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The case against “Pagan Clergy” 4.0

posted by Gus diZerega

There has been considerable discussion within our community for many years about whether or not we should have a “Pagan clergy.”  I think this is a very positive development because it gets us thinking positively about who we are as a spiritual community.  We are confident enough, many of us, to be thinking about how we will manage when we are significant numbers within a community.  And this means how do we relate to its existing religious organizations? Over at Agora,  the great new portal at Patheos, Adrian Hawkins posted a discussion of the Pagan clergy issue worth taking a look at, as well as of the comments that followed.  She used the term Pagan Leadership” which I like.  I thought of posting my own contribution, but as is my way, it became an essay.  So it is appearing here.

I have long been on record as on the more negative side of this discussion.  In discussions with other Pagans I have shifted  over time from deep dislike to a more moderate position that remains suspicious of the entire idea but admits real issues exist that a clergy status could solve.  With that preamble, I want to bring up a new perspective on the matter. Call it discussion number 4 as I had three very good previous discussions, good not only because I was happy with what I wrote, but because the ensuing discussions by readers were excellent as well.  You can access them as

essay 1 ,

essay 2,

essay 3,

If you go to any please know that in my opinion the comments are as valuable as what I wrote.

If we look at early hunting and gathering Pagan societies we see no clergy.  What we observe are shamans and medicine people, sometimes generalists and sometimes specialists, who provide for their people and are in turn supported by them.  They consistently provided healing and divinatory services. I bring this up to make the point that “clergy” is not a term that is intrinsically related to being a spiritual or religious leader.

As these societies adopted agriculture, became more settled, and social differentiation began to increase this early pattern changed.  Shamans often became hereditary rather than chosen by the spirit world with little regard for family. Alongside of shamans (I am using the term broadly) priests and priestesses began to differentiate into their own religious niches.  They became specialists at ministering between the community and the Gods within a context of collective devotion, and sometimes did services similar to those of shamans, but within a far more formal and structured environment.  Great temples arose dedicated to particular deities or groups of deities. The gulf between people and priests and priestesses grew. Much of this is discussed in Robert Torrance’s excellent The Spiritual Quest.

I think this tendency to develop and differentiate is innate. Once a society becomes more complex, status seems to be increasingly attached to roles over personalities.  When some roles are obviously more important than others, this is all the stronger.  This development is even more true as a society grows in numbers.  Being the intermediary between people and their deities is pretty intrinsically a high status position.

As it developed the Christian Church amplified this trend, for it added demands for doctrinal orthodoxy while claiming to monopolize all access to the Sacred. Competition was violently suppressed. Organizationally the Catholic hierarchy is modeled on that of the Roman Empire, and is as responsive to the laity as the despotic emperor was to the people. This was the environment in which the idea of the clergy developed. The concepts is rooted in ideals of church hierarchy and spiritual authority.  It is applied to some denominations that are self-governing enough to hire and fire their ministers, but even here he, and increasingly she, is  in a position of authority very much unlike a Pagan priest or priestess.

Modern society is as different from those blessedly gone old agricultural orders as they were from the hunting and gathering cultures who preceded them. Agriculture was characterized by huge majorities of the very poor and illiterate.  Industrial modernity is characterized by the dominance of the middle class, with the poor as a minority group, and near universal literacy.

Agricultural societies were increasingly based on hierarchy and everyone knew his or her place in the political, social, and divine pecking order from Europe to India to China. I imagine in the Indian empires as well, though they had not existed as long, and I do not know much about them. Modern society has steadily lowered the legal privileges that create different hierarchies.  We are living through at least two such steps right now: if marriage is for love, why shouldn’t people who love one another get married?  Many Americans, more all the time, say they should.  In Christianity the spiritual hierarchy between men and women and in some cases between straights and gays is being challenged and transformed among many churches as women and gays become clergy.  (We are also living through an attempt both secular and religious to reimpose pre-modern values, but that is another post.)

In fact, a defining quality of modern societies is a huge expansion of the realm of choice in people’s occupations, politics, religion, marriage, and indeed everywhere else in their lives.  Organizations seek to push back against this trend, but historically they have been far more on the defensive ore than the offensive.  In the process people became legally equal to one another and not dependent on hierarchies.  In Christianity, Protestants successfully challenged the static Catholic hierarchy, but their emphasis on doctrinal orthodoxies of their own generally empowered organizations and clerical hierarchies of their own. Today the church splits and splits and splits because the claim to ultimate doctrinal authority is not compatible with maintaining religious dogma in a free society.  Too many people think they have it, and as a result the rest of us become increasingly certain no one has it.

