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A Pagan's Blog

The Perils of Pagan Clergy, Third (and Final?) Argument

I wonder whether many people’s interest in having a Pagan clergy is because we have yet to really separate church from state adequately in this country.  Other than legal issues caused by not adequately separating church and state, can any one name an issue where having a clergy would enable us to do something we would like to be able to do?

Consider the issue of marriage, where some benighted folks have their knickers in a knot over the possibility that gays will marry.  Marriage as it exists today consists of the incestuous mating of two irreconcilable traditions.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

First there is the legal status of being married, which can include, but need not, the status of parent.  This is not religious in any sense.  Then there is the religious meaning attached to two (or more) people choosing to unite.  That is utterly separate.  Civil unions can provide the legal standing and churches, covens, sanghas and what-have-you can provide the marriage ceremonies.  I already know of Pagans who have ‘married’ in ways our society would not support legally.  Doesn’t seem to affect their marriage at all.


What about dying and burial?  As we grow in legitimacy, as we are, it will be increasingly possible for a person’s coven mates to visit to be present in the final moments of physical life, should he or she so desire.  As to burial, the government has a legitimate interest in making sure dead bodies are disposed of safely, and maybe protecting other public values as well.  So long as those standards are met, government should have no say whatsoever as to whether we preach, dance, drink ourselves silly, cry, laugh, or what have you at the final services.  

What about prison ministry? Here I have some first hand experience.  I visited prisoners on numerous occasions while teaching in Walla Walla, Washington, where a major penitentiary is located.  I did not counsel on a one on one basis, nor was that either sought or expected of me.  I taught them some aspects of ritual that they could use in the confines of their own cell, we practiced those methods together, I answered questions, and I listened.  That seemed enough for them, but if they had wanted counseling, a person trained in those skills would have been better qualified.  

What was crucial about my being able to visit these men was that the minister in charge of prison ministry at Walla Walla was tolerant enough to allow me, and also sweat lodge leaders for Native Americans, to meet with prisoners who wanted to practice in these ways.  This openness on his part was both welcome and not always to be expected elsewhere, but in my view interfaith work is the way to approach the issue.  As our interfaith legitimacy grows, it will become ever more difficult for the occasional Fundamentalist or conservative Catholic to legitimately object when a Pagan wants to provide this service for Pagan inmates.

If there are issues of who should or should not be able to visit prisoners in this capacity, local public Pagan councils can vouch for or not vouch for particular people.  We do this all the time.  But we do not need some formal clergy to do this.  Local councils are volunteers and there is no formal training any have in common.

If there is a separation of church and state, why should one’s religious standing affect whether or not we can do counseling and the like?  Counseling involves professional skills.  If I want to go to a Pagan counselor or physician, I will count at least as much on their professional skills as on their spiritual ones.  Maybe more.  One can be a very good counselor and know nothing about drawing down the moon.  Or vice versa.  Keep them separate, then.  Doing good ritual and giving good counsel rely on different skills.

We can easily develop an association of Pagan counselors who are trained in this field AND are Pagans.  Pagans seeking counseling can contact them if they want.  Given that covens are too small to each have such a trained person, I suspect regardless of whether we have a formal ‘clergy’ or not, this or something like it is what will happen.  They do not need any different legal status from a coven priestess or priest to do this job.

What about serving the ‘laity,’ the Public Sabbat Pagans?  Do just as we are already doing!  Here in California’s Bay Area NROOGD does wonderful public Sabbats in the East Bay, Reclaiming has done them in San Francisco.  A Reclaiming rooted group does them in the North Bay.  And so on.  For the life of me I see no reason to change any of that beyond the fact that as we grow in numbers there will be more public Sabbats for people to attend and public “cons” like Pantheacon, as well.  Seeking to ‘serve’ the laity is a solution searching for a problem.  If the ‘laity’ wants even more, they can seek training from a teacher or read books and form their own groups, as many of us have done.  I would suggest that Pantheacon does a better job of serving Pagan ‘laity’ in California than any officially recognized clergy ever could.

We do need more good teachers, but we do not need a ‘clergy’ in order to have them.  Our problem is not having enough bodies, not what those bodies are called.

By the way, for me the term ‘laity’ is as dangerous a term as ‘clergy.’  It suggests a sharp distinction between two groups rather than the complex blends we have as Pagans.  We are focusing on divine immanence, not transcendence.  This means we believe the sacred can be accessed everywhere when approached properly. Therefore the complex areas of life where spirituality and the mundane come together are even more an issue for Pagans than Christians.  For this very reason, I think it would be a mistake creating the clergy/laity distinction. 

