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The Perils of Pagan Clergy: Second Argument

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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posted March 14, 2009 at 12:26 am

Very well said, Gus. I’ve read your excellent Pagans & Christians, and so am acquainted with your thoughts on this topic. Your argument here is interesting as well—that if Pagan spiritual leaders are styled clergy, the expectation will be (or will become) that they’ll think and act according to what Westerners have come to expect of “clergy;” and this expectation does not accord with the reality of Pagan spiritual leadership.
In Pagans & Christians, at page 162, you write, “In my judgment, the terms ‘priestess’ and ‘priest’ are probably the best general terms that we can use for our roles. . . .” I wonder—is there an appropriate term in English to express the collective concept of a Pagan priest/esshood in the same way that “clergy” expresses the collectivity of Roman Catholic priests, Methodist ministers, Pentecostal preachers, and so on? Priesthood might be idoneous, but it does not appear at first sight to include priestesses.
This is off-topic, but one of the things that I’ve noticed about spiritual leaders of all religions with whom I’m acquainted–the ones who really lead, and not the ones who just have a title–is that they have a sense of vocation. They perceive their priesthood (or whatever they may call it) as a response to a Divine calling or initiative, rather than as a career. One of the good things about this is that it keeps them honest, since their first priority is to serve the Divinity Who called them, rather than to serve the organization (if any) that confers ostensible status on them. I realize, of course, that this is sometimes not the case. Heaven knows that there are Christian priests who are in it for the title, the status, the perks, and the collar. But the ones who are true leaders are the ones who have this sense of vocation. One thing, at least, that, in my experience, Pagan priests and priestesses have in common with Christian clergy.

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posted March 14, 2009 at 4:57 am

A soft version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, then, Gus? Fair enough, but it is not really clear why “clergy” is the term that really sticks in your craw when you are happy enough to use “priest”. They both have long series of connotations in mainstream society. Don’t you find that you always have to preface “priest” with “Pagan” or “Wiccan” i.e. “I am a Pagan priest” when communicating outside the coven? (A bit like “male model” or “male nurse” – the term by itself is assumed to refer to a female)
I agree that “I am a Pagan clergyman/woman/person” sounds, well, weird. Why? Because nobody ever said “I am a Christian clergyman” either. “The clergy” is a collective noun used from an outsider’s perspective to refer to an indistinct mass of religious functionaries. Even when a member of the clergy uses it, it is used abstractly, as in “we must advance the education of the clergy”.
By the way, in Dutch you can use “heet” or “scherp” interchangeably to refer to spiciness, with the first one being slightly more common.

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posted March 14, 2009 at 9:57 am

Hi Gus. I just started reading your blog and am enjoying it very much.
I agree with a lot of what you said, mainly the bits about potential for assimilation in our attempts to give ourselves more credibility. I do think, however, that topics like this are to be decided by individuals. The “clergy” argument has caused a lot of commotion, and it should, but people should remember that not everyone need be a part of it. If a large enough group desires some sort of organized ranking system, if that, they’re more than justified in making it come to fruition.
I can see the potential for things like corruption and popularity contests, but I believe that most Pagans who are only in it for fame, etc., are not typically respected by the rest of the community.
I guess it just all comes down to the selection process and what sort of “power” a clerical system would bestow upon its members.

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posted March 14, 2009 at 10:31 am

I don’t see a problem with using the term clergy. It does evoke a certain response as any word does. And I think it’s the intended response, that we are the authority of our own path within Paganism, Wicca, etc.
Many people coming from more traditional Western belief systems, ie Christianity, Judaism, etc, are used to having a clergyman or clergywoman interpret or dictate scripture or doctrine to them for their beliefs, thoughts, words, and deeds.
In most of the Western world, Paganism has been about defying expectations. People expect us to be immorral, devil worshiping, child molesting perverts who cast malligned spells on a whim at people who look at us the wrong way. We’ve been breaking that perception as well.
Point being, if we cease to do things because of the way people perceive it, we might as well stop being Pagan, because that in iteself is perceived a certain way.
I say don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Clergy are people in authoritative positions within their chosen faith. Which, by definition makes me clergy as a solitary Witch. Whether I fit someone else’s notion of how I should behave is not a concern of mine. Perhaps it will lead to changed minds and perceptions.

