussion.

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posted March 12, 2009 at 6:50 am

I undestand and appreciate your point. However I do see some small merit in having people who are able to officiate weddings etc. Just yesterday I did a handfasting for a couple. I have performed marriages in 4 states, and I have been Wiccan for over 23 years…. ordained for about 5. I understand your point and I don’t want to see any “official” status pyramid or any sort of power structure in Wicca or Paganism. But so long as the law of the land requires some sort of “justice of the peace” or Cleric to do simple ceremonies such as weddings and funerals there is a need for at least the ability to get that peice of paper that allows you to perform that function. I mean, unless you’re the captain of a ship at sea what are you to do? The couple in question from last night were refused marriage by the military chaplain (we’re in the Army) because one was pagan and one was christian. That’s one reason they came to me.

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posted March 12, 2009 at 8:44 am

To Mariele – those are some of the wisest comments I’ve heard anywhere. I agree with you. Any need I can see for a Pagan clergy is only for the service of handfasting, funerals and counseling. NOT to become controlling entities.

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posted March 13, 2009 at 12:18 pm

My own practice and preference revolves around direct experience of deities and the divine here and now on planet Earth. That’s why I’m a Craft practitioner. If Craft insisted (formally and organizationally) on clergy and laity, then I wouldn’t be a Craft practitioner. But I would be some sort of Neo-Pagan whose practice grew from direct experience.
I don’t need or want any intervening mediation from anybody or for anybody.
Organizationally, I think the emergence of a Pagan clergy class is unfortunate. Not just because of potential for abuses and bureaucratization but because, spiritually and magically, such a class makes access and activity hierarchical in a manner that defeats an essential Pagan vision of who practitoners are and how they may appreciate the world.
Yes, the state regulates some activities and demands a “clergy.” But that does not means we ought to have one.

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posted March 15, 2009 at 11:45 pm

I live in New York State. Before I performed my first legal wedding I wrote to the Attorney General of the state to ask what the law said about who could perform weddings. I got back a nice letter saying that the Attorney General’s office is not allowed to give legal advice but they sent along copies of all the relevant laws.
New York State does not recognize marriages performed by captains of ships at sea (unless the people getting married think it does).
Before I performed the wedding I asked some of my fellow community members if they would be willing to testify that they considered me qualified to perform the ceremony. They said yes. It never came up but I was glad I had asked anyway.
Section 11 of the New York State Domestic Relations Law.
Article 3 : Solemnization, Proof and Effect of Marriage
“S 10. Marriage a civil contract. Marriage, so far as its validity in law is concerned, continues to be a civil contract, to which the consent of parties capable in law of making a contract is essential.”
“S 11. By whom a marriage must be solemnized. No marriage shall be valid unless solemnized by either:
1. A clergyman or minister of any religion, or by the senior leader, or any of the other leaders, of The Society for Ethical Culture in the city of New York, having its principal office in the borough of Manhattan, or by the leader of The Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture, having its principal office in the borough of Brooklyn of the city of New York, or of the Westchester Ethical Society, having its principal office in Westchester county, or of the Ethical Culture Society of Long Island, having its principal office in Nassau county, or of the Riverdale-Yonkers Ethical Society having its principal office in Bronx county, or by the leader of any other Ethical Culture Society affiliated with the American Ethical Union.”
“7. The term “clergyman” or “minister” when used in this article, shall include those defined in section two of the religious corporations law.”
Religious Corporations Law
S 2. Definitions. A “Religious Corporations Law corporation” is a corporation created for religious purposes to which this chapter applies under section two-a of this chapter. Unless the context otherwise requires, whenever “religious corporation” or “corporation” is used in this chapter, such term shall mean a “Religious Corporations Law corporation”.
An “incorporated church” is a religious corporation created to enable its members to meet for divine worship or other religious observances.
An “unincorporated church” is a congregation, society, or other assemblage of persons who are accustomed to statedly meet for divine worship or other religious observances, without having been incorporated for that purpose.
The term “clergyman” and the term “minister” include a duly authorized pastor, rector, priest, rabbi, and a person having authority from, or in accordance with, the rules and regulations of the governing ecclesiastical body of the denomination or order, if any, to which the church belongs, or otherwise from the church or synagogue to preside over and direct the spiritual affairs of the church or synagogue.”

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David Carron

posted March 18, 2009 at 7:05 pm

“To have an official ‘clergy’ is to have some organizational structure with authority to say who is clergy and who is not.”
Structure by itself is not evil. Having a person designated as the “leader” of the ritual, moment, whatever does not by itself create a Pope. A cultivated garden is going to grow stronger plants then a wild one.
Religion is meant to inspire individuals. We are social creatures. We interact and work off each other. Sure, the spiritual experience is a personal one. But why does that have to be a lonely venture? Yes, some people, in positions of authority wield that power wrongly. Does that mean that all people are bad? Surely there are clergy models that give the power to the masses ie the Jewish synagogue model were the membership can depose the Rabbi (meaning teacher) at any time.
“But organizations tend to become corrupt, confusing their interests with the interests they are supposed to serve.”
Sure, you will get bad apples. Human nature is that ambitious people will tend to gather more power. But if they serve the group interest and do their job AND WORK, who is harmed? In any organization, but especially a religious one, the membership has the keys and ability to dictate what it’s Leaders do. If they perform poorly, they can always be made leave.
The fact is that Everyone can be Clergy. If they do the work. Those who Gift of themselves to the Gods and the Community, should be Gifted with honor.
Rules and Institutions are Dogma. So what? Don’t like them, then do your own thing. But to suggest that it’s all for nothing seems like, at best, that you are decrying the hard efforts of some without a viable alternative. And, at worst, comparing pagan leadership to popes, pedophiles and holocaust deniers.

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posted March 19, 2009 at 9:24 am

Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and all that – but it won’t if we don’t give Pagan clergy absolute power.
I think it is worthwhile having people properly trained and accredited in counselling skills and having a good overview of Pagan understandings of birth, life, death, and rebirth, ethics and the nature of reality (so they can do chaplaincy work in prsions, hospitals, universities etc). But that does not mean that they thereby gain authority over other Pagans, or authority to speak for other Pagans.
A lot of people want to take part in Pagan rituals and spirituality, but not to become a dedicated priest or priestess. Unless we are going to turn these people away, we will need people who are skilled facilitators of ritual and who have an understanding of group dynamics.
There are many different models of clergy, and I think we would do well to examine them all before dismissing the whole concept. I look forward to reading the other posts in this series though.

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