If we join those wanting to completely separate government from religion, we will obtain all the benefits of legal clergy status without increasing the already considerable risk of gradually watering down who we are and what we do at a time when our society as a whole desperately needs the insights that Pagans can provide.  There is a great organization I urge every reader to consider joining, one which helped us win the right to have a pentacle on the tombstones of Pagan soldiers who died in service to their country.  It is Americans United for Separation of Church and State

To sum it up, as our numbers increase we will need a larger professionally trained group of Pagans who can do some of the kinds of counseling work that Christians do through their clergy.  But we do not need that kind of institutionalized status to do it, and our traditions and the core of who we are will be safer if we do not seek it  We are on much safer ground to invoke the issue of religious freedom, now that we are widely recognized in the courts and among many religious leaders as a legitimate spiritual practice.

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Rowan Fairgrove

posted March 17, 2009 at 2:04 pm

Looking back to a Classical model, many priest/esses were not “ministers” to laity at all. The duty of the Priest/ess was to the God/desses they serve. Or in some cases to interpret signs from nature and such on behalf of the people.
It is only that the monotheists have so narrowed and distanced their God from the world and taken on so much power-over that they mainly minister to humans. Only if you need to control and govern folk’s behavior, keep them from “sin” and such, do you need ministers.
Trying to fit a very different religious paradigm into a modern model shaped by a foreign culture seems to me to be doomed to failure.

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David Dashifen Kees

posted March 17, 2009 at 2:52 pm

You wrote …
“That seemed enough for them, but if they had wanted counseling, a person trained in those skills would have been better qualified.”
… and …
“We can easily develop an association of Pagan counselors who are trained in this field AND are Pagans. Pagans seeking counseling can contact them if they want. Given that covens are too small to each have such a trained person, I suspect regardless of whether we have a formal ‘clergy’ or not, this or something like it is what will happen. They do not need any different legal status from a coven priestess or priest to do this job.”

To me, this is the chiefest purpose of any clergy person: pastoral counseling. Officiating a religious ceremony (e.g., wedding, funeral, etc.) is something anyone can do. Even more established religious have lay-persons who assist in such things without being full-time priests (e.g., Catholic Deacons).
However, training in pastoral counseling, leadership, and community organization are what I think separates a clergy person from the laity. And, to be honest, none of this needs to be connected to any given Pagan tradition and can probably be learned outside of a seminary or other form of religious schooling.

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posted March 17, 2009 at 6:44 pm

I have carefully read all your arguments on this one Gus. I don’t disagree. I just happen to know of a group of Pagans who, I believe, meet all your criteria for a solution of this problem while simultaneously meeting the definition of “Clergy” that many less educated folks have.
Richard and Tamarra James started The Wiccan Church of Canada more than 30 yrs ago and I think that they have struck a wonderful balance in the work that they do. They have a tradition which is completely open. Any person can walk in off the street and worship with the community, learn at weekly classes and make commitments and eventually forge a training relationship with a personal Teacher. Once an individual puts in enough study work and devotion, obtains the skills and are considered ready by council, they have a degree conferred on them. This makes them “Clergy” to the community, but it is more of a responsibility than a right. They are able and required to teach and lead ritual. Because these opportunities are always open to any and all, the separation is not really a separation of superior/inferior, but rather of, devotion and achievement. Richard and Tamarra serve on Interfaith councils, serve the prisoners in the prisons(In Canada, we have standing to serve prisoners and act as Chaplains in Institutions, ie, University of Toronto has a Wiccan chaplain), help inmates when they are released into society to find housing jobs and integrate into society. They also welcome a yearly delegation from a Mormon College in Utah to ritual in order to foster understanding, regularly do interviews with Authors and Journalists, and contribute to documentaries (One of which I was a major participant in as well, and all of which regularly play on our interfaith television channel). They also constantly speak out to defend the rights of Pagans, most recently when a judge was expelled from a beauty pageant held locally because of her Pagan faith. This work has all been working towards the goal of giving not only the WCC, but hopefully all serious Pagan groups, full legal standing. The James have earned the love and respect of many, and have increased significantly the number and quality of trained Pagans practicing throughout our nation. In their temple, “Clergy” are the servants of the community and all are enriched, those who are served, and those who serve. What is especially heartening, is how very blurry the lines are between these groups, most people act in both ways to each other within the bounds of the community, whether, taking a role in ritual, or accompanying the large group who regularly visit the prisons to perform ritual, share feast, and provide company and community to the lost souls serving time. They have truly learned not only how to “think” outside the box, but how to live it, too.
If any group of people can creatively reinterpret terms which have bound and enslaved us in the past, and make them over into empowering images, it is surely us crazy, wild, free, hard-working, playful, loving Paganfolk, wouldn’t you say?

