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 ,
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.
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.
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.