[The following is a panel discussion in four rounds on the topic of "Pagan Clergy," which was published in our magazine, FireHeart, between 1988 and 1993. Some twenty years later, many people throughout the U.S. pagan movement continue to refer to it as a source of stimulating, provocative, and even prescient ideas which remain relevant for our community today. Since we still often get requests asking for reprints of the panel, we are making it available here for greater accessibility; please keep in mind that this piece --- as is true of all the reprints from our publications --- remains under copyright protection, and that all pertinent limitations still apply. The panelists' bios have not been updated, and as a result some of them may no longer be accurate; we chose to retain their original texts because they are germane to the contents of the discussions.]
PANEL DISCUSSION: PAGAN CLERGY
In the Pagan community, becoming a member of the "clergy" depends largely on the dictates and requirements of individual traditions. Pagan priests and priestesses often receive training in such things as ritual, raising and grounding energy, experiencing the ecstatic, and opening to the sacred aspects of nature -- subjects not ordinarily found in the curricula of mainstream seminaries. But the breadth and depth of instruction can vary enormously from one tradition to another. Training usually takes place through an apprenticeship, which can last from a few brief meetings to study over several years, and then initiation.
Rarely, however do Pagan priests and priestesses undergo any formal training in theology, comparative religion, counseling or group dynamics, and almost never within the context of an accredited educational institution. This dearth of rigorous academic training is seen by some people as the major cause of Paganism's lack of credibility in mainstream religious circles. They feel we should begin to meet the standards to which mainstream clergy are subject -- that those very standards test the commitment and suitability of potential clergy, and give them the necessary training and credentials to serve a growing Pagan laity.
On the other hand, the very lack of a commonly held dogma and hierarchical structure has attracted many people to Paganism. The freedom to create their own rituals and to believe what they choose within the context of Paganism's loosely defined tenets is important to them. They feel Paganism's philosophy of immanent deity means that each individual is innately priest or priestess, and the quality of "priesthood" cannot be acquired by receiving a degree or earning credentials.
Furthermore, many Pagans dislike the idea of highly structured, academic training. Such training is often limited to those able to take the time and pay the exorbitant costs of education. They feel that academic training, with its bestowal of titles and degrees, may foster a "better than thou" attitude among its adherents, and that clergy trained in these ways inevitably seek to mediate between the worshipers and the worshipped.
We asked our panel members to comment on these different points of view and to share their own.
Judy Harrow: Again, we're being told that two roads diverge, and that we just can't have the good things that lie along both of them. At times like this, it's good to be a Witch! Magic is the art of changing consciousness in accordance with will. In starlight vision, we may find the little winding trail among the trees, between the roads. Then, with Craft and care, we can again refuse unreal limits.
The debate is about our priesthood. We now realize how helpful it would be to us if our clergy knew how to do some of the things Christian and Jewish clergy routinely do. Our envy is real, but so is our fear that to gain what our neighbors have, we would have to trade off our own most unique and precious ways.
Wicca is normally practiced in groups so small they can fit in the typical living room. In our circles, each face is visible and every voice is heard. Any of us can claim the coven's time, attention and energy at need, and expect to get it. We enjoy intimacy. The members of mainstream congregations, which tend to be large, do not. This is the problem; the typical small, intimate coven traditionally has no more than thirteen members. That's certainly not enough to support a priest/ess. But a group large enough to do so will also need meeting space larger than a living room. Supporting the building fund requires even more contributors. We'd soon be caught in the trap of cash addiction. Before long, we'd be seeing no more than the backs of each other's heads, just like a normal religious congregation. Next, those who could contribute more would also be having a greater say in congregational decisions. This loss of equality within the group, along with the loss of intimacy, would erode belief that the God/dess lives in each of us. Our elders knew what they were talking about: Craft and cash don't mix.
The unpaid priest/ess, because s/he cannot expect financial support, has to hang on to her day job. It's only rational then for her to prepare for a good day job instead of heading for seminary. Few can afford to invest the years and dollars in professional training with no reasonable expectation of using that training to earn a living. The priest/ess's day job also claims time and energy, which limits how much s/he can give to the coven. Still, we surely don't want to avoid the cash trap by having only rich people as clergy. For these reasons, we fear that by avoiding full-time clergy, we doom ourselves to being less than we could be, and less than Mother Earth now needs.