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Your Name

posted March 17, 2009 at 8:00 pm

Gus, this final argument leaves me a bit baffled as to what you mean by “clergy.” If you mean people empowered to perform certain functions, we already have them and there’s no need for further discussion. If you mean a group of counselors and liturgists set apart from the rest of Pagandom, this would be wholly against most Pagan traditions and is very unlikely to be instituted.
Is there some pressure group, some conspiracy that I don’t know about, trying to impose a clergy/laity split on us? If not, aren’t we locking the barn door before we own a horse?

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posted March 17, 2009 at 9:43 pm

First of all Gus, I agree with nearly all of what you said. “Official” clergy to me means some licensing body, and that in turn will lead to a standardized initiatory structure. That will lead to schisms as sure as night follows day and before you know it we will be just like the Catholic Church at the council of Nicea. As you said, the real reasons are to get recognition with the various arms of the State. How does the Society of Friends do this? Maybe the Pagan community as a whole ought to form a body similar to the American Friends Service Committee?

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Hecate Demetersdatter

posted March 17, 2009 at 10:32 pm

I really don’t want a pagan clergy. I figure I’ll leave enough that Son and DiL can pay the UUs to bury me. The folks at my law borg will be horrified, as I want them to be. Women from my circle and Son and DiL will read my will and make sure that I cross over to the Summerlands as I’d like to cross. Pagans should have wills, just saying.

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posted March 18, 2009 at 4:03 am

As a life counselor, I combine both my pagan and very early christian beliefs too, not the organized religion i grew up and active with during my young years. I try to express my personal beliefs to those I counsel on their individual spiritual issues. This is not I professional, it is done for that those seek me out.
It would be great that I could openly express my beliefs when asked to give a statement on religious beliefs ( like in hospital). If you state the truth in some areas, a person has a tendency to wonder will it come back to “haunt”them later.

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Baruch Dreamstalker

posted March 18, 2009 at 11:11 am

The “Your Name” comment above was mine *blush.*

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posted March 18, 2009 at 11:23 am

Just a note that while chaplains can be very open and helpful with respect to non-Christian religions, it isn’t really up to them – in Canada I know it is a legal requirement that inmates be allowed to practice their religion and have religious visitation, and from things I’ve read this is also the case in the U.S.
I agree with the rest of your article.

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posted March 18, 2009 at 1:02 pm

I’m a Craft practitioner. Craft, at least as I learned it, does not hold the “clergy/laity” division. Other Pagan Trads, however, do.
And the dominant Euro-American culture cluster does, too.
And I suspect that we have to consider the religious backgrounds of the many converts in to Paganism, They mostly come from a “clergy/laity” background. Maybe they want to replicate some familiar attributes and characteristics of their old religions.
Let me add that this series of posts and repsonses has been very instructive. Thanx!
P>S> The capcha function does not give enough time to post.

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posted March 18, 2009 at 6:50 pm

This has been a fine series of thought provoking articles.
Some thoughts of my own…
You want to marry – get a license,
You want to counsel – get a degree,
You want to preach – go ahead.

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Singing Bear

posted March 18, 2009 at 7:49 pm

To a great extent I agree with your article, there is a division however on one point.
Should I or any other person attain the academic credentials required to be an Institutional Chaplain, Graduate Degree in a related field, and Clinical Pastoral Education, that person should have equal access to employment. In particular they should be eligible for employment at any State run institution.
This is not the case with the State of California, and the “five faiths” policy of its prison system.
The case of Patrick McCollum is fundamentally to me a religious discrimination case. Furthermore as I read the First Amendment it clearly violates access to employment based on Religious Preference.
To the exception of this issue I found your article well reasoned and insightful. Thank you
Singing Bear

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David Carron

posted March 18, 2009 at 8:45 pm

“If we join those wanting to completely separate government from religion, we will obtain all the benefits of legal clergy status without increasing the already considerable risk of gradually watering down who we are and what we do at a time when our society as a whole desperately needs the insights that Pagans can provide.”
And here is an argument that has some heft to it. There is one problem, however and it’s a procedural one. If all religious institutions should not be acknowledged or certified by the government, what does that have to do with Clergy?
By definition it is those groups getting said certification that make their rules as to what is clergy. So the government really doesn’t stand in their way. It is those groups and organization who make said decisions. In fact, my recollection is that Covent of the Goddess would mail you certifications without any significant restrictions. So your issue is really just a straw man.
“We do need more good teachers, but we do not need a ‘clergy’ in order to have them. Our problem is not having enough bodies, not what those bodies are called.”
I’ll agree with this statement. That’s why we need more Rabbi’s then Priests.