In other words, the idea of clergy is an inheritance from hierarchical agricultural views of reality plus the needs to create an organization able to monopolize and enforce doctrinal orthodoxy. People are supposed to think and act in an approved way and the clergy are those who can teach and explain this approved way of thinking and acting. That is their major job.  The rest, counseling, marrying, and burying, goes with it, but is not so central. But modernity undermines such outlooks everywhere.

Synonyms revisited

In Pagans and Christians I first brought up the significance of comparing synonyms between “clergy” and “priest.” I went a little deeper in my second Beliefnet discussion.  I want to go more deeply yet. Synonyms for clergyman includes ecclesiastic, churchman, cleric, divine, man of the cloth, man of God, priest, minister, chaplain, father, pastor, parson, preacher, rector, vicar, dean, bishop, canon, presbyter, deacon, reverend, and clerk in holy orders.  Hierarchy and orthodoxy are biases built in to the concept of clergy because so many of these other terms are intimately associated with these values. Only one of these terms crosses over into a list of roles performed by Pagan leaders: priest.  And a Pagan priest is quite different from a Catholic one.  A Catholic priest is supposed to be reliable in his theology.  That is central to the role as is the traditional priestly one of conducting Mass. There is no equivalent among us. Like the Catholic priest, we Pagan priests are supposed to know how to conduct rituals central to our traditions.

Absent among these synonyms are terms central to Pagans, such as priestess, priest, high priestess, high priest, Witch Queen, Magus, healer, medium, shaman, seer, Arch Druid, Druid, diviner and similar terms.  Most of these terms focus not on who the person is within an organization, or hierarchy, but rather on a job or service to the larger community. None in Wicca and so far as I know, none elsewhere have even the remotest connection to doctrinal responsibilities.  Pagan Priests get persnickety far more regarding whether the ritual was performed “correctly” than on whether a person has an orthodox understanding of the Gods.

Significantly the one monotheistic term I know of that has some relevance to Pagan terms is “prophet.” The monotheistic prophet claims to speak for the only God.  A Pagan in trance can speak for one of many Gods and, as Socrates demonstrated in the Phaedo, other kinds of spirits as well. What the prophets claimed to do wholesale, those Pagans going into incorporative trance with deities or other entites do all the time retail.  The Christian clergy for the most part is deeply invested in claiming the time of prophets is long past.

Modern NeoPaganism

Because of the extreme flattening of hierarchy and focus on Sacred Immanence NeoPagan priests seem to me more closely connected with how spiritual leadership occurred in hunting and gathering functions than to agricultural society ones.  But very few have undergone the years of training and apprenticeship that was characteristic of many of those societies.  However there is a kind of replacement.  In a sense the coven is a collective shaman. In a long functioning coven that does not focus on training newbies the High Priest and High Priestess are usually only a slight bit removed from their coveners in skill, and in some skills they may be inferior. Some coven members might be better at doing healings or divination.  Upon initiation everyone in my tradition is a priest or priestess and so in principle able to become a High Priest or High Priestess. Covens are a kind of democratization of shamans and traditional Pagan priests and priestesses.  And, given enough years of growth and practice, some senior Pagans seem themselves to have become shamans.

We need to think deeply about these differences between us and the Christian clergy because in others’ eyes a hypothetical Pagan clergy will be associated with the broader meaning of clergy in our society. Further, those priestly tasks least connected with being clergy will have a tendency to be short changed, and those tasks are most closely related to who we are.

We do not need a legally recognized “clergy.”  There are successful role models.  Jews and Quakers do not have clergy, and each synagogue or temple has always been independent.   They do very well.  Rabbis are known for their individual qualities, not their being a rabbi.  The word means “teacher.” As I understand Quaker meetings, everyone is equal.  There are those who do administrative work, but they have no spiritual authority nor are they regarded as being of greater spiritual weight than others. There are no pastors or even elders.  No one is paid to conduct a meeting. The light of God is in everyone.  Jews, like most of us, have much more structure to their services, but they have done it for over two thousand years without even a priesthood.  There is no clergy.