So, we can name the two roads positively as intimacy or competence. We can name them negatively as impersonality or stagnation. However we name them, it seems we must pick one soon. But we need not. Witch vision can show us the footpath through the forest. It will take us to the grove, as always before. The path weaves between the old ways and the new, using some of each. From the good, old ways we must reclaim the practice of apprenticeship. To do so, the first minds we must change are our own. Although the idea that all real education takes place in classrooms is recent and shallowly rooted, it is pervasive. We all needed diplomas to get good jobs. We all were trained to trust the academic credentialing system. But, in reality, many people have learned many crafts well one-on-one, even in the so-called "learned professions." Abraham Lincoln never went to law school. We need to remember that learning comes in many forms. Although ability and competence may be validated by a piece of paper, they are never created by one.
Each of us needs to be honestly satisfied that our apprenticeship training is solid and demanding. The process is already underway. One very healthy development in the Craft over the past decade is our growing insistence on objective requirements for initiations. Priest/esses around the country are avidly sharing and collecting curricula, borrowing ideas from one another to raise the standard of training. The days of initiating or elevating on the basis of perseverance, popularity, or some vague intuition are fast passing, and good riddance! By acting in accordance with our will, we create and develop belief in our own collective competence as a magical thought form.
As we come to experience and believe that our apprenticeship program is comparable to seminary training, we empower ourselves to defend that position politically. That was the battle we won here in New York. The discriminatory procedure for clergy registration was not aimed at any particular religion. Rather, it drew an improper distinction between seminary graduates and all others. The effect was to give the mainstream groups, which have the resources to maintain seminaries and support full-time clergy, a specially privileged status.
Because on principle we could not agree that we were inferior to conventional clergy, Witches fought the bureaucracy for five years. Even though many others were affected, the defense of apprenticeship is historically resonant for us. One of the major effects of the Burning Times was to transfer the right to practice medicine from apprentice-trained women to university-trained men. So this was truly our fight. With the great help of the NYCLU, we won, and not only for ourselves. We won for all the small and alternative religions, and even for the store-front churches.
There's a second task. Recognition is important to us, but access to clergy skills and services is far more important. Skills make effective the freedom of religion that recognition only makes possible. But our apprenticeship training programs are part-time for the same good reasons that we have only part-time clergy. We can't reasonably expect to provide deep and thorough training in all the desirable skills in a part-time training program. So, again, at first glance, we seem unable to fulfill our aspirations while remaining faithful to our traditions.
The answer to the paradox lies within our own thealogy. As polytheists, we celebrate the diversity of divinity, and the divinity of diversity. The organization of most religious communities reflects their understanding of the divine. Patriarchal theologies model all-male clergy. Similarly, Pagan religious leadership should be as decentralized as our conception of the sacred. To make this diversity work for us, we can adopt a New Age practice -- networking.
We begin by honoring our own differences, as we honor our many different god/desses. Every coven member brings to the circle a unique package of abilities, skills and experiences. S/he should be expected and encouraged to contribute her special skills and strengths to the group. Sharing the work is one of the best ways to prevent priest/ess burnout. Even more important, it turns the coven into a context and support system for the spiritual development of each member. The experience of contributing, and of being honored for it, is profoundly empowering.
We also need to find ways to honor the great contributions of elders who are not inclined to lead covens. The typical priest/ess skills of ritual leadership and group facilitation are not all we need, as the premise of this forum points out. Contributions in the arts, scholarship of many kinds, counseling, public relations and more need to be equally honored, whether they come from within or beyond the individual coven. Those of us who are coven leaders must share our pride of place.
Even when all members' talents are welcomed, it's unlikely that the full range of clergy skills will be available in one of our small covens. So we need to look beyond the coven, sometimes, when special expertise is needed. We have many ways to locate our specialists: publications, festivals, organizations like CoG, the various Wiccan traditions and lineages, and informal local networks. We can build consultation and referral networks.
Each one of us must also learn to admit that there are some things we don't know how to do. The humility to openly seek and accept the help of others is another form of spiritual growth. Because it's rare that our needs will be neatly symmetrical, we'll almost never be able to exchange help directly. Still, we can accept help in trust that whoever helped us will get what help they need from somebody else in the network. Accepting help on those terms creates a moral obligation to help another person on some other occasion, without expecting payback. That web of obligation undergirds community, and guards us from the cash trap.
In my experience, the process of networking is well underway. For example, I was able to call on a priestess in another city whose practice emphasizes Egyptology when a student of mine had difficulties arising from a misinterpretation of Ma'at. For example, two local priestesses with graduate training in counseling are offering a workshop series in basic counseling skills for coven leaders.
