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This is my second reason for being very skeptical about the interest on so many pagans’ part in our having a “clergy.”

Words have enormous power.  We do not even need to go into a discussion of magick to see that this is true.  Here is my favorite mundane example.


The English ‘hot’ and the German ‘scharf’ both refer to the taste of an jalapeno pepper.  Otherwise they have very different meanings.  ‘Hot’ is well . . . hot.  But in English, ‘scharf’ is usually translated as ‘sharp,’ like the blade of a knife.  When I studied German I found its use to describe spicy-hot food very strange.

Years later, when I became more interested in the power of words to shape our thoughts, I asked two good German friends, one in California, the other in New York, whether now that they were fluent in English they agreed with me that ‘hot’ was the more fitting word.  Both said no, scharf seemed more fitting.  One added he still found it very hard to use the word ‘hot’ in this context, but since that’s what Americans did, he did so as well.

Both hot and scharf are metaphors.  A jalapeno pepper is not necessarily hot in temperature, nor is it sharp like a knife.  But these metaphors so shape our experience of a taste that we could not agree which word makes the most sense.

Words shape our experience and perception, even for something as seemingly pre-linguistic as taste.  The meaning of a word is based in large part on how it relates to similar words, and our experience reflects this embeddedness.

Now let’s compare Pagan priests with Christian clergy.  Pagan priests and Christian Ministers and Priests specialize in linking in one way or other our daily existence and our relationship with the sacred.  It is this commonality that tempts some Pagans into adopting words from a different religious tradition, in part to win legal recognition and in part to appear less threatening and more respectable to mainstream society.  But let’s now consider the differences between Christian and Pagan spiritual leaders.  

Synonyms for clergyman includes ecclesiastic, churchman, cleric, divine, man of the cloth, man of God, holy man, priest, minister, chaplain, father, pastor, parson, preacher, rector, vicar, dean, bishop, canon, presbyter, deacon, reverend, and clerk in holy orders.  A very few cross over into a list of roles performed by Pagan spiritual leaders: priestess, priest, high priestess, high priest, Witch Queen, Magus, healer, medium, shaman, and diviner.  As with the clergy,  some of our most important terms have no equivalent.  These are the roles we put at risk by adopting the term ‘clergy’ to describe our spiritual leaders.

Someone might reasonably ask, but can’t having a Pagan clergy result in changing and broadening the meaning of ‘clergy?’  Yes it can, – if there were enough Pagan clergy to make a difference.  But there are not, and this is the problem.  Were there enough Hispanic customers a Taco Bell burrito would be different from what it is as well.  But there aren’t.  

In magickal terms, powerful thought forms surrounding the term ‘clergy’ and if we adopt that term they will pull us away from what we are that is different.   I think giving a ‘sermon’ is highly presumptuous for a Pagan Priestess or Priest.  (I once was asked to give one to a UU gathering in Massachusetts  It felt weird and I gave more a lecture than a sermon.  They are not the same.)  I also have a difficult time imagining a clergyperson performing the Great Rite.  Nor is it easy to envision the Moon being drawn down on a clergyperson.

As we have become more accepted in American society we are coming under greater pressure to become more respectable still.  In doing so we will move in mainstream society’s direction, and mainstream society will move in ours.  But a lot rests on how far each side moves to accomodate the other. 

The critical question is where we will strike a workable balance between what we are now and what society as a whole finds comfortable.  In negotiating this cultural dance we should never forget that Western society is based on beliefs that are fundamentally anti-Pagan.  The secular world sees nature as mundane, composed in most cases of resources valued for their use to us.  Human beings are the acme of existence, and science someday might give us power over the world.  Even more important for this present discussion, Western Christian spirituality focuses on the sacred as only or almost entirely  transcendent, the world as fallen,  radically distrusts individual experience of the sacred, and regards the only truly reliable spiritual knowledge as coming from revealed written words, even if there is no agreement on what they actually say.  Moreover, Catholics partially excepted, people continually need to be reminded about the sacred through sermons rather than participating in and reconnecting with the sacred through rituals.  

Given this basic reality, for us to adopt a descriptive termfor ourselves  that fits and reinforces a very different conception of spiritual reality and the proper human relationship to it is just asking for trouble.  People will relate to us based on their understanding of the term.  When the cultural power of the non-Pagan use of these terms is overwhelmingly dominant compared to ours, we run the risk of gradually, bit by bit, losing sight of who we really are.  We will give up much too much.

I will never forget attending a wedding in a Buddhist Temple in Berkeley.  This was long before I was a Pagan.  I anticipated seeing something quite different from the Christian weddings I had been to, and I was deeply disappointed.  The temple had a lectern, pews, and behind the lectern a Buddhist image rather than a Christian one.  All was very Protestant in feel.   The wedding itself was based on Western models as well.

This temple served mostly Japanese American Buddhists who had suffered much and deeply for many decades at the hands of Californian cultural attitudes, culminating in their being herded into relatively benign concentration camps during World War Two.  I suspect that in response they did all that they could to be respectable in the mainstream’s ignorant eyes.  While I have no idea what their normal services were like, I will never forget how very very Christian the wedding was in form and feel.  The Greek Orthodox wedding I attended later was much more ‘exotic’ than the Buddhist, perhaps because for them being ‘respectable’ was not so important.

I fear that in our desire for respectability we might enter on to the same path. Were we facing the kinds of repression Japanese Americans faced, I might sing a different song.  But we are not.  That is my other reason for being very skeptical as to the appropriateness of the term “clergy’ in a Pagan context.

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