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Some Thoughts On Pagan Clergy

When I was training for my degrees in Wicca, I was taught that Wicca was a 'religion of clergy'. There were no 'lay' or 'congregational' participants: each was qualified to run their own rituals and Circles, and a blessing from a neophyte with anointing oils still wet on their heads was as valid as the blessing from a many-covened "Queen" High Priestess. I raised an eyebrow at this, but went ahead and continued my studies.

I was given that bit of information 20 years ago, when I made my first contact with Witches who were not authors of the few books available at the time. I was fortunate to be living in an area that had a high enough population density to support several metaphysical stores, groups, and psychic fairs. Being an eager newcomer fresh from the repression of the South, I plunged in.

At that time in our history, there were very few openly Pagan people around. They were the leftover hippies and fortunate ones who had access to the materials not available where I grew up. They were mostly closeted about it, fearing repercussions at work, or with their families. Their interest was genuine, and their motivation was active, despite the risks to their livelihoods, and sometimes their lives. These people truly were 'clergy'- practicing their religion with clarity and depth that today is much diluted.

Why is this? When did Paganism divide into lay 'Sabbat-go-to-Circle' members, and hard-working High Priest/esses? I think the division began when Paganism in all its forms hit the mainstream, and became, if not totally accepted, at least tolerated by the more mundane people. There are still serious students, but they are outnumbered by the curiosity seekers, faddists, and casual dabblers that the information glut of Pagan literature has brought to our feet.

And what of the 'real' clergy? Sadly, we cannot truly claim to have any. Even some of the writers of Pagan books are disputed when this question comes up. Why is this? Our very nature as anarchic, nonconforming, anti-hierarchical sorts have pretty much ruled out any sort of seminary or governing body that oversees Pagan pastoral credentials. Anyone can read (or write!) a book or three, get a certificate from the Universal Life Church that states that they are a minister (or even a Doctor!) and set themselves up as Lord or Lady Grand High Poobah of Whatchamacallit Coven. And people do.

The trouble begins when a real crisis hits in their circles. Lord/Lady GHP gets their ego caught in the zipper of reality and ham handedly deals with the crisis. Resentments develop, and the circle evaporates faster than a teen romance. Hard feelings and 'Witch wars' are usually the result. The members scatter, muttering that they'll never participate in a coven again. Newbies accumulate, begging for instruction, and the cycle begins again. And will, forever, as we now stand.

Why? The problem is that people who set themselves up as HP/S very rarely have actual pastoral qualifications. They do not know how to dissipate dissention, lead a group constructively, counsel those who are ill, or are in an emotional or spiritual crisis; minister to the dying, conduct weddings/handfastings, Paganings, or funerals. They have not been trained in the basic psychological requirements of a congregation. And we must now face up to this fact: we are no longer a 'religion of clergy'. We are at the stage now where there are 'lay' members who care nothing about the responsibilities of being a Priest or Priestess. They just want to socialize, raise the energy, visit the Oracles, commune with the God/dess, and have fun every 45 days or so.

They'll be the 90% of the group that'll show up, but won't be part of the planning, setup, running of the rite, or cleanup afterwards. We must acknowledge this change in our status, and deal with it. Paganism is growing up- and we're still in 'short pants' psychologically.

I was fortunate enough to attend the "Between The Worlds" convention last May, where this subject was brought up and discussed at length, sometimes passionately. The presenters of the workshop about Pagan Clergy told the participants that they were 'unpopular' with the Pagan mainstream because of their 'radical' views about Pagan Clergy. I understood why. No one likes having their carefully crafted self-image shattered, which was what happened to me, but in a positive way.

Here we have (or now, perhaps had) a religion whose seminal books told the student that EVERYBODY could be clergy, and you weren't only God/dess, you were instantly qualified to Do Your Own Thing, have your own coven, and lord it over all who came. And many did, and suddenly there were "lord" and "lady" somebody-or-others coming out of the woodwork. And right behind them, the tattered fragments of stepped on egos, resentments, power plays and the inevitable witch wars.

I attended that workshop, and raised my hand when they asked, "Who in here considers themselves a Priest/ess?" Hey, I've been initiated, (all three Wiccan degrees!) had created and run a coven or two, and had taught people- so I was a Priestess, right? I could even call myself a High Priestess.