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Albert the Abstainer

posted March 14, 2009 at 11:31 am

To borrow an expression from Canadian history, “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription”, during World War II: Clergy if necessary, but not necessarily clergy.
The point here is to avoid the failings of clerical structure which are evident in many established traditions, while retaining those aspects which are useful. So perhaps a good starting point is to list what are seen as the good and the bad of clerical structure, even in very broad strokes. (By the way this is a specific example of a more general question about organizations, and one which I think breaks down into the argument of hierarchy and centralization versus non-hierarchical and distributed.)
One thing which is essential is the need to allow legal clerical recognition to perform rites which have civil/legal ramifications. (I am thinking here about marriage rites which is probably the one area where crossover exists… though that should be properly addressed through making civil union and marriage as distinct such that a religious marriage has no civil weight and vice-versa.)
What I am thinking may be appropriate is a “Council of Wisdom”, which acts as a meeting place to vet ideas, discuss approaches to difficult collective issues, et cetera. The role of the council is to provide and shape the grounds, without having any explicit ability to sanction. It is a place to listen at least as much as a place to speak. There need to be ways to keep it open enough that the regrettable human tendency towards clustering into non-permeable clusters can be checked. The point is not to champion a particular orthodoxy but to allow wisdom and knowledge to grow and pass outwards in a more organic, fashion, (much the way that there is interconnection between synapses and the shape or state of the brain changes wholistically.)
What kind of charter would need to be created for such a council? Certain meta-principles. (like the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights — ) would need to be incorporated and extended to include the health of the whole planetary system. One aspect of wisdom which has not adequately seeped into the human psyche is the relationship between planetary health and human health. Games theory ( ) is something important to consider, since people can act locally in a way which is predictable and which is not in the collective or even long-term local interest. The problems of a human mono-culture, (which we humans are in the danger of becoming), needs to be addressed. Think of a petrie dish where a culture is so successful that it destroys itself when it has consumed all the resources it has available.
These are some of the things to think about. Also, organization also permits focus and direction with respect to long-term projects, (i.e. coordinated charitable works), but that may be the province of a sister organization to a Wisdom Council.

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posted March 14, 2009 at 12:41 pm

Thing is in Wicca “priest” doesn’t have the same connotation as in Christianity. In Wicca everyone is a priest or priestess. We are priest/ess to ourselves, NOT to others. The confusion comes from thinking that we priest the way a Catholic priest priests. We’re more like monks or nuns – responsible to and for ourselves and each other, not for some congregation. It’s also sort of like Quakers, where nobody has a title. Same difference when EVERYone has a title!

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Ananta Androscoggin

posted March 14, 2009 at 12:43 pm

One of the things I have noticed from out here in the downeast hinterlands, is that unlike Christian congregations, in most forms of modern Paganism, EVERYBODY has the right, and perhaps even the ‘duty,’ to progress in learning and in skills that would tend to lead one to “clergy status.” However, in the distant past prior to b.c.e. 6, not every one of our Pagan ancestors were priests, nor were they all “witches” or “shamans” or “medicine men,” etc., etc. There were a great majority of lay folk (to use the modern term).
But with all of the new people who seem to be interested in investigating modern Paganism, and the lack of enough teachers generally, let alone within any single Trad (39 years so far, and I’ve yet to meet mine, f’rinstance), and the fact that a growing number of these new people seem to be content (at least at first) to act as “congregants” rather than as practitioners, and it seems to many that those who can truly act as clergy to these folk is a need our communities needs to step up and provide.
Though I’m not formally a member of the Maine Pagan Clergy Association, I both appreciate and applaud their mission. Under Maine law, churches can of course ordain their own clergy. But in the state of Maine an Association of Ministers (generically termed) can license clergy also. And in setting up minimum standards of a general, modern Pagan, pan-traditional nature, service to the community, and requiring continuing education, is certainly a useful way to at least begin this process. Something that can be refined and improved as we learn the fine details of how Pagan Clergy is developing itself in our present-day world.

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posted March 14, 2009 at 1:26 pm

Gus, you make some excellent points. Several years ago I was asked to write and officiate at a ceremony introducing my Priestess’ baby to the Goddess. Close friends who are not of the Craft were invited. I had to explain a dozen times that, in spite of superficial resemblances, this was NOTHING like a baptism! The point I am making is that we all want to be accepted and the easiest path toward that is to show the other person how much we have in common…”See? I’m really just like you!”. It is harder still since there is no good word for that ceremony. “Paganing” feels awkward to me. “Naming” isn’t specific enough.
The big difference for someone like me, who tends toward the Pantheistic end of the Pagan spectrum, is that I do not believe the clergy is a necessary intermediary between my Circle and the Divine. I believe I am there to help them get in touch with and focus their own Divine nature.