Whenever we give or receive such help, we also weave the Pagan community into a stronger and closer fabric. If we can honor each person's special gifts and also have the humility to accept help when we need it, the full range of clergy services can be available to all of us. Honor and humility, in dynamic balance, are a classically Wiccan concept and the key to effective networking.
And so, we need not stagnate for lack of skills and services, nor need we give our priesthood over to a paid elite. Real apprenticeship can develop the skills we need, and real networking can share them. Taken together, they give us a real choice, while either of the false alternatives would soon incapacitate us. If we are Earth's advocates in her time of crisis, we must offer alternatives to business as usual. We can only do that by growing carefully, in accord with our own nature.
We are growing as an orchard does, very slowly, to bear sweet and nourishing fruit for years to come. Those who plant orchards need patience. Now, as the trees approach maturity, is no time to give up and replace them with a shopping mall.
Isaac Bonewits: In the Old Religions of our Indo-European ancestors, conflict between the clergy castes and the warrior castes often developed. In India, the Brahmins won this conflict, creating an oppressive theocracy that exists to this very day. In ancient Rome and among the Germanic tribes, the warriors won, freeing them to act without moral restraints. The Celtic peoples, however, seem to have managed to strike a dynamic balance between their clergy (the Druids) and their warriors, with both castes staying powerful well into historical times.
When Western Christianity, the product of a theocratic culture (Israel) and a martial one (Rome), conquered Europe, the same conflict between clergy and warriors was played out repeatedly, giving us most of the history of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance with which we are familiar. To bolster its power, the Church inflated the power and prestige of the clergy as much as the Brahmins had. It's no wonder that the primary challenge to the power of the Christian clergy came from Germanic Christians. Martin Luther declared a doctrine of "the priesthood of all believers," saying that any believing male Christian could be a priest and lead worship. The Anabaptists went further and abolished all distinctions between clergy and laity.
These concepts have saturated Western culture for centuries, affecting both liberal and conservative Protestants. When Gerald Gardner created the initiation rituals of what was to become Neopagan Witchcraft in the 1950s, he included this Protestant doctrine and enshrined it into Wiccan duotheology and liturgy. In Gardner's case, the doctrine became what we could call "the priest/esshood of all believers," and all Wiccans were named "Priestess and Witch" or "Priest and Witch" at their first initiation into the faith.
To this very day, Neopagan groups tend to be ambivalent about having clergy. Most have some sort of priests and/or priestesses, yet the degree of respect and authority granted to them varies widely. Those groups with radical political and/or feminist agendas often refuse to label anyone as clergy, having completely accepted the patriarchal Anabaptist view. Those of a more conservative bent will often be obsessed with titles and degrees to the point of ignoring the opinions and needs of anyone who isn't clergy. Neither of these dualistic extremes strikes me as a healthy response to the very complex issues involved.
Regardless of our religious (or nonreligious) upbringing, we Neopagans have all grown up surrounded by a Christian culture in which dualistic black/white, either/or, yes/no patterns of belief and perception shape our thoughts. So it's easy for us to leap from one extreme to the opposite one and to think we have therefore made an improvement. Arguments about the role of clergy in our community provide many examples of this monotheistic dualism at work.
Immanent deity implies that anyone can contact the Gods/Goddesses directly at any time. Paleopagans seem to universally believe that anyone can pray to her or his deities and do simple folk magic without the need of a specialist to intercede or mediate for them. Religious and magical specialists arise when populations increase, thus creating a need for coordinating the psychic energies of larger numbers of people, and/or when the need for particularly complex types of magic arises (such as weather magic for agricultural societies). These specialists don't negate the individual ability to pray or do magic until the concept of a non-immanent, transcendent deity becomes paramount. Then the clergy become tyrants, attempting to place themselves between their laity and the divine.
I don't think that Neopagan clergy are going to seriously interfere with the religious freedom of the laity, since the immanence of our deities is a bedrock principle of Neopagan polytheology. The concept of mediation, and the power-tripping that goes with it, just isn't a real issue for us -- Neopagans will always be free to create their own rituals, doctrines, and even complete religions without having to get "permission" from someone else. Whether the leaders of new traditions will get any respect from other Neopagans is another issue entirely, dependent, in part, on just how competent they are -- and that depends, in turn, on how much inborn talent, training and hard work they have put in.