Wrong. The presenters then ticked off a list of pastoral qualifications and counseling programs that I had never heard of, and had never considered as part of my studies or work. Apparently I was fortunate enough to have had a group of intelligent, stable people to work with in the coven I belonged to (which voluntarily disbanded, being military and overseas). So, I had never dealt with the crises that most pastors and clergy have to deal with on a daily basis with their 'congregations'.

I realized that, although I was highly qualified in the theological, historical, and metaphysical aspects of my path, I was not qualified at all in the pastoral aspects. And, although I enjoyed developing rituals, planning and executing circles and all that, the pastoral aspects (like the 3AM phone call sorts of things) did not appeal to me. At that moment, I made an important adjustment to my mental profile of my Path. I no longer considered myself a 'High Priestess', and although I can conduct my own rituals on my own, and with very satisfying results, I wasn't really a Priestess, either. I was more properly a Magus- operating independently of any coven or circle, and not requiring the social aspect of pastoral qualifications. Being a solitary sort, this felt much more comfortable for me.

But what about those who are 'called' to serve as Pagan clergy in a group setting? How can they best serve their coveners without getting tangled up in the ego/witch war aspects of their practice? First, they should sit down and have a very frank talk with themselves, and if needed, their significant others. Just like mainstream clergy, the partner of a pastor is often called upon to support the minister in their work. It is important for that partner to realize and accept this early on, or else the would-be Priest/ess is setting themselves up for disaster.

Next, they should examine their actual qualifications and experience. Are they really qualified and tested by outside examinations? Can they be relied upon if a friend has a crisis at 3:30 on a stormy night? Can they conduct themselves in a manner that positively reflects on our various paths? Can they deal with the daily matters of birth, death, and changes that all clergy deal with? And are they fully versed in the tenets of their particular path, and willing to keep up with it? Are they good media contacts? Can they deal with the results of media exposure?

Then, they should seek to take courses in counseling and pastoral duties. They should learn to deal with crises, and learn to recognize when a situation has escalated out of their ability to deal with it- like a psychotic break or a suicidal person. They should become acquainted with the social services in their area, and take any courses that would enhance their ability to deal with various situations. If possible, they should partner with clergy from other faiths, and 'pick their brains' for more pastoral advice and training.

The real problem, and one which will be with us for quite a while yet, is that we do not have our own body to qualify Pagan Clergy. And we quite probably never will, due to the anarchic and eclectic nature of our paths. Unlike our mainstream kindred, we are very diverse in our outlook and beliefs, and any attempt at starting a central body is bound to be met with great resistance.

But we must consider the alternatives. As we now stand, anyone can pick up a book and read it, practice a few rituals and anoint himself or herself Lord/Lady GHP, and set themselves up as clergy. Some predatory sorts have abused this sacred office, using it to attract unwitting newcomers, relying on their ignorance of our rites to abuse them sexually and psychologically.

If this goes on, it will erode the authority of even the most senior among us. As our numbers grow, we must adapt and change or we will disintegrate. Fake and predatory clergy are as big a spiritual danger as fake shamans and healers are. Can we allow this to continue? Perhaps it is time to start a dialogue leading towards a consolidation of credentials and an accrediting body. The Convent of the Goddess and the Aquarian Tabernacle Church have good programs. Perhaps it is time to grow up and realize that we need to have clergy to make clergy. And we should also move towards making the title of 'Lord' or 'Lady' only applicable to those who have qualified as clergy by taking the abovementioned courses in pastoral counseling. After all, there are no Catholic men who are called 'Father' without being priests- this should also apply to our titles.

We are very fortunate to be living in a time that accepts us. But we must clean up our act, or we will become unacceptable before we know it. Properly qualifying our clergy- who are the face we present to the world should be a priority.

Here is the question you need to ask yourself: If a Christian pastor or priest has a service one day a week, what does he do on the other six days? Do I want to do that? If your answer to this question is "yes", then go get your pastoral credentials. There are Pagans out there that need you badly.

Copyright 2000, 2002 by Sunfell

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