Friday, September 03, 2010

Ruminations on Pagan 'Clergy'

I was rooting around in some of my old writings and discovered this. Originally drafted in 2004 when I was functioning as the chair of the Public Ministry Department of Cherry Hill Seminary, this piece speaks to my ongoing concerns about the growth of the Pagan movement, as I call the entire phenomenon. Since 2004, CHS has undergone changes in emphases and goals, most significantly in its pursuit of accreditation from the DETC (Distance Education and Training Council). However, my essential concerns remain, and require frequent review and re-evaluation. I welcome your comments on this important topic.

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As a Pagan, I feel it's paramount that we define ourselves rather than leaving that to sociologists, journalists and others. I admit to a mistrust of what I call the 'overculture' - the mainstream, linear-thinking, rational, American consumer culture. We can take from the overculture that which suits our religions, but we don't have to parrot it in everything we do. So even though I'm helping to establish a public ministry program at a Pagan seminary, the goal of which is to offer ordination to Pagan 'clergy,' I don't feel comfortable with the terms ministry, seminary, and most especially, clergy.

What most Pagans do in our spiritual practices is (to make a verb of a noun) 'priest/ess.' In my tradition, the term “to priestess” describes what a priest/ess is doing when performing or conducting ritual. Priest/ess is a role one assumes in that context.

But the world changes, and Paganism, as a living religion, changes with it. Today we see more Pagans offering rituals and other religious practices to the public, although many of us traditionally have practiced in private and continue to do so. Moving from working with a close, intimate bonded group of friends to working with people we may not know at all changes what we do and how we do it. So we need to rethink how we present ritual to others -- to the public and to non-initiates of initiatory traditions. Performing these public celebrations is the work of clergy.

Pagans are assuming many other roles that in the overculture are customarily performed by clergy. We are serving as chaplains in hospitals, prisons and the military. These roles require special knowledge and skills. We officiate at people's rites of passage -– naming ceremonies, coming-of-age rituals, weddings, elderings, funerals, and memorials. These are all 'clergy' roles; they may or may not be priest/ess roles as well. The rituals themselves are 'priest/essed' but they may or may not also include such things as premarital counseling or grief counseling.

We are called upon to speak, to give interviews to media, and to address college classes. We are better served if we have some skill in public speaking and if we know about media relations and journalism.

One significant area where Pagans are acting in some sense as 'clergy' is interfaith. From the largest international interfaith organizations such as the Council for the Parliament of World Religions and United Religions Initiative, to the regional, down to the local, Pagans are joining with leaders of other faith traditions in working on such issues as peace, affordable housing and homeless shelters, education, health care, meals for the hungry, facilities for the differently abled, habitat restoration, disaster relief, and other social concerns, as well as in the arts and music.

I believe it behooves us to prepare ourselves -- those of us who may be called to such public service -- to work effectively in these areas. That means ascertaining what knowledge and skills we feel it's necessary to acquire in order to do that work effectively. Then finding people within our Pagan culture who have specialized knowledge in those subjects so that we can learn from them. We can take what our society offers us and adapt it to our ideas of culture, our worldviews, our belief systems. But we do not have to take all of it. We do not have to take that which doesn't suit how we see and live in the world. We will create new forms and techniques that honor who we are. We can create our own 'clergy' and when we have done that, perhaps we'll have found just the right noun that denotes what we do and who we are.


Tiamat Dragonsong said...

Within my Wiccan Tradition I call myself "Pagan Clergy" within the Pagan community, and Reverend within the more mundane realms.

Although I have not been through any form of seminary, I am highly trained in both crisis response counseling and suicide prevention. Alongside, I am the founding Priestess of our very rich tradition which has given me 16 years of training.

We have our 501c3 and do ordain our own clergy which have in the past gone through our own tradition's training program. In the past 16 years there have only been two others, we do not take this lightly, nor hand out ordinations for a $5 donation on the web.

I do want to mention here that since Cherry Hill Seminary has come to our attention, although it will not be necessary for our up and coming clergy to fulfill the seminary's degree requirements, they will be required to take a few courses offered in order to ordain within our tradition. I myself would love to drink from such a quenching well, but oh to only have the funds, time and youth.

During this moment in time I do not mind using "Pagan Clergy". It seems the title most used, and is becoming common practice within our Pagan culture. I do however dislike using Reverend, but there are times when I have to make emergency entrances into ICU and bedsides where using Reverend on my credentials allows me a no questions asked immediate access.

Until the masses embrace us as valid within the overculture at large, I'm afraid we need to use those nouns familiar to those who frequent them most. This does of course leave our Pagan culture open to the probability of those titles becoming a permanent fixture.

In closing, I highly concur that it does behoove us to prepare ourselves properly, to work effectively and to learn how to do so from those knowledgeable within our community so regardless of how or what we call ourselves, we are taken seriously and our work seen as valid.