If they do not need it, and can make successful accommodations with the government, why do we need it?  Jews and Quakers marry, get buried, and some even break the law and go to the slammer.

There is another problem for us that is linked intimately to who we are. Thirteen people just can’t support anyone, and likely wouldn’t do it even if they could.  Professional opportunities currently exist only outside Pagan organizations.  I think that will remain the case for a very long time to come.  To do these jobs well the training needed will not be as a High Priestess or High Priest.  For us to be represented in these areas we need trained people, but we do not need some way of recognizing a formal clergy.  And the High Priest and High Priestess will have to have day jobs or trust funds. There is a disconnect between the basic Pagan priestly functions and the jobs performed by a trained clergy that it makes sense for Pagans to perform.  I would go farther.  I would suspect a tradition where its priests and priestesses were paid would be a tradition where spiritual vitality would gradually depart.

In The Jew in the Lotus, a wonderful book on interfaith and relations between Jews and Buddhists, the Dalai Lama invited a group of prominent Jewish leaders to Dharamsala to help them get a better understanding how to survive a prolonged exile, as Jews have. What the rabbis told them was that activating the laity as more than supporters for monks was the key to survival.  Cultivate a strong Buddhist laity, people who seek to integrate their Buddhism with their lives rather than supporting monks as teachers and ritual leaders and hoping for incarnation as one next time around.  Modern society is tough on any religious hierarchy inherited from agricultural times, and that is all of them.

We are already in tune with the long trend in Western spirituality.  Why use antiquated and inappropriate models for ourselves in the future? I guess I have come to the conclusion that even raising the issue of should we have a clergy gets us off on a possibly misleading line of thought because it leads us into a cost/benefit analysis of the idea rather than making the more basic point that our spiritual universe does not need that status except for dealings with political authorities, and Jews and Quakers have shown it is not necessary there either.

An Alternative Model

In an earlier discussion of this issue, in a comment  Cassaundra described  the work of Richard and Tamarra James in Toronto as a example of ‘clergy’ akin to what I would like to see arise among us.  I see them as acting in a time-honored way within Pagan societies: a single temple or teacher or group gains such admiration as to win the respect and admiration of the broader community.  Check her out.

I think the James’s accomplishments  or something similar, point the way to the optimal future for us and how Pagan leadership can best emerge. If our community expands, in time temples and sacred places will be created once we are numerous enough to make the needed financial commitments and where the threat of ‘Christian’ vandalism declines sufficiently.  If I had the money I would establish one here in Sonoma County but I certainly wouldn’t in some other places I could name.  Those temples will of necessity have to have governing bodies.  These bodies can allow approved use by others and arrange for qualified counselors and such as well as providing a place for weddings and funerals for those who want them.  There is no need for a clergy.

Something like this seems to be happening already in various New Age conference centers.  Last week the community Brigid celebration was held in a spiritual center used for many alternative and New Age events.   Down in the Bay Area, in Oakland, an old conference hall with a large open floor did the job.  Once the community is large enough it will purchase its own.

Variants of this model have long existed in Pagan cultures.  Temples were largely independent of one another, and the prosperity of any one depended on its reputation, the responsiveness of the rituals done there, and other fairly practical matters decided independently by each person who used, or stopped using, the place.



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Freeman Presson

posted February 12, 2012 at 8:37 pm


This is a silly argument due to a category error. There is no “Pagan” religion or religious organization; “Pagan” is an umbrella term for a million or so small groves/temples/covens/solitaries/etc., each of which needs to decide whether it has clergy or not. One size will never fit all; fortunately, it does not need to.



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Gus diZerega

posted February 12, 2012 at 9:59 pm


It might be a silly argument Freeman, but Pagans have been discussing it as long as I have been involved. Now we have seminaries. You do, however, point to a very serious practical problem that I am glad exists.



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L.S. Alabaster

posted February 12, 2012 at 11:53 pm


After reading your essay, it only entrenched my views even more than our faith is meant to be observed in small groups, covens, and we are trying too hard to become large recognized government administered faith groups which is contrary to what is the base of our faith. Truly, why would we want to become what is not us, not our history, and futhermore like the very institution that has given us such a downtrodden history? Our fiath path is not meant to cater to large groups and institutions but our faith is angles in such as way as to intregate ourselves with nature which can be accomplished much easier with smaller covens, in my opinion. I am writing an essay with strong possibilities of publication. I feel even more assured and validated by your comments. We are on the same page. My thanks for sharing your thoughts.