As I've put it before: "The overwhelming majority of religions on this planet require many years of hard study and training before a woman or a man is admitted into the ranks of the clergy. This study and training usually includes not only the acquisition of magical and religious knowledge, but also the mastering of skills in such diverse areas as counseling, teaching, art, music, drama, dance and the basics of what each culture has in the way of science and technology." (Druids'Progress #2.1984)
To become a priest or priestess in a Neopagan tradition, one usually studies magic, divination, polytheology, liturgy and mythology. Many of the topics that would be covered in a mainstream ministerial training program are absent: counseling techniques, group dynamics, nonprofit management techniques, teaching skills, use of the arts in ritual, and all the other subjects one would usually cover in a liberal arts education (e.g., science, philosophy, and history). Many of us Neopagan clergy have felt the lack of our knowledge in many of these areas over the years. It's no wonder that mainstream clergy find it difficult to take our clergy seriously -- not only do we belong to religions they've been taught to denigrate, most of us don't have a quarter of the specialized education and training that they believe is necessary in order to be ordained.
Highly structured, academic training in any field (law, medicine, architecture, or clergyhood) takes time, energy, talent, and money. The teachers have to eat and pay rent, the buildings have to be paid for, science and art supplies have to be bought, etc. Denigrating academic study because it costs money is part and parcel of our Neopagan phobia about money in general -- we're perfectly willing to make it for ourselves, but not to share it with our current or future clergy -- so a lack of scholarships to future Neopagan seminaries is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
On the other hand, concerns that academic clergy training can be rigid, left brain dominant, and negligent of the value of life experiences, are all worth considering. The answer may be to use the techniques of the "university without walls" systems, where credit is given for knowledge gained regardless of the source, and where students are encouraged to use a wide variety of learning methods, including apprenticeships and hands-on experience, but are nonetheless required to prove that they know what they say they know.
Neopagan clergy should know what on (or off) Earth they are doing and should be able to demonstrate their knowledge and skills upon demand -- after all, the clergy of almost every other religion can. Refusing to have published standards of qualification for our clergy opens the gates wide to con-artists and incompetents as much as it does to dreamers and poets. Furthermore, I haven't noticed that the absence of academic training has prevented our clergy (myself included) from "putting on airs" occasionally.
Oriethyia: Were there worlds enough, and time, I'd be working on a Ph.D. in women's studies, mysticism and comparative spiritualities, and quantum relativist physics. I do not, however, believe that such a degree is essential for me to declare myself an elder in my tradition, a priestess, teacher, and counselor at large.
Many of us know psychologists with more degrees than a thermometer. Some of them, having more abstract knowledge than skill, should never be allowed near a person in any kind of healing crisis. We know doctors and clergy and chiropractors and alleged educators who took the courses, passed with flying colors and know all there is about the science of their endeavor, but nothing of the art of it. Linearly based, university-approved study must not be an end in itself.
We also know people who are entirely self and/or collectively taught. Some of these folk make the most sense in a debate about Wiccan ethics and practices, know from years of experience how to help make energy move and where it gets stuck sometimes (crucial knowledge when working a ritual or deciding whether or not a particular issue should be handled ritually at all).
The very premise of the question before the panel, that the dearth of religious training may be the major cause of Paganism's lack of credibility in mainstream religious circles, would be funny if not for the fact that there are apparently folks out there who believe it!
Let's remember what we're about and what most mainstream, entrenched religions are concerned with and based upon. It is not our lack of training that disconcerts them, it is our lack of a GREAT MAN model. We have no equivalent to Christ, to Buddha, to Mohammed. We are polytheistic and monotheistic (the one in the many, the many in the One) all at once. We are inherently unwieldy and hard to stuff in a bottle. To people whose religious traditions have been in bottles for so long, we look like screaming anarchic madness.
And that, of course, is both one of our greatest failings and our greatest gifts. Woe to us all when we start looking to the folks who teach that The Teacher taught in parables, but who cannot themselves handle paradox. The major religions of the world don't like us because we are de facto a threat to the unnatural order, and they have been thriving in unnaturalness all this time. The whole issue of training is a feathered herring; it is a sleight of hand to draw us away from the real issues.
Let's face it, we give them the willies for the same reason that the federal government doesn't know how to relate to Native American tribes in this country, for the same reason banks and businesses don't know how to relate to, and so choose to ignore, collective endeavors and non-hierarchical entities. Bureaucrats, secular or religious, are clueless about how to think about, interact with, experience or work with non-bureaucratic forms. And thank all the gods, we have been non-bureaucratic until now.