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posted March 18, 2009 at 10:10 pm

Hi Gus,
I just read your article and I am not sure what to say, seeing that I am in direct opposition to you. I have a problem with your argument in several areas. The first one being, cutting all spiritual guidance out of our communities and only being able to seek advice from a professional. I am pagan and I am also in training to be a psychologist. Your theory just does not work with this for several reasons. Firstly, seeing a therapist is expensive (and some people’s insurance doesn’t cover it at all). Secondly, a therapist would starve if they waited for pagans to come and seek their advice because it is so much easier to go to your spiritual leader whom you trust (and its cheaper). Another part to that is the prejudice that that the therapist would go through from the psychological community-I have already seen this hatered for the “spiritual therapists” and it’s hard to stick to your convictions. I don’t think many would be able to hack it. Thirdly, it wouldn’t be a problem that pagans go to their leaders for advice if the leaders were part of a clergy and had gone through training to give proper advice within their tradition on spiritual matters. Standards is what we need to create, not breaking them down. This brings me to my next concern with your theory.
Allowing traditions to do what ever they want to do to their students without answering to a board of pagan authorities creates cults. I speak from personal experience in this matter…I was part of a group that had no standards and they allmost ruined my life with their minipulative behaviors. What they were doing was completely unethical and I truly believe that if their was a regulated clergy or orthodoxy that wouldn’t happen as much. It’s not that I want to take traditions’ uniqueness away, I want their to be a standard ethical code (and the rede doesn’t cut it) and training for anyone who wants to be in a position of power to uphold. This would give people direction in the resurection of creating a new tradition, and not allowing horrible people to be in a position that has power over others.
Only when we can achieve this, can we know the training we recieve is legitimate/safe, and we can organize to do other great things for our communities.

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Chip O'Brien

posted March 18, 2009 at 11:29 pm

Thanks for writing this, Gus– you bring up some good points, though I ultimately disagree with most of them.
The passage I had the most trouble with was this:
“To sum it up, as our numbers increase we will need a larger professionally trained group of Pagans who can do some of the kinds of counseling work that Christians do through their clergy. But we do not need that kind of institutionalized status to do it, and our traditions and the core of who we are will be safer if we do not seek it.”
These two ideas– a professionally trained group of counselor-Pagans and a non-institutionalized status for them– can’t coexist. If the priesthood isn’t institutionalized, if there are no universal quality standards of Pagan religious education implemented and overseen by the same board of officers, where are we going to get professional training? I’ve seen a few comments here suggesting that Christian clergy and the Pagan priesthood would basically serve the same function, so Pagans can simply get their training in Christian seminaries. This simply isn’t true (I had the same thought for awhile and even looked into a few applications). Christian institutions are tailored to the Christian faith, with strong emphasis on practices that simply don’t suit us: writing effective sermons, spreading the Good News, counseling the laity about how to preserve Christian values that may be anathema to ours (attitudes toward sex come most easily to mind). What’s more, it would be a terribly hollow experience for the studying Pagan and disrespectful at best to his Christian peers, cheapening their own educational experiences. Is this how we ought to begin our study to better serve our community and our faith: by pretending to serve, to love, someone else’s god?
Second, fear of being institutionalized: there is a strong, almost allergic revulsion of authority in our community that I don’t entirely understand. You are right: if we assimilate ourselves into the modern culture’s understanding of religious authority, the chance exists that our values may erode. We may forget our purpose and the heart of our spirituality. We may see priests who abuse their positions of power, who steal money they’re given in charity or otherwise further their own interests by using the devotion of their community.
But, well– this is a chance I’m willing to take. There will be corruption, inevitably; but there will be Pagan leaders who can inspire our community, organize us when we would otherwise fall into the usual bickering factions, bring out the best in us when we’re able to do it ourselves, but we simply forget. I understand the freedom of being an invisible community, but without leadership, we don’t have organization– and without organization, we have no social or political power. We’re willingly abandoning ourselves to a vulnerable position and failing to harness the potential power an organized Pagan movement may have to improve the world.
I don’t want to ask my office worker friend to marry my partner and me. I don’t want to search for a priestess and wonder whether she’s run this ceremony before, whether she’s studied our traditions or just another New Age opportunist out to suck our community dry. Ultimately, I don’t want to remain as we are now: bereft of role models, utterly lost when we fall into depression and spiritual questioning because there’s no one we can talk to except our peers, who don’t know any more than we do. This isn’t about surrendering my personal power so someone else can provide my answers on a plate– it’s the fact that I don’t have all the time and resources I’d need to be comfortable with myself as my only spiritual authority. In rough times, even the best of us may need some help hearing the gods again.