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Bob Paxton

posted February 13, 2012 at 8:06 am


This was fascinating, in that you arrived at a good model for Pagan religious orgs via deep confusion about what Pagan clergy is and does. You’re sliding way too easily into Catholic-scale excess in what clergy represents.

A comment isn’t the place to explicate all this, but…training and experience matter. Most people who are fortunate enough to have found or created covens (and THAT’S not a trivial thing) live their Pagan lives without need of specialists, and that’s as it should be. Sometimes things get harder — especially at the intersection of faith and government — and it’s good to have trained people who know how to work in that space.

Next point: the organization that ordained me holds 200 acres of gorgeous & varied land which has been walked with magical intent for decades, and where one can practice as a Pagan completely without fear. That land is our cathedral. It’s the kind of place Pagans daydream about – far enough from city lights to see the stars, no loud car stereos, secure enough to hold vigil at a fire all night long. That didn’t arise spontaneously: it took years of many people’s hard work. It also doesn’t just maintain itself.

Marriage: Look up “quaker wedding” on Wikipedia and see how messy things get. It’s not as simple as you’re implying.

Final point: clergy does not equal doctrine. We use shared language in big rituals because it’s the only way to get a wide range of people into shared headspace, but there’s no presumption of universality or “correctness”. Clergy does not equal economic parasitism: most of the ordained Pagan ministers I know keep their day jobs. Clergy does not suppress community: clergy is oath-bound to support it and create ground for it to happen.

In short…I’m an ordained Pagan minister, and I don’t recognize the terrain you’re observing here. Maybe things are different where you live.



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patrick

posted February 13, 2012 at 2:54 pm


ok given the need for people who are sick and solitary the ability for them to to access to someone who shares their core beliefs helps. remember the “clergy” are there for the ones without a group and the person doing this work is helping the craft by being there for a fellow pagan (of any type given you are pagan you have the understanding needed to be there for them) in a time of need.

saying that i dont believe we need to model it after the other beliefs. there is no need for that level of “clergy” in our belief we dont need a governing body as others do but we do need those willing to help when it is needed. I dont believe that they need be HPS or HP. I think a model would be you have a group of ppl who volunteer their time when they have it maybe on-call type thing known to the local hospitals and govt. with this model you could help your fellow pagans and your community at the same time.



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Gus diZerega

posted February 13, 2012 at 7:37 pm


Notice- these are already being done to a significant degree without the term or the legal or organizational status. I think we need to keep all such terms at arm’s length and all such issues that might lead to adopting others’ legal terms away from us as much as we can. We don’t need it and it emphasizes what is not essential to who we are and diminishes what is essential.

I personally think the wish by many to be formal clergy in the wider society has to do with their own desire for legitimation. Fine. Do as I did and get legitimated in your own tradition, as I gather Bob Paxton is.

Please notice again, Jews and Quakers do not have a clergy and do fine. And they are within a tradition with roots closer to those who do have clergy than ours.

Bob – Quaker marriages “Messy”? Doesn’t seem messy to me. You see a problem where I see at most decentralized variety voluntarily taken on. The basic point is that many states will recognize a Quaker marriage based on Quaker witnesses. No clergy involved. Fine by me.



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Bob Paxton

posted February 14, 2012 at 9:05 am


I can’t grant that this work is “already being done to a significant degree without the term or the legal and organizational status.” That’s true for groups working in private, and then only when you can avoid interface with governmental & social hierarchies around you. You’re taking as granted, there in California, a set of conditions that do not exist in some other parts of America.

Re: “messiness” – in the best of all worlds, there are no restrictions (aside from being an adult) on signing a marriage certificate. The state would claim no “gatekeeper” function. That is not, however, the norm. In those places, Quakers (and Pagans and others) must work around the problem in one way or another. That should not be.

Thing is, there are many specialized ministerial functions (hospital chaplaincy, military, prison, civil rights work etc) where an institution’s hierarchy is only really able to respond to another institutional hierarchy. One could duck that question and not engage them…and genuine needs that real people have would remain unmet.

Are those “edge cases”? Yes. As I said before, most Pagans can go about their spirit lives just fine without any of that, and blessed be that it’s so.