It's not that we don't live up to their training standards; it's that the experiences we have and put faith in, the knowledge we have come to accumulate, the non-linear way we attempt, in our best moments, to walk through the world, is completely foreign to them.
Shall the Jews ask the Arabs how to build synagogues? Shall the Ayatollah ask the Pope about correct spiritual etiquette? I am not opposed to an honest and true ecumenism with other religious traditions. I am, however, absolutely opposed to the sort of Episco-Paganism I see developing all around me.
And who shall these "trained" clergy speak for? Would I stand still for Isaac Bonewits speaking for the radical lesbian feminist amazon contingent? No way. Should Isaac feel comfortable with me speaking for people with whom he feels the most spiritual kinship? Not for a hot minute. We are two points along the arc, and there are millions of other points, each with some greater or lesser handle on the mysteries. Who should speak for the whole? If we begin this ordination nonsense, what of the groups that are inherently opposed, to whom such an idea is antithetical to their understanding of paying one's dues and learning the necessary lessons? Do the non-clergy oriented groups get locked out of a circle that now includes their greatest detractors and their former kin?
What of the economic issues? Are we going to declare (like good little New Age Calvinists) that those who are really meant to be clergy will magically find the money? Even if they are currently doing their best to feed themselves and their loved ones and keep an intact roof over their heads?
The whole thing smacks of Eurocentrism. It is a decidedly linear, written-tradition, great-man oriented ideal. Gone is the faith in what is learned in the ecstatic state. . . unless you can quantify it to some spiritual bean counter.
And then there's a core issue, for all of us, but certainly for women; have we really fought all this way to reclaim the recognition that we need no intermediary between ourselves and the universe, only to jump on the credentials bandwagon? Yes, there are enormous merits to working the left brain. Yes, there are too many people out there that call themselves clergy who couldn't put a decent ceremony together if the Earth's life depended on it. Is a further separation from the core of one's own relationship with The Mystery what's called for here? No way.
There are feminist witches in Australia who have met regularly for the past four years. They are reweaving the hole in the ozone layer. They didn't learn about the necessity for that work, or the steps to do that work, in university. Their understanding for both came from years of radical feminist witchery; from immersing themselves in sacred, indigenous femaleness.
Another group of Australian feminist witches were surrounded in a rural area by a group of armed men who had come to exterminate the lezzie witches. They escaped by dancing out of the house, hand in hand, giggling and humming silly songs all the way past the men, to their cars and to safety. The men stood there, mouths open, watching this madness...exactly as the "mad lezzies" expected they would. Those women put years of critical analysis and magical technique to use to save their lives. They used all their understanding of group dynamics, interpersonal understanding, etc. -- all the things the question before this panel assumes we should send one another to school for.
Anyone with the time, money and desire to go through the sort of training in question should absolutely do so. But they should do it because they want to, not because our detractors have suggested it. Mine is not an anti-intellectual stance. Rather, I am concerned that the same mentality that declared, and still declares, indigenous people savage because they do not fall into a European, middle class model, is the very mentality that some of us appear to curry favor with. To what end, friends, to what end?
Sam Webster: Clergy are generally considered of a class specially educated beyond the average member of a religious group. They, structurally, mediate either between the worshipped and the worshipper or between the institution in which one worships and the members of that institution. I strenuously object to this quality of mediation in Pagan circles.
Perhaps this sounds strange coming from me, since I am currently studying to be a minister. Perhaps you would expect me to argue the opposite point. Let me explain.
Paganism's greatest power is in its being homespun. No matter how much research and education we do, we end up making the end product ourselves. This is why we have survived. No one empowers us to do what we do, except ourselves. We and our groups grow, mutate, hive off, die and are reborn not by anyone else's choice but by our own. We can do this because of the "priesthood of all believers," as Martin Luther called it in the 1500s. But the Lutherans proceeded to invest the real power in their clergy and establish an institution of substantial political power over the people in the lands they controlled. That was wrong and we should not do it. But fortunately for us, each Pagan is expected to truly be their own priestess or priest.
This has not always been the "Pagan Way." After all, the Christian clergy learned to be so aloof from us, in the times of Rome, Greece, and beyond. Yet times have changed, and for the contemporary Pagan, the key to our survival and growth is in our ability to look out for ourselves and not in being dependent on some body of specially trained individuals.