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posted March 14, 2009 at 1:39 pm

You’re talking about change and about what Paganism changes or does not change.
I think that the post WWII emergence of Paganism aimed at changing some basic Western notions of how practitioners related to dieties and to their environing culture. It was a marked alternative and put itself apart from the dominant culture. “Clergy” as role and as religious model was an element of that dominant culture.
That’s how I see it. And I suspect that it’s how you see it. Modern Paganism is not an element of the dominant culture.
But I think that lots of Pagan adherents do see Paganism as an element of the dominant culture, and have no issue with terms, roles, and models used by the dominant culture. Like “clergy.”
From the alternate side, things like “clergy” are what we aim to change. But from the Pagan-is-mainstream side, “clergy” is what we aim to be. It’s two different world views.
In culture contact terms, I don’t want today’s Paganism to acculturate. But I get that it already has and probably did all along.

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Hecate Demetersdatter

posted March 14, 2009 at 1:56 pm

A wise friend once told me that she believed that all religions are started by mystics and then a clergy develops and sucks all the juice, life, mystery, goosebumps out of the religion. It’s an overgeneralization, but it has a lot of truth to it. I don’t want a Council of Wisdom or an Association of Elders or whatever. And I don’t want to appear nice and safe to the culture at large. I’m not nice and safe. I’m not on their side. I’m not just a somewhat different variant of what they know. As Barbara Starrett wrote:
I am a secret agent
Of the moon
Celestial subversive
Spirita Sancta
And then some
And I have friends.

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posted March 14, 2009 at 2:22 pm

Just a quick note: I am very impressed by the quality of responses to Gus’s blog. May it continue!

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Albert the Abstainer

posted March 14, 2009 at 2:49 pm

Hecate, while I appreciate your perspective on a Council of Wisdom: If what we want is to be able to help guide the human community through the overwhelming ecological crisis which lies ahead, there has to be a means of translating private practice into a wider communal sharing and yes a political influence. Without that, and perhaps even in spite of it, when things get tough the marginal and less effectively organized are stigmatized and scapegoated.
And so, the question remains: What form of orgamizational structure creates the proper balance to allow and encourage creative individual and communal expression, and shares wisdom and knowledge, and provides a channel to protect its members (via at least legal and political forms), at times of unrest/transition? Remember, human history is filled with woeful tales of what happens to those who are easily scapegoated in difficult times. (And no, I don’t think difficult times are behind us, and I don’t mean just economically and politically. I think the human primate is approaching that point where viability as a species will be tested.)
I just don’t think we can sit it out, and that is where such an organization as a Council of Wisdom may be helpful and healthful.

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Baruch Dreamstalker

posted March 14, 2009 at 9:34 pm

Gus, I would never suggest we change the term “high priestess” to “clergy.” But the term “clergy” is used when one is speaking generally, not specifying priest, minister, rabbi, imam, etc. Our military, prison and hospital chaplains need to be included in that usage, to assure equal standing with the other clergy running around.

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posted March 14, 2009 at 11:14 pm

I’m enjoying reading your posts and I agree with you about clergy for the most part. Although I do call myself a clergy person sometimes. When I’m appearing on panels with people who call themselves Reverend or Father I ask to be called Lady.
I just want to mention something about UUs and sermons. I have been a member of two different UU congregations. UU Sunday services are based on the Protestant model but in my experience their regular “sermons” are much more like lectures. Although both the congregations I belonged to were in college towns and that may have affected things.
As for Albert the Abstainer’s point about political action. I think it would be much easier for Pagans to rally around specific political action organizations, and organizers, than to agree on clergy standards. Look at Starhawk.