But tell me this: in a model where you can call upon trained subject-matter experts who carry titles of some value when dealing with aspects of the outside world, but that can be cheerfully ignored otherwise unless you choose to continue working with them – – how does that “diminish that which is essential”?



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A. Greenflame

posted February 14, 2012 at 5:31 pm


I agree for the most part. My only issue is this: who is going to minister (term used deliberately) to the needs of solitary Pagans and Wiccans when they come to a point that they need spiritual comfort or ministry from outside? I faced this recently. I was contacted by a solitary on behalf of another long-term solitary who found out s/he was dying. The dying person has two teenage boys and everyone suddenly needs spiritual counseling — of course; it’s a very sad situation. There are only a tiny handful of trained priests and priestesses in my greater region, which spans several counties, and all of us work full time and already provide significant spiritual support to our various groups/tribes/and beyond. I could not think of a single person who could help this poor solitary or the children. It is not something I could realistically take on myself.

If we had full time, or even part-time, ministers (which is actually a term I like), we’d be in a better position to serve the needs of people who are not affiliated with a group who suddenly find themselves needing ongoing or significant spiritual comfort and support. And I don’t think some compensation is un-spiritual or out of the question.



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Pitch313

posted February 14, 2012 at 5:44 pm


My understanding of Neo-Pagan Craft and my experience in Craft tells me that there are no lay practitioners of Craft. All priestesses and priests. One big reason I am a Pagan Crafter. DIY, with help and guidance from Deities, Powers, Guardians. I had to. I did.

Like you, I find that the entire clergy-laity model is wrong for Paganism as I know it and want it to be. Deep down, I remain suspicious of why some Pagan folks want to be recognized as “clergy” so avidly.

And the counterpart question, truth to tell, bothers me even more–Why does a Pagan want to be acknowledged in any kind of “laity”?

But then, I cannot define Paganism without active personal practice engaged in magical activities, myself.



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Gus diZerega

posted February 14, 2012 at 8:10 pm


With all due respect I think Bob and Greenflame are putting the cart before the horse. And I think Pitch has made an important point. We do not have a “laity” in the Christian sense. We do have people who maybe get involved only for Sabbats when public ones are available, but as soon as anyone gets seriously involved and initiated, they are not laity. They are priests and priestesses, and so in a sense by definition “clergy” if I have to use the term.

Yes, in the best of worlds (which we do not live in) we wouldn’t have to work around rules established for Abrahamic religions and ignoring all others. But here in Northern California, and elsewhere, concerted interfaith work has in fact led to many decent Christian and Jewish clergy, and others, supporting our being treated well by the government. I was the principle organizer of an Interfaith tree planting in Berkeley with representatives from almost every faith community in the East bay. It was well attended. THESE are the activities that create the web of social support we need to address many of the cases where “clergy” is being treated as a magick word to solve our problems. In fact now we are respected participants in interfaith organizations even at a world wide level, and that is very important.

Remember, Quakers and Jews do work around not having a clergy and they have done so for a very long time. That they are respected by leaders of other faiths is a major reason. But let us assume a worst case scenario and our marriages are not recognized. We get a civil wedding to gain the legal privileges that come with marriage, and then we have the real one, or we have it before. That is possible even in spiritual deserts like South Carolina today.

Of course my argument cuts no ice with ‘christian’ dominionists and their Sauronic allies, but does anyone with a working brain think we would get political support for legal “clergy” status in a society where such as these are powerful? They want to convert or kill us, clergy or not.

Further, for well over 20 years traditions such as NROOGD and later Reclaiming as well, and probably others in other regions, have offered public Sabbats for those who wish to come. Why do we need a “clergy” for that? It is already being done. If there are not enough Pagans willing to do it somewhere, how would adding a “clergy” change things?

Greenflame’s example is a sad one, but the problem here is not lack of “clergy” it is lack of Pagans or a closely enough knit community. A title does not suddenly qualify someone or engender the necessary trust. In fact, given our tendencies, some having “clergy” title and others not would sow divisions.

As our numbers grow there will be more of us with the requisite professional training either because of an increase in competent Elders or because some will be practicing psychology and other helping fields. Word of mouth will bring the best of us to a wider recognition. “Clergy” is not a magick word that will suddenly provide trained professionals in areas where there are very few of us.