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Chris McC

posted March 19, 2009 at 6:01 am

I must whole heartedly agree with Mr DiZerega. A “pagan” clergy is simply aping the christian idea of proper religious organization. Our ancient predecessors in many of the modern pagan paths did not have a priest class. An elder class to be sure but priests, no. Out side of the Hellenistic path a historical president does not largely exist. I believe that most of our forbearers simple used the eldest among them to be the leaders of worship. Christianity was the first group to designate those of special learning to be above the merely adherent. The moment we declare a priestly class in any of our pagan faiths it becomes something else. Suddenly we lose the ability to commune with the god or goddesses with out the special presents of a priest. There will become a right way and a wrong way. We will become exclusive and we can look forward to the petty bickering of various sects to become full on doctrinal battles around a slowly hardening dogma. Why do we need priests?

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posted March 19, 2009 at 10:00 am

I think we do need a collective noun for the various functions you describe (shaman, priestess, visionary, healer, counsellor, teacher) even if that word is not to be “clergy” (which does come from the Christian tradition, meaning someone who can write, presumably; so rabbis weren’t clergy because all Jews could write, unlike the illiterate Christians!)

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Baruch Dreamstalker

posted March 19, 2009 at 10:21 am

I can see a third way between Chris and Chip’s positions.
First, I don’t see elders as a substitute for clergy. I’m an elder, but I know my limitations. My strengths are in ritual liturgy and occasionally spotting a connection within what someone is saying that they don’t see if they talk long enough. I’m not suited for regular consultation.
My wife, otoh, is a trained counselor. She’s also an elder, and she’s doing pro-bono counseling for one of our coven members. Her training was entirely secular. Here is a model for Pagan clergy. It needs some tweaking, but the basic model is there.

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posted March 19, 2009 at 4:07 pm

An earlier commentor said:
“Allowing traditions to do what ever they want to do to their students without answering to a board of pagan authorities creates cults.”
Exactly what sort of oversight do you suggest we give, and what will be the standards by which people are judged?
For example, is nudity a forbidden thing?
Oh, of course not, you say, that’s obvious.
Won’t someone think about the children?
What about legal issues – is your board going to kick people out/decertify them if they are found to be violating the law of the land?
Well, I guess they’ll have to rule out anyone who practices British Traditional Wicca in Massachusetts, as double edged weapons blades are against the law there.
THIS is why we should NEVER have one standard group trying to make the rules for all of the various Pagan or NeoPagan groups – there is no standard that all of them hold.
The people who are my teachers in the Craft are NOT licensed counselors, and I do not expect them to have the qualifications of such.
They have day jobs. They do not exist (as the Wica) to serve anyone else but our Gods.
The training and teaching they provide has one object – to ensure the proper worship and service of our Gods.
From their practical experience in the world, and being able to hold down jobs and stable relationships, I know they can provide some advice that might approach pastoral counseling.
But I also know that they know what their limits are, and will tell me to go see a professional for anything beyond their expertise.
Oh, my, a professional costs money?
Why, yes, they do.
I wouldn’t go to someone who is a Pagan leader, not even my own High Priest or High Priestess, and ask for medicinal herbs for healing major sicknesses, even though some of our training includes learning the medicinal qualities of herbs.
I will go to a professional, a doctor.
As for your suggestion, seerkind that “It’s not that I want to take traditions’ uniqueness away”, that’s hogwash.
“I want there to be a standard ethical code (and the rede doesn’t cut it) and training for anyone who wants to be in a position of power to uphold.”
As soon as you figure out one standard ethical code, you have gone against the uniqueness of various traditions.
How so? As soon as you suggest, for example, that it’s unethical to charge for religious training (which is a common standard in BTW), you will have lost the allegiance of the Afro-Diasporic religions which do allow for payment for religious teachings.
In short, keep YOUR standards out of the privacy of the coven and tradition to which I belong, we’re doing just fine, thank you.
Gus, I agree – Priests and Priestess should NOT be required, and should not, as Priests or Priestesses, be expected to undergo training in any specific profession, because that would create a professional clergy – meaning that there MUST be pay for pray.