This, of course, does not mean they won't exist. There are always those who know more or are more experienced than some others. I am not arguing that folk should not educate themselves, or develop greater proficiencies in the Craft and be able to teach those skills as needed. But l am against any institutionalization of any form of mediation between the worshipper and the worshipped. It has taken a long time to get here, where consensus process and individual sovereignty are upheld as ideals, and to go back to some ruling over the rest would be a profound loss. You might then ask why I am studying for the ministry. I can only answer, who will pay me to do the kind of ritual work that I do? Pagans should not. Those who create institutions that are dedicated to the acquisition of capital and property, and who have a tradition of paying for their clergy should. Thus, my issues are economic.
However, if Paganism is interested in being seen as a credible religion among the mainstream clergy, I see it as having to make a few vital choices or commitments.
First, we have to learn to cooperate both among ourselves and with the other denominations/religions. One example of how diversity like ours is handled among the extant mainstream traditions is the Unitarian Universalists. They have no creed, only a set of "principles" centered around the affirmation of inherent human worth and dignity, a free search for truth and meaning, and the responsibility to support the interdependent web of existence. These are not beliefs. They function more like "game rules" that one must be willing to play by if you wish to play with them.
Their central organization has no power over the governance of member bodies, i.e., congregations, nor has the minister of any congregation any power to speak of over the congregation she or he serves. Rather, she is hired by the congregation for her services. The congregation manages itself by an elected board of trustees, and this is required mostly because of the sometimes substantial property holdings that need to be cared for. Because of this organization they can have vastly divergent populations of belief among the member congregations of the UU Association. They have atheists, humanists, Christians, Buddhists and now even Pagans among them. Each congregation is independent in belief, worship and governance, but choose to work together and share the benefits and the costs of supporting an institution.
But why we would wish to do something like this is beyond me, unless we wish to make the commitment to endure as an institution. Institutions provide structure and the ability to endure. They acquire power and the ability to wield that power. Yet with such structures comes a rigidity that will kill us if our freedom does not dominate it. I do not think it wise that we institute clergy among ourselves as Pagans, but as priestfolk we may be able to institute Paganism among those with clergy.
What I am suggesting is that we do not waste our efforts trying to coordinate such an unruly crowd as Pagans are into some body that can support a clergy or provide credibility by being an institution. The last decade of our history is filled with failures at this -- or at best, highly qualified successes. This could well destroy us. On the other hand we could "infiltrate" those organizations that do the institutional game well, that would support us in our beliefs, and which are constituted so as to prevent any undue influence of the larger organization upon the "member congregation."
Thus our choices to form some kind of clergy are twofold: to form an organization of our own to create the ability to endure at such a high level of complexity to be able to support a full-time clergy, or join an already extant organization that permits us to believe as we do and from which we can acquire the benefits of institutional organization.
And who will pay for it? Who can say they are living well on $30,000 per year with a family? Yet for a Pagan group of ten people, that would mean contributing $3,000 a piece annually to support a cleric. And what would they get from it? You would get more personal attention from a weekly visit to a psychotherapist for the same amount of money: $57+ per week.
So what would be the point of a Pagan clergy? Quality control? What is the standard that people will be up held to? Who sets it? If anything I have more faith in the free market. Given a free flow of information, it would be very easily discerned whether or not a particular teacher does what the student wants. If we simply support each other in our own work we can then help individual students find their way to the teacher best suited for them. This is a motif of collectivism and cooperation rather than institution. The image I get is one of a decentralized network of practitioners of the Craft.
If what we are looking for is credibility, then we need to engage those who have had a monopoly on the credible conversation about religious issues on their own ground. Unless we begin to engage them in the substantive issues on their own turf we will never be seen as anything more than a trivial cult. This is what the feminist theologians have done, and they are beginning to make some headway in the contemporary scene: they in the least need to be referred to by theologians, and often their critique of gender use in language must be dealt with. Our issues are no less important, and in my opinion, are even more constructive, as we are offering a positive choice to replace, not merely criticize the dominant patriarchal-monotheistic culture. But until we can demonstrate that we really do have something to offer, that we possess or are attaining to a truly non-hierarchical and pluralistic conception of the divine/human relationship, that we have a way of dealing with evil that is adequate to the real world, and that our way has a transformative and empowering contribution for those that use it, we will not be able to communicate the value that we have to offer.
I see only two ways of solving this dilemma. The simplest is to go to school. This is what I am doing. I am educating myself to be able to engage the dominant culture in its discussion of the central religious issues. As an aside, what I am discovering in my education is that the Western religious tradition is dead. They have no adequate answers for life and can only pick at the carcasses of ancient texts, proving them to be void of inspiration, and gnaw on the bones of past theologians in an eternal struggle to find some thing of truly adequate value. It is only because of the habitual existence of their institutions that they are even able to do this.