If those wanting a Pagan “clergy” would all teach “Wicca 101” classes or the equivalent in their tradition, that would do more for serving our community than seeking to gain some kind of legal status.

I myself have worked visiting Pagan prisoners at the penitentiary in Walla Walla. Friendly relations and a good reputation (I was a college professor and known to a Pagan working in the “pen”) are what was needed. Professional training in counseling would have enhanced my skills considerably and made it easier to get engaged, but official “clergy credentials” were unnecessary.

For the life of me I cannot see why a sick Pagan in a developed Pagan community could not contact a Pagan center or respected Pagans in his or her area if desired and ask to be put in touch with a qualified Pagan counselor. If there are not enough Pagans for a Pagan center of some sort or a few widely known figures, who is paying for the “clergy?”

As for the military, here as well the problem will get better as Pagans become more common in the services and until then just what does it mean to have a Pagan “chaplain?” I am a Gardnerian, with certain oath bound secrets, a Druid Chaplain could not even cast a Gardnerian Circle for me. I suspect something similar works in reverse. I cannot even visualize what this would look like in practice unless we become a large percentage of the population.

Civil rights work? What could a Pagan “clergy” do that the ACLU cannot?

I frankly worry that most of the pressure for a licensed “clergy” comes from two motives, both understandable and both I think inadequate for the change they are asking for. Many Pagans are so committed to their path they would like to make a living while serving the Gods full time. I know am one of them. There is great temptation in thinking once I become a recognized clergy employment opportunities will open up. I know Pagans who are clergy in the sense of having graduated from major seminaries. If they have employment it is not in the Pagan community. I honor those who walk this path but see no reason to, or even know how, it can be institutionalized.

Second, I think many are attracted to having a recognized clergy because it promises legitimacy. In my humble opinion (and I have lost a position because I was a Pagan) that is the wrong motive. We need to get our legitimacy by walking our path our way and setting such an example that others will give it to us without the aid of the law. This is happening. It is happening most quickly in places like Northern California and Massachusetts. That is where most good things start in this country. But they spread.

If a tradition wants to name someone within it a “clergyman” or “clergywoman” there is nothing preventing their doing so. I think it would be an error, but so what? And then they can raise the money to make that person full time if they want to. But a PAGAN clergy?

A Pagan seminary, like Cherry Hill, can provide opportunities for study and training and presumably their graduates will have the professional skills a Christian clergy would have along with a different theology. They would still not be competent priests or priestesses within a tradition unless they were already initiated as such within that tradition. Until they were initiated priests or priestesses within a tradition there are stronger limits to what they can do with others than is the case with Christians, who at least agree on a book. I am NOT denigrating Cherry Hill or any other such place, but I suspect their ultimate evolution will be to become Pagan learning centers for those wishing to deepen their knowledge, not to create “clergy.” One activity out of many will be to offer degrees but once they graduate I do not see significant employment within our community. We just aren’t structured that way, nor do I think we should be.

Being a counselor, however good, need not require being able to cast a circle or conduct a ritual, yet to be a clergy in the church one must be recognized as able to lead a church service. We just are too different and I think it’s a mistake to try and minimize that difference. (I write this as one who went through 6 years of training in shamanic healing and related things as intensive and difficult in my experience as getting a Ph.D. at Berkeley so I am not making light of what we ideally need to know.)

The path we should follow is in many ways the one we are already walking: growing our own institutions in our own way AND working, those of us with the interest, in interfaith projects to make contacts and build respect among those within other traditions. We don’t need a legally sanctioned clergy and it would cause us needless trouble, and I think ultimately much worse, if we had one. Quakers and Jews did not create a clergy to win acceptance and neither should we.



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Eran Rathan

posted February 16, 2012 at 8:54 am


In reply to Pitch,

I consider myself pagan laity – but that doesn’t mean that I cannot or will not do magic. I simply do not feel called to lead others in ritual, or provide counseling (beyond giving advice, as any good friend should do), or any such. I acknowledge my lack of knowledge about a great many things religion-wise, while still trying to follow the footsteps of my ancestors.

But for me to claim the title of priest or shaman would be gross hubris, simply because I understand that it is not my calling to be such.