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posted March 19, 2009 at 6:49 pm

In response to MP,
I don’t know what crawled up you and died, but there is no need to be so condesending, especially when it comes to professional counseling. And get your facts straight-I absolutely believe in paying for spiritual services you attend and recieve. Priests and Priestesses have day jobs like you say, but having a clergy and temples sanctioned by the government would allow gifted people like your leaders to do what they do best-be priests. And no, I do not believe that the code would be strictly adhere to laws (such as the British Tradition you spoke of)It would be more like a basic training in leadership and ethics. I will repeat myself, if you let just anyone run a “coven” people get hurt. And Jonestown is a perfect example of that! If there were a board of inspectors that could make sure that people are not being mistreated.
It would also allow the spiritual “consumer” to know that the group they are going to follows a code. There are many baby pagans that go looking for groups not knowing what is legit and what is not, and wind up in a really horrible situations where they can be hurt.
It wouldn’t be so much different than what goes on now in groups with hierarchy-it would just be an option for group leaders to persue if they wanted to declare that they have sworn to a “code” that says they deserve to be leaders (and by this I mean that I do not feel that criminals and crack heads are in a place to lead others) and they promise not to hurt their students…
I could go on and on, but really it is just an idea, because if you like that pagans are split like this, then wallow in your own anarchy and when our religion ceases to be what it intends to be don’t blame anyone but yourselves.

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Franklin Evans

posted March 19, 2009 at 8:13 pm

Well, after several years working on and promoting secular community for pagans in my region, including a failed attempt to get a physical community center built (so to speak), I can say anecdotally at least that pagans do not want the degree of structure necessary to support a full-time clergy.
I’ll leave that part at that, because I believe there is a more fundamental issue at stake here.
What is the role of clergy in the community-at-large? Some (I’ve read all three threads) have mentioned shamans. With due respect to my pagan fellows who call themselves shamans, the role is invalid unless it has a community context. For myself, I say that I follow a shamanic path, but I do not call myself a shaman.
I apologize for not remembering who to cite, but the issue really is intermediation. Organized religion is about going to another human for spiritual “sustenance” in ways not possible for an individual in the course of everyday life. I recall usages from reading about pagan Rome: there were the temples in which priests and priestesses of gods acted as intermediaries (and sometimes avatars) of gods; there were also “household gods”, and family members individually and together offered small rituals to them.
Modern monotheisms have elements of both of those precedents. IMO the conflict is not over whether one has clergy, the conflict is in whether one gives over to clergy more or less of a role as intermediaries. Monotheisms give the vast majority of the role to clergy, with some of them making it a crime for an individual to act in that role without hierarchical sanction.
Pagans are at the opposite end of the spectrum from the monotheists. We are our own mediators with deity. We will assist one another in some things — I’ve attended ritual, with a profound effect on me, conducted in ways I’d never be able to do myself — but we look to ourselves first.
I gently and respectfully submit that with so many pagans being ex-Christians, there is some conditioning towards structure, hierarchy and the accompanying expectations. Part of being a pagan is having different expectations.