Yet who are we to challenge them? Our way is alive, but can we communicate it? Can we engage the religious leaders of the world today as equals, posing new responses to the demands of our day, and be able to demonstrably argue our case? And so the other solution is to truly develop our own craft and theo/aIogy. Another way of asking this is, "When will we ever escape from the 'Wicca 101' mentality?" We need to develop a stronger practical and theoretical basis for our work. We do not need to develop some standardized "Book of Shadows." We need to figure out what we have learned over the last few decades and with that in hand, what is it that we can yet learn. Will we keep growing and responding to the present, or are we merely reclaiming the past? Most of the material currently published is encyclopedic -- compilations of practice and ideas said elsewhere. When will we begin to form critical methods to enable new advance in our art? Let's learn from the method of the sciences, for it is by sharing what we learn and attempting to do more with it that will permit us to grow and be credible.
Truly engaging in the process of self-criticism and growth will permit us to credibly engage the larger community of mainstream religion. Some of us will labor in the hard soil of learning and teaching our craft. This is the bedrock of our tradition from which we have nurtured the power to challenge the dominant but dying religious traditions, if we can but learn to wield it. Others may have to shoulder the burden of educational costs to do so (my debt will be approximately $40,000). However, that is the price I am willing to pay to make myself ready to play in this arena. But, by preparing myself, I will be better able to empower others with whom I work.
But if we wish to create our own clergy, full-time dedicants to a Pagan religion, we will be forced to create an institution to support it. Therein lies the greatest opportunity for being effective in our modern world and equally for corruption. Are we willing to invest the time and energy and money to create a Pagan institution?
Andras Corban Arthen: It seems to me that this discussion is not so much about trained Pagan clergy per se as it is about professional Pagan clergy: people who not only would be expected to have a certain kind of comprehensive and specialized training, but who would also perform their work full-time and presumably be paid for it.
Most of the objections that I have heard from people in our community to the concept of professional Pagan clergy can be summarized as follows:
"Paganism is a religion of clergy. We believe that divinity is immanent, and that, therefore, every person has a direct and intimate relationship with the sacred, making everyone, in effect, a priestess or a priest. Professional Pagan clergy would become a powerful elite who would consider themselves to be 'more clergy' than everyone else. In time, they would seek to become mediators between ourselves and the sacred, and to interpret the sacred for the rest of us, disempowering and delegitimizing the practices of anyone outside their own select caste. Inevitably, they would start telling us what to believe and what to do, leading to rigid dogmatism, authoritarianism, and stifling homogeneity. These people would also expect to get paid for what they do, and money would corrupt them even further, leading to the well-documented abuses and excesses that we have recently witnessed among Christian evangelists, while placing a hefty financial burden on our community. In short, Paganism as we know it would cease to exist, and we would become as calcified as the most fundamentalist Christian sects."
I strongly disagree with this argument. I think it reflects our fears, not our power. I also think that it is specious and not in touch with the reality of the Pagan community currently, much less what it may become in the near future.
Paganism is not a religion of clergy, and has never been. If we look at "Pagan" cultures throughout history, what we find for the most part, in fact, are organized priest/esshoods. Some contemporary sects within the Pagan community -- Wicca, for example -- refer to themselves as "religions of clergy" in that every initiate is considered a priestess or a priest. This, however, is very misleading, because there's no indication as to who these people are or what they do. For example, you can have someone who has been exposed to the Craft for barely three months, finds a loosely-organized coven and is initiated after a couple of weeks, being dubbed "a priestess and Witch." Next to her is someone who has been an initiated Witch for thirty years, spent the first ten in an intense and thorough apprenticeship, has led a coven for the past twenty years, and in that time has trained and initiated dozens of people. The difference in experience, in skill, and in commitment between these two women is so great that to refer to them in the same breath as being "clergy" is, at best, disingenuous.
It seems to me that much of this argument is rooted in the fact that the Judeo-Christian models of clergy that we have grown up with are no longer acceptable to us, and that we're very concerned about the danger of a professional Pagan clergy slipping into the same distasteful molds. This is our fear speaking, not our power. Nobody can tell us what to do; nobody can make us do what we don't want to do. Perhaps, as children, we felt otherwise. Perhaps, as children, we bought the lie that we had to blindly obey the word of God's chosen ministers. But we are not children anymore, and the lie is just a lie. Perhaps as adolescents, in our quest for individuality and autonomy, we rebelled against the rigidity and dogmatism of mainstream religion. But we are not adolescents anymore, and we don't have to constantly look over our shoulder for fear that someone is going to pull a fast one, for fear that we'll be rapped on the knuckles and shoved back into uncompromising conformity. Pagan leaders, Pagan clergy, cannot lead through arbitrary authority or coercion, but only by persuasion, by inspiration, or by example. If you are not persuaded by someone's arguments, or inspired by their vision, or attracted by their example, you don't have to be part of that trip. Find another one or create your own.