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Henry

posted February 16, 2012 at 10:22 pm


I think Bob makes a good point:
Thing is, there are many specialized ministerial functions (hospital chaplaincy, military, prison, civil rights work etc) where an institution’s hierarchy is only really able to respond to another institutional hierarchy. One could duck that question and not engage them…and genuine needs that real people have would remain unmet.”
Our coven has been around a long while. We do have 501(c3) status as a religious organisation/church.In terms of the state I have clergy status. I don’t have to rely on ‘good relations’ with other faiths to perform visitations to hospitals, prisons, etc. I can also perform legally binding marriages.
Sure we don’t need a legally sanctioned clergy, but it makes performing those services much easier. It doesn’t rely on the goodwill of any other religious institution.
Just as Rabbi and Cantors might not be ‘clergy’, they are recognised as such for legal purposes. For the purpose of Quaker marriages the registering officer of the monthly meeting is legally recognised as having clergy status for the state certificate.
As to prison visitation, there’s a difference between visiting clergy and chaplaincy.Prison chaplaincy requires institutional certification,so for that function one does need clergy status as defined by law.
That for us is the sole purpose of being legal clergy and recognised religious organisation in our state. It affords us protection under law to practice our rites and services. It really doesn’t matter if any other entities or persons beside the state recognise one of us as clergy. All that matters is that the couple who ask one of to marry them, or the person in the hospital or prison asks us to vist them, recognise us as “clergy” for their purpose.



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Maggie Beaumont

posted February 18, 2012 at 5:24 am


You make an excellent argument for the various Pagan trads to avoid having “priests” the way the hierarchical denominations of our Christian brethren do. But most of the conversations about Pagan clergy that I’ve been in are not focused atall on the notions of doctrine or orthodoxy.

Over at Cherry Hill Seminary (from which I’ve recently retired) we’re training Pagan practitioners in the skills needed to support humans in crisis. The HP and HPs who lead our customary small groups may know their flocks intimately, and may have little hierarchical power (or a lot; groups vary). But do they have the skills to assist a stranger, even a stranger well-trained in their own trad?

In addition to skills training, we Pagans need a way to tell the hospital administrator that “this person is qualified” when one of us is injured or taken ill far from home. While it’s true that the Rabbi’s function is quite different from the RC Priest, it’s also true that the hospital doesn’t necessarily know that. And that Jewish chaplains are as much needed in hospital and their Roman collared peers.

Myself, I dinna think we’ll have much need for paid clergy in our covens, groves, tribes, hives, or congregations. But we desperately need chaplains who understand our worldview and can assist us with our spiritual needs in time of trouble. And we need them to be recognized by the mainstream world.



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Hearth M. Rising

posted March 4, 2012 at 3:35 pm


There are a lot of good arguments pro and con here. The thing about having a paid clergy is that it can help you meet the needs of your members. A pagan family in our community had a serious illness and needed resources and attention. The pagan community did not abandon them, but the Catholic priest saw this, rightly, as an opportunity to win the family back to the fold by devoting more time and energy to their needs than we were able to, with other obligations. The family ended up returning to Catholicism.



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Ieuan Amwythig

posted November 8, 2013 at 5:14 pm


While I agree with much of your argument, I think you wrap too much into the Christian definition of clergy and do not give our communities enough credit for re-defining it for ourselves. I will also argue a bit of semantics with you here. You say Jews do not have clergy, but, at least within the USA, for all purposes where religion and government intersect, such as performing weddings, Rabbi’s are considered clergy. Also, in addition to teaching, they serve as celebrants for many religious rituals. I have always considered Rabbi’s as clergy because of their function in that roll. I am part of a Druid grove of twenty members, with an additional ten to fifteen sometimes participants / visitors who affiliate with us. In my state, if we do not “intentionally set aside and designate” some person or persons as clergy, we would not have anyone who could legally perform a marriage recognized under the laws of our state. The only exception the state recognizes are the quakers, and frankly, we are just not big enough for the legal battle to change that. Also, within our grove there are a couple of people who have trained longer and can teach our traditions and who are able to function as celebrants to help lead and direct the rituals. Also, I would argue even the ancient druids had “clergy.” There were several groups in a druid community, bards as the story tellers, history keepers. There were healers and diviners. The actual Druids in a druid community were clergy. The provided spiritual and religious leadership, and even advised the civil leadership. Christians did not “invent” priests and clergy, even if the modern terms used have become christo-centric. I think we can define clergy to be what we need to meet the needs of our communities. This is just my perspective on the issue.



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