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Gus diZerega

posted March 19, 2009 at 8:15 pm

What a rich tapestry of discussion this issue has brought forth! And only one really seriously objectionable comment, which I will address below.
I want to make a few points regarding mostly posts with which I disagree or have some doubts. Remember I write this as a Wiccan.
First, Cassandra describes the truly impressive accomplishments of Richard and Tamarra James. (See ) I agree with her that if we Wiccans can develop a framework for a larger organization with some kind of overall structure to ensure common standards, the Jameses may well have found it. But I suspect its success is related to its small size, as the power involved in advancing someone to a higher degree rests with a council of initiates. The bigger and more impersonal the pool from which such a council can be drawn, the more traditional problems of organization arise. But for now I agree, it looks pretty cool.
Three related points: their public outreach appears primarily to be providing public sabbats, which is very different from traditional clergy functions. They also do prison ministry – but I have no sense of whether it is akin to what I did, or is more genuine counseling. We’ve covered this issue pretty well in discussion, I think.
Secondly, as to other functions, like handfasting, I think their experience indicates the importance of separating church and state. See question 2.13 at
Finally, their use of ‘clergy’ seems to me to pour new wine into old bottles. It’s a good vintage, but… For reasons I think I’ve said as well as I can, in the long run I think this is disastrous, at least in the US. I don’t know about Canada.
To Baruch’s first point, there is no conspiracy, no bad motives. Everything seems to me above board and honorable on all sides. As jaundiced and others have pointed out, most Qualkers have gotten along pretty well for 300 years, and Jews a lot longer, without a clergy.
Pitch313 hits the nail on the head, I think. Most of us first learned about religion in a Christian context, emphasizing the roles of clergy and laity. It feels complete and comforting in a way less familiar arrangements do not.
BUT it undermines what I and I think all Wiccans take to be the fundamental features of Pagan spirituality. Because we relate explicitly to the Sacred as immanent – in everything – we all have a deep inner connection with the Sacred far stronger than what anyone else can give us. Our teachers (and books) help us to cultivate our own capacities and insight rather than expecting us to rely upon theirs in any open ended way. If perchance I related to the gods only through public Sabbats I would NOT expect to go to a priestess or priest for personal counseling or life guidance, though if they functioned as counselors in a professional capacity, their Pagan status would give me reason to pick them over others otherwise equally qualified.
I don’t follow David Cunan’s point. I have no problem with a tradition certifying someone is a bonafide member, and would still have my COG credentials if I had not forgotten to send in the dues and am too busy to go through the hoops of rejoining. But all you need to join is status in your own tradition and letters of recommendation, and no enemies already in COG. That is as a solitary. COG prefers, and works best, with covens, or did last I knew.
Seerkind and Chip O’Brien make the strongest case here for having a Pagan clergy, and in the process rebut David Cunan’s suggestion I am discussing a straw man. Their men aren’t straw.
Seerkind misread me a bit. I have never advocated cutting spiritual guidance from our community, I advocate not restricting it to ‘clergy.’
Seerkind is right, a Pagan therapist is expensive, like any other therapist. That is why a coven should not expect its primary members to be therapists or imagine it should be a condition for spiritual leadership. I agree entirely with MP’s criticisms of Seerkind’s general arguments.
In addition, Seerkind’s Jonestown example as a rebuttal only suggests to me that he or she has no real experience with Pagans. I visited Rev. Jones’ establishment many years ago when he ran the “People’s Temple Christian Church” in Ukiah, California. I remember much of what I saw there vividly. To say it had ANY resemblance to anything Pagan would be like my saying Seerkind resembles an octopus. If you take exception to people reacting strongly to your ill-informed worries about abuse, you should perhaps offer less insulting and better informed examples of genuine problems with Pagans. We are not perfect. There are problems. (The worst I know of is that of teachers promising secial instructions for sexual favors, hardly a problem just with Pagans.) But NONE like that. Or even close to it.
As to Chip O’Brien’s argument, I just do not see the point. Yes, it’s not always easy to be a Pagan and a counselor. Interfaith work will make it easier. My point is that no amount of seminary training or professional training should ever qualify someone to be a priestess or priest (unless a tradition organizes itself along such lines – and then only within that tradition.) Further, that the term ‘clergy’ should ONLY apply to priestesses and priests, if we are to use it at all, and it should apply to all who are recognized as competent within their own traditions. That would water it down pretty quickly, and I would think that was good.
On the other hand, I applaud people I know who get their priest or priestess credentials from a tradition, and quite separately go to seminary or for professional training in counseling. It is not as hard as Chip O’Brien seems to suggest. I know people who have done it.
That brings me to the discussion between Yewtree and Baruch. I’m with Yewtree. Elder or priest and priestess are just fine. Don Frew has asked to be identified as an Elder in interfaith events if other participants are identified as ‘Reverend” or some such. He finds it works just fine.
The bottom line is that a Pagan priest or priestess’s real function, over all others, is to help lead rituals bringing the gods closer to us in ways we can appreciate, or in helping us develop the capacity to enter into better relations with the Sacred ourselves. That’s the core. I can also be a healer (my strong suit), involved in interfaith (my secondary suit), an herbalist, a counselor, a diviner, or some other function, and that’s great. But our spiritual standing is as priestesses, priests, and elders. I can do any of the secondary things without being a priestess, priest, or elder, but I would not then be a religious leader in the Pagan sense of the term. Perhaps Baruch sells himself short because he buys into the ‘clergy are somehow better trained than we are’ myth.
This has been a long one, but it’s an important and complex issue. Thanks for bearing with me if you got this far!