I am not saying that we shouldn't be concerned about a professional Pagan clergy lapsing into patterns of authoritarianism and dogma. It is a very real concern, if only because these patterns are so deeply ingrained in our culture. But l am saying that it doesn't have to be that way, provided we have learned our lessons and act with awareness.
To me, the term clergy refers to someone who performs a spiritual service for others. We have Pagan clergy even as we speak, in that there are any number of people in our community engaged in providing spiritual services. On one level, we have people who are group leaders, who provide training and support for others in their covens, which are usually relatively small and self-contained groups. Then we have people who provide services to the larger Pagan community on a local level; these people teach classes, provide counseling or healing services, organize open circles and small regional festivals, publish newsletters, run stores, etc. Then we have people who provide services on a national or even international scale, who are writers, workshop instructors, coordinators of Pagan networks, organizers of national festivals, publishers and editors of large publications. In the context of Paganism as a spiritual movement, all of these people perform spiritual services, and all can be considered clergy.
Are they professional? The vast majority of them are not: most are not formally trained to any great depth, but, rather, acquire their skills on the job, through painstaking trial and error; most do not perform their functions full-time, squeezing their Pagan activities into their spare time; most do not receive any kind of remuneration for their work as clergy, serving, instead, in volunteer capacities.
Why do we need professional Pagan clergy? The most compelling reason I can think of has to do with the rapidly changing shape of our community. When I was first initiated, there was no "Pagan movement" as such. Rather, there were mostly small, isolated covens of witches and Wiccans -- and lesser numbers of Druidic, Odinist, and other non-Wiccan groups -- that were not very connected to each other. From about 1975 on, with the advent of national organizations and publications, the first regional gatherings, and the growing influence of the women's movement, things began to change. By the early 1980s, with the rise of large national festivals and the publication of The Spiral Dance and Drawing Down the Moon, our community underwent a radical transformation that continues to this day.
In fifteen years, we have tripled or quadrupled in size, perhaps more. The influence of covens and the emphasis on formal training and initiation has waned. The large influx of new members has created a growing Pagan "laity'" -- people who have no formal training or initiation, who do not belong to organized groups, and whose primary connection to Paganism happens through the reading of books and periodicals and through attendance at festivals and open circles. This trend is bound to continue, given the fact that public interest in Paganism is increasing as we become more visible, and that our community has no checks on growth.
The Pagan movement must adapt to change if it is to survive and develop. Many of the patterns that have been in place within our community for the past twenty years are no longer adequate to address the changes that are taking place. We can't very well go back into the closet: some individuals and groups may, but the community as a whole is already too public and too large to do such a thing. Surely many among the increasing numbers of new people will find fulfillment on their own, but what about the rest -- perhaps the majority -- who want training, direction, and substance? The present shape of our community does not meet their needs very well, and the various problems arising from this are already being experienced at some of the larger festivals.
We need well-trained, full-time, accessible clergy to address the growing changes in our community. We need to develop centers to train such clergy in ways congruent with Pagan attitudes and beliefs. I envision that this training would, for instance, provide education in such topics as ancient Pagan civilizations, Goddess religions, ritual crafting and performance, comparative religion and mythology, and ecospirituality; that it would enable clergy to acquire skills in counseling, listening, group dynamics and leadership, communications, organization, and conflict resolution; and would help them develop such qualities as patience, detachment and self-confidence, not to mention personal integrity and reliability.
I have no illusions that doing this will be easy. I am also aware that the development of a formally-trained, professional Pagan clergy raises a number of related issues. The question of accessibility to such training is one. What would be the criteria for receiving training? Who would administer it? The question of money is another. If we have full-time clergy, they need to get paid a reasonable salary. What about the injunctions in some Craft traditions against charging money for spiritual work?
These are admittedly difficult questions, which are nevertheless intrinsically a part of the process of building a spiritual community that will be able to have a positive effect in the world. As the Pagan community grows in size and complexity, these issues become even more important for us to address.