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Screen name to follow

posted March 15, 2009 at 1:18 am

I think I have to disagree with the semantic grounds of this argument: ‘Clergy’ has come to refer to certain types of religious functionaries, and I don’t think it’s a term any Pagan would deny to those of other, less-institutionalized religions, so there’s no sense denying it to those among ourselves who fulfill those roles among the religious community.
One could certainly claim that Pagan clergy will not or should not be ‘synonymous’ with what certain religions …say, is synonymous. But, I don’t believe in synonyms. Each word is different. Carries certain meanings beyond the definitions we may like to impose.
In a way, this is the point of such interfaith endeavors as generally use the term ‘clergy.’ To understand differences on an equal footing, whatever our practices may be.
Within our communities, this is an ‘issue’ we all have to deal with, and doubtless will, as we deal with everything. I think if we’re wise and aware, we won’t let our clergy be defined by someone else’s practices, nor, I hope, will we let someone else’s practices prevent us from even looking at it. I think what we need, really, are to find our own terms, rather than arguing about someone else’s. In the meantime, we know who our ‘clergy’ are. :)

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posted March 15, 2009 at 11:05 am

I’ve spent some time pondering everyone’s viewpoints. I’m amazed and delighted at the depth of wisdom and intelligence displayed by the people posting here. Nevertheless, I’ll add my two cents as well
Gus, you’d mentioned that “words have enormous power”. I agree with you that they do. But that should not cause us to fear them. We need to master the word Clergy so that it has the meaning we intend for it.
Many words have varied meanings. Consider the title “Doctor”. If you’re introduced to someone as Dr. John Doe, you don’t know whether he’s a physician (M.D. or D.O.), veterinarian, dentist, psychiatrist, podiatrist, psychologist, someone with a Ph.D using the title – you get my point. But people who are eligible to use that title don’t fear using it because of others’ preconceived notions of what qualifies a person as a doctor. If you want to know what type of doctor he is, you have to ask.
I think people who want a Pagan clergy desire accessibility to the same services that are available to the followers of any other religion. Some will never need to seek out someone in the Pagan clergy. But for those who will, why should they be denied the opportunity?

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Gus diZerega

posted March 15, 2009 at 2:16 pm

Just a few points to stir the broth.
Of course words do not have ‘essential’ unchanging meanings. They shift all the time.’ According to Wikipedia it is both varied and, interestingly, NOT used in Judaism or Sunni Islam, neither of which are very hierarchical. And this brings me to Screen Name’s point. I would never call a Sun Dance Priest ‘clergy.’
These changes in meaning are rarely if ever controlled. We COULD change its meaning by enlarging it. But we would be butting up against its historical association with religious hierarchy (my first argument) and second, its overwhelming association with a Christian approach to the Sacred and the people would change us as we change it (my second argument). (I have a third, but will post it only when this discussion dies down.) Given how few of us there are and how deeply rooted the term is culturally, and the increasing pressures for us to be ‘respectable,’ I have little doubt that as a community we would change more than the word.
Cheryl’s choice of the term ‘doctor’ to make her point is a good one for both of us. None of the meanings of ‘doctor’ contradict one another. I am a Dr. of Political Science, but neither I nor physicians will therefore be expected to resemble one another in our actions or training. When a very small but growing religious community adopts the terminology of a vastly larger community which has instilled a very different set of expectations in the word’s meaning, I fear the smaller grop is at risk of losing much of its identity over time.
One quick example, if I am as Clasqm once suggested, clergy in his/her ‘cloud’ sense, it came about while never taking any classes in counseling, but included working six years in a shamanic tradition where my experience was at least as difficult as getting my Ph.D. In some ways much more. But in terms of serving a community whose primary spiritual involvement is through ritual and in that realm of phenomena very loosely termed ‘occult’ and ‘shamanic,’ the training I received was much more valuable than counseling skills.
I leave it to everyone’s imagination which path is most likely to be institutionalized into future training for ‘clergy.’

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David Carron

posted March 18, 2009 at 8:33 pm

“Now let’s compare Pagan priests with Christian clergy.”
Why? A Pagan priest can not be our main connection to the divine. All of us have that connection. This is why we are tree-hugging-dirt worshipers. Specifically, because we all have an ability to connect with the divine.
That said Pagan clergy can do things more effective then the general members. Not because of their position, but because of their dedication, time and effort they have put in. Not everyone can be a counselor, ritualist, researcher or toilet plunger. But those who have the training and desire to do it, can be a good resource for the community. How is that a bad thing?

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posted March 19, 2009 at 9:43 am

Just to say that the best Unitarian addresses (not called sermons) leave the hearers to draw their own conclusions from the thoughts offered by the speaker.
Also, the training offered at Cherry Hill looks very Pagan and not at all conforming to mainline Protestant expectations.
But your point about words and the majority understanding of them makes more sense to me than the first argument.

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posted March 31, 2016 at 3:26 am

halooo goood

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