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Your Name

posted March 19, 2009 at 8:48 pm

In response to Franklin Evans,
Thank you for putting what I was trying to say more eloquently than I did. And I am so sorry to hear that your community center failed. I thought about putting one up (for a general pagan community that adhered to a standard of preserving the earth I might add) but I am seeing that this is impossible because not only do pagans in general have no desire to have their religion flurish in this nation, but are quick to blaspheme anyone who sees greater things for our religion than this counter culture war that we all engage in.
As to Gus’s comment about my parallel to Jonestown, you misunderstood me. I don’t think that is going on, but I wanted to give an extreme example of a group that started out just as any other sect of a religion does and how quickly it can escalate to something as atrocious as what happened. You are mistaken on the fact that I don’t understand pagans; I understand them well, and many new agers make the mistake of thinking that any coven that is established is run by good leaders and is a legit place for them to be-which is not the case. There are lots of groups run by people that have no buisness leading others.
Maybe I am not making myself clear, as I often make the mistake of thinking people understand what makes sense in my head lol. I don’t wish to regulate how leaders run their coven, but to set a volentary service like BBB for pagans that are commited to help people who want to be leaders. If someone ever felt they were being mistreated, hurt, etc. there would be a place for them to go to get help. This shouldn’t be a problem with people unless you have something to hide, or you are a power monger that wishs to seek and destroy. What is so wrong with wanting to help our pagan bros and sisters out, or giving the newbee a marker of comfort when they seek out their first group?

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Franklin Evans

posted March 19, 2009 at 10:08 pm

Seerkind (Your Name March 19, 2009 8:48 PM if I get the references right), I must clarify that the motivations for structure are different, not the desire(s) for it.
There’s another can of worms implied here, so please take this on that basis: pagans do not need structure.
It goes beyond church and state, though IMO that points to the problem as a symptom, not the problem itself. To be blunt: community is the goal, whatever the details involved in forming it, preserving it and passing it on to the next generation.
Our secular community, such as it is, seems to be sufficient for most of the pagans I’ve counted as the constituents of the organization I belong to and currently lead. I see that as somewhat ironic, and more than a bit positive, because the balance would be towards a lack in their lives, for which they would be more motivated to see a community center as an important goal.
So, while Gus is pursuing a very important issue here, from the angle I take it is putting the horse before the cart. Form a pagan community, and clergy — in whatever form it needs to take — will develop. For now, and for the foreseeable future, pagan community will be small, focused on a specific tradition as we see with WCC, and its scope will only reach as far as those within it want or need.

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Franklin Evans

posted March 19, 2009 at 10:12 pm

Good gosh, did I really Freudianly slip? My last paragraph should start:
So, while Gus is pursuing a very important issue here, from the angle I take it is putting the cart before the horse.

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Jim Wilson

posted March 21, 2009 at 4:20 pm

Good Friends:
I’d like to toss into the mix here that there are some Christian traditions which do not have a separate clergy yet they do have legally recognized marriages. Quakers are the main example, but there are some Anabaptist traditions that fall into this as well. (There are some branches of the Quaker tradition which have developed a clergy, but most still adhere to a non-clergy form.) Two people who want to get married attend a Meeting for that purpose, take their vows in front of the assembled, and that’s it. To make it legal all the people who attend sign the relevant documents as “witnesses”. As far as I know this is legal in all states.
The clergy vs. non-clergy debate might be enriched by looking at those traditions which have managed to maintain a non-clerical form and how they address organizational issues that have been raised here.

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Gus diZerega

posted March 23, 2009 at 6:30 pm

I am glad Seerkind has clarified those remarks. But we need to be clear that there is not and has never been and association of very many people that has lasted for any length of time that has not had bad leaders and abusive people in authority. Positions of leadership and authority attract such people, and turn even normal people into elitists who under estimate the capacities of others.
Organizing everybody just makes the attraction of such positions all the greater. I prefer to keep those with High Priestess Disease or High Priest Disease at the retail level, where it is easy to leave. You might take a look at the early history of the Christian Church, as in Elaine Pagels’ Beyond Doubt to see how even a very decentralized group can go wrong.

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Franklin Evans

posted March 24, 2009 at 9:07 am

First seen (by me) in the writing of Frank Herbert: It’s not that power corrupts per se, it’s that power attracts the corruptible.
To my eye of history, term limits embedded in law (as in the US) is a direct response to this observation of reality. A spiritual group that has an analog for term limits in its leadership may not exist (Quakers, does it ring true for you?), but it looks like an interesting idea.

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Crystle Opp

posted July 27, 2014 at 9:07 am

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Ramiro Freudenberg

posted August 9, 2014 at 7:51 am

That is a very good tip particularly to those fresh to the blogosphere. Short but very precise information

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posted August 27, 2014 at 2:40 pm

Hello there! I know this is kinda off topic nevertheless I’d figured I’d ask. Would you be interested in exchanging links or maybe guest writing a blog post or vice-versa? My site addresses a lot of the same topics as yours and I think we could greatly benefit from each other. If you are interested feel free to send me an e-mail. I look forward to hearing from you! Great blog by the way!

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