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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.