Tiamat Dragonsong

IanC said...

Personally, I'm hungry for new vocabulary. I seriously dislike 'clergy', which means cleric, clerk, scrivener, etc. I suppose that if 'clergy' were to mean anything in Paganism, it might start from its core meaning of 'educated person'. Those who serve as clergy for Pagans ought to be more educated than the laity in matters such as mythology, ritual practice, trance states, etc - the skills that make religion work.
In Ar nDraiocht Fein (in which I am ordained as clergy) we decided to use 'priest' to refer to clergy of both genders. Unfortunately for many moderns this will forever carry the weight of 'intercession' - the priest as intermediary between common folks and the divine.
Personally, I'm a bit torn. I think that priesthood, and clergy status depend not on some theological granting of authority, whether to all members or to an elite squad of ritualists, but rather depends on the possession of a specific body of skills. Priests are those who know how to do effective ritual, especially for others, who have the skills to help folks turn their minds toward thedivine, and receive the inspiration and blessing we seek in religion.
So, I don't really hold with the 'priesthood of all believers', since that's rather like holding with the musicianship of all listeners. It might be that everyone *could* be a priest, if they applied themeselves to the skills, but without the skills in place one is not a priest, whether or not one imagines oneself to be.
So for me, clergyis not about authority granted, but rather about skills gained.

Broomstick Chronicles said...

Thank for feedback, folks.

Tiamat, I don't doubt the rigorousness of your training, but I do think that in the Pagan world your situation is atypical.

I know plenty of Pagan organizations with 501(c)3 status, and in fact belong to a few, but that doesn't mean anything when it comes to ordination. For instance, CoG (with a 501c3) grants credentials, but they are based upon the attestation of the individual member coven. Since different covens and trads have different standards, this cred can be heavy or light or anywhere in between.

I'm delighted that you're finding our offerings at CHS useful. We strive to maintain a high standard, and we've been fortunate in finding really outstanding teachers who believe in our mission.

I could never abide using the term reverend for myself, although in fairness I do think that my role in my religion more or less parallels that of Protestant reverends. I completely understand the need to be accepted as a competent leader in one's religious community.

In the field of international interfaith -- I am only marginally involved because I don't have the resources to travel and participate -- when one of CoG's representatives has been asked to give a title to the persons named as reps, the title he has given us is elder. It seems closest to what they're looking for. So I sometimes get mail addressed to Elder Aline O'Brien or Elder Macha NightMare. :-) I don't use that term myself. Then again, the ladies and lords of Craft don't call themselves that, at least the mature ones don't. They may be addressed as Lady Soandso as an honorific, but they don't introduce themselves as such.

More responses to Ian's comments anon.

Broomstick Chronicles said...
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Macha said...
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Broomstick Chronicles said...

Sorry, readers. Program told me it wouldn't take my post, then it turned out it had accepted it each time I tried.

Anonymous said...

I agree. We are moving into uncharted territory here and it's best to be prepared, but we don't have to force ourselves to fit in with what's already established. "We do not have to take that which doesn't suit how we see and live in the world. We will create new forms and techniques that honor who we are." (Nicely put!)And that's that. We take what works for us and we'll define ourselves as we do so. It might take some time to find that perfect noun, but we'll find it. No rush and no reason to assimilate.

Carol Maltby said...

In the context of the international interfaith meetings, are there other faith traditions that participate that use "Elder" as a title?

Anonymous said...

I am trying to get in touch with Orion Stormcrow (Morris), my current partner worked with him on a pagan 'zine called Crystal Well, a long time ago. We have been travelling the world, but are trying to settle and re-establish contact with long gone but not forgotten friends. I am asking here because this is one of VERY few hits I got on his name in a Google search. If you know Orion, tell him Alex's OTHER father's new partner would like to meet him. I can be reached at

Blessed be, and thank you.

Broomstick Chronicles said...

Curses! I just wrote a long response to Ian's comments and, in previewing them and then trying to edit them, I lost the whole piece. Drat! Maybe I can recreate them, more or less, at another time.

Broomstick Chronicles said...

Carol, yes. Lots of other religions use the term elder for some of their interfaith reps, as well as, I would imagine, for those roles within their individual communities. Don Frew was confronted with the need for titles because in his work it seems a title is necessary in order for those of other religions to contextualize you, or perhaps to figure out by what authority one speaks. ???

Kela, if you send me an email to herselfATmachanightmareDOTcom, I'll forward it to Orion Stormcrow.

Jer Goode said...

Hello. Some pagan plagiarist chucklehead, the kind so rampant in our community, is posting others writings and putting her copyright on them on Facebook. She got this blog post, rearranged it a bit, and stuck her copyright on it.

Thought you should know!!/group.php?gid=154448994580258&v=app_2373072738

Holli Emore said...

