Thursday, March 19, 2009

Pagan clergy?

Gus di Zerega argues that Pagan clergy is not a good idea.

His first argument is that power corrupts, and a Pagan clergy could become corrupt.

Ye-e-es... Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and all that - but it won't if we don't give Pagan clergy absolute power.

I think it is worthwhile having people properly trained and accredited in counselling skills and having a good overview of Pagan understandings of birth, life, death, and rebirth, ethics and the nature of reality (so they can do chaplaincy work in prisons, hospitals, universities etc). But that does not mean that they thereby gain authority over other Pagans, or authority to speak for other Pagans. If they did, then I would be opposed to having clergy.

A lot of people want to take part in Pagan rituals and spirituality, but not to become a dedicated priest or priestess. Unless we are going to turn these people away, we will need people who are skilled facilitators of ritual and who have an understanding of group dynamics.

There are many different models of clergy, and I think we would do well to examine them all before dismissing the whole concept.

His second argument is that the connotations of clergy (and all the words that are linked to it) are not the same as the terms for Pagan spiritual leaders: priestess, priest, high priestess, high priest, Witch Queen, Magus, healer, medium, shaman, and diviner. Furthermore, he writes:
The critical question is where we will strike a workable balance between what we are now and what society as a whole finds comfortable. In negotiating this cultural dance we should never forget that Western society is based on beliefs that are fundamentally anti-Pagan. The secular world sees nature as mundane, composed in most cases of resources valued for their use to us. Human beings are the acme of existence, and science someday might give us power over the world. Even more important for this present discussion, Western Christian spirituality focuses on the sacred as only or almost entirely transcendent, the world as fallen, radically distrusts individual experience of the sacred, and regards the only truly reliable spiritual knowledge as coming from revealed written words, even if there is no agreement on what they actually say. Moreover, Catholics partially excepted, people continually need to be reminded about the sacred through sermons rather than participating in and reconnecting with the sacred through rituals.
Now that is a much better argument than the first one, and I agree that the style of Pagan ritual (and therefore the functions of the ritualists) is radically different from that of other traditions.

However, the training offered at Cherry Hill looks very Pagan and not at all conforming to mainline Protestant expectations.

His third argument is that the reason we seem to need some kind of official 'clergy' status is because church and state are still not as separate as they should be. He argues that we already have access to prisons, hospitals, and so on, and that we already do public ritual, so we don't need clergy for that. Also, he writes:
[F]or 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.
Again, this argument is more convincing than the first. But perhaps we do need a collective name for the various different roles that people perform in ritual and beyond it.

On the other hand, as Chip O'Brien says in his comment on the third article:
I don't want to ask my office worker friend to marry my partner and me. I don't want to search for a priestess and wonder whether she's run this ceremony before, whether she's studied our traditions or just another New Age opportunist out to suck our community dry. Ultimately, I don't want to remain as we are now: bereft of role models, utterly lost when we fall into depression and spiritual questioning because there's no one we can talk to except our peers, who don't know any more than we do. This isn't about surrendering my personal power so someone else can provide my answers on a plate-- it's the fact that I don't have all the time and resources I'd need to be comfortable with myself as my only spiritual authority. In rough times, even the best of us may need some help hearing the gods again.
I think this last point is very important - I have recently been through a spiritually fallow period, and was greatly helped by having other Pagans to discuss my issues with; but I think I would have benefited from having someone to talk it through with who really understood all the issues and the theology. A full-time priest or priestess would have been helpful; but are we willing to contribute the funds to support full-time practitioners? I think most people, suspicious that clergy would be trying to wield authority over others, would not be prepared to contribute in any case.


Anonymous said...

Let us not forget that in the Hadith, Mohammed says "there shall be no clergy in Islam" and how well that went...

I mostly agree with him. There's a major difference between the kind of shared community of fellows that the best of paganism can reach without a false split between clergy and laity. Having that split so often leads to an attitude of You're Doing It Wrong if you're not surrendering to the hierarchy.

Steve Hayes said...

I hope you won't take it amiss if I comment from outside. "Clergy" is really an obsolete term, from the Jewish old testament period, when families were allocated land, except for the Levites, who were dedicated to temple service, and so were supported from the tithes of the people.

It doesn't fit too well in the Christian setup either, for the most part, except possibly in medieval Europe.

It strike me that a better model for pagans might be Hindu temples and Chinese temples. Check what they do.

Yewtree said...

@ Cat: Yes - the problem is that if you don't have explicit leaders you get implicit ones (the most powerful dominating the supposedly consensual set-up).

@ Steve: of course I don't mind you commenting from outside! Outsider perspectives are always valuable (and I have never let that consideration hold me back from commenting on other people's religions, as most of the posts on this blog testify...) Yes I agree that Hinduism & Chinese religions are probably a better model - thanks for that thought. Interesting point about the Levites, I hadn't thought of that. But I thought 'clergy' came from clerks (i.e. those who could write) and therefore is probably inapplicable to Judaism, as they could all write in the medieval period.

Yewtree said...

Hmm, on second thoughts, just remembered that the Brahmins are a priestly caste, and so it probably wouldn't work to emulate Hindu organisation, as many Pagans are keen on the idea of the priesthood of all believers. Interesting that the Levites were almost the equivalent of the Brahmins; that hadn't occurred to me before.

I looked at traditional Chinese religion, and Paganism doesn't quite fit that model either, as we don't have temple buildings, and as far as I know the main function of priests in traditional Chinese religion is to look after the temple (which was certainly the priestly function in ancient paganism, but revived Paganism is different to ancient paganism in several key respects (one being that it's more than a collection of cults of individual deities).

But thanks for the thought!

Steve Hayes said...


"Clergy" comes from the Greek "klerikos", meaning a lot. It referred to the Levites whose "lot" was to care for and serve the temple cult rather than cultivating their own land.

It was because in the middle ages in was mainly clergy who could write that "clerk" became associated with someone who could write, rather than the other way round.

Makarios said...

In The Triumph of the Moon, Ronald Hutton refers to:

. . .an important and growing phenomenon of non-initiated Pagans who are starting to treat initiates as clergy. (p. 400) I suspect that this is a phenomenon that will continue to develop over time, with the growth in population of people who self-identify as Pagans but who do not perceive a vocation/calling to the initiated life.

Of course, Hutton was writing about the British scene, and specifically about BTW, and his observations may not apply in other contexts.

Yewtree said...

@ Steve: ah, thank you for the etymology, I hadn't realised that.

@ Makarios: Yes, but the extent to which this happens seems to wax and wane, depending on whether people are thinking that Wiccans are elitist, or not.