I would guess that any "chuckleheads" here are yourself, Jer. Macha's column is so, well, "Macha," that I'm surprised you would pose such a question.

I'm also shocked that you would post allegations of plagiarism publicly. Or are you a spammer trolling for hits on your web link?

Holli Emore said...

Jer, I think I have misread your post and probably owe you an apology. I thought you were saying that Macha had posted something. Seems I am the knucklehead, and thanks for understanding.

catdruid said...


This is an excellent column. I would like to read it on the air next week during Between the Worlds (with proper attribution, of course).

Joann Keesey
DJ Between the Worlds

Broomstick Chronicles said...

I'd be delighted for you to read it, Joann! Can I get a URL of where it will be archived so I can reference it on my CV? And would you please cite my websites, and even, if you will, Cherry Hill Seminary's?

Long time no see. Hope you're thriving. Best to Betty!

Macha said...

Thanks to Jer for calling to my attention the fact that this blog had been ripped off.

Jer Goode said...

There are a few of us pagans on FB who keep an eye out for plagiarism, *especially* that of other pagans.

We are called (for fun!) the Coven of the Fluffy Bunnies. If you google that, you'll likely see the head plagiarist of them all, the "author" who uses the nom de plume "Rochelle Moore" refer to us as cyberstalkers.

Of course, we aren't. Unless speaking out against theft and lies is somehow wrong. ;)

Anyway . . . glad it got removed. Unfortunately, Facebook is almost entirely automated, and they really don't care about what goes on.

@Holli Emore - No problem. It was confusing and not terribly well written, I'm afraid, :)

Ananta Androscoggin said...
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Ananta Androscoggin said...

The below text is a revision of something I answered a similar topic elsewhere with:
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Speaking as one who resisted the call to priesthood for many years, I am very glad that when it did finally begin happening to me, I was long gone from the Christian ways. My years of study and readings and contemplation on the subjects, and encounters and watching the news of current events, have led me to the conclusion that if I ever re-converted my only recourse would be to fight to destroy the world, and take Yahweh's playthings away from the psychotic, sadistic bastard.

While every person has a right to hold their own beliefs, as well ass their own opinions, they DO NOT have a right to create their own "facts" to 'support' their ideas. It seems a vain hope that people would recognize that the opinion of an expert in a field should hold more water than the opinion of who has only heard gossip about that field.

Talking about ancient pre-Christian Pagans and then going on about "every Pagan his/her own Pope," or "every Pagan his/her own island" are both extremely foolish. Chaos only benefits the vermin who prey on those with knee-jerk aversions to dealing with reality. Anarchy builds nothing, destroys everything, leaving such chaos as benefits thugs, bullies, power-brokers, the corrupt, and arms salesmen.

Those who are virulently opposed to any form of organization among their own people are great allies to those vermin, knowingly or not.

It seems a bit hypocritical that people who use "Pagan," "Heathen," "Witch," etc., can't find a way to adapt words such as "clergy," "Reverend," and so on to a modern Pagan usage.

Ananta Androscoggin said...

part 2 of overlong post:
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Pagan, neopagan, and understanding of Paleopagan clergy, are all important to me. Any group which has some equivalent to an "outer court" already has a laity as opposed to the "clergy" of the inner court membership. Whether the inner court sees the outer as a pool of almost-dedicants, as 'batteries' to be sucked dry, or just as followers, they are still "the laity" within that Trad.

"Every Pagan his/her own Priest/ess." is not historical to those earlier Pagans. It is a concept which is only practical in small, nearly or totally hidden groups which do not seek expansion, merely continued succession.

While the head of every household once may have carried out the religious rituals pertaining to the household, that was a limited subset of the rites and practices of their religion, and they relied on the priests and priestesses of the local temples for those other, more specialized rites and services.

Just because some child (of any age) has read a few books, and been to a festival or so, does not make them the sole source of knowledge and authority they give themselves airs to, regarding what knowledge, experience, power, and compassion may be in the hands of the elders they disdain so emphatically. Such childish resistance to influences outside of their own whims is a big reason why they do not find a teacher. Well, not a real teacher, anyway.

Not every person receives a Calling. Some have other destinies directed by their karmic state. That does not mean that they will never require the aid or advice of a person who has received such a call to serve the Gods and their co-religionists. Those who have neither, presume too much when they claim to know what those trained specialists, called "clergy," have gone through, have encountered and survived, have studied, have wept over, have given up to answer the Call.

Yes, our modern movement has a great many people who falsely claim priesthood and clergy status. Even with the coming of a little organization, such fakes will be easier to expose and cast out of the halls of "power" such tend to claim for themselves.

Ananta Androscoggin said...
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Ananta Androscoggin said...
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Ananta Androscoggin said...


The comment page software was giving me problems over how much text I could put, and yet published the post it had told me it couldn't.

Being one who hates multi-identical posts, I went and "MIGA" 'd them (Make It Go Away)