What is Neo-Pagan Clergy?

Several years ago, I attended a presentation at PantheaCon that led me to question: What is NeoPagan Clergy? [1]) In time-honored tradition, I asked that question of as many public NeoPagan figures as I could reach. This essay is discussion of the answers received, issues raised, and where the question(s) led me. I offer my conclusions to the NeoPagan community as a way to encourage further conversation, thoughtful debate, and hopefully prevent us from reinventing static patterns.

What Is Neo-Pagan Clergy?

The responses I received were many, and varied. I’ve distilled the responses into the following points of view, some of which overlap:

1. Clergy (the ‘shorthand’ title for a generic religious leader covering all the possibilities [priest, minister, pastor, iman, rabbi, etc.] is called by God/dess and has a particular special mediating role between God/dess and the public.
2. Clergy serve the Gods and the communities in which they practice [2].
3. Clergy support others during times of crisis and rites of passage.
4. Clergy provide good role models.
5. Clergy act as the public face of the tradition or belief system; they invite interfaith dialogue and information sharing that allows an outsider to decide whether s/he wishes to discover more.
6. Clergy are those whom their communities recognize as the ones to go to with spiritual questions/concerns/needs. They guide those who are inspired to find their own path to the Divine.
7. Clergy provide a central point for communication and crisis intervention.
8. Clergy work with the gods directly, and as a result, have a better understanding of the gods’ methods and wishes than non-clergy. They do not act as permanent intermediaries, but more like tour guides who help others until they know their way around god’s ‘hood.
9. Clergy are those who have advanced spiritual training, commitment, and service as part of their life’s work, either to a specific community or to the larger community of the world [3].
10. Clergy aid others on their spiritual path.
11. Clergy are the spiritual leaders, teachers, and interpreters of their traditions and faith.
12. Clergy are those who find that their particular talents and temperaments incline them to assist, nurture, and guide the religious and spiritual practice of others [4].
13. Clergy are those who support and aid individuals or groups in personal and spiritual growth, community service, development and leadership, and service to Spirit/Gods/Goddesses within their individual realms of skills, knowledge, ability and will.

Many people defined clergy in terms of their abilities or skills:

1. A clergyperson needs to know public speaking, religious education curriculum building, clear (religious academics uses a different vocabulary) writing, research skills, what is Pagan friendly about different faiths, even if they are not Pagan-accepting.
2. A clergyperson is capable of perpetuating the tradition by studying, developing, and teaching the lore.
3. A clergyperson develops and leads rituals, including creating, protecting, and sanctifying space, and raising and directing energy.
4. A clergyperson maintains sacred permanent spaces (such as a temple, or hof). (The implication here was physical space, but I would add that the maintenance of permanent astral space could be included in this definition.)
5. A clergyperson administers and runs, on a day-to-day grunt-work basis, temple/coven/hearth/grove business.
6. A clergyperson provides ritual/magickal enactments for acknowledging and celebrating rites of passage.

One person pointed out that our notion of what constitutes clergy is bound up in our common experience being raised (most likely) within one of the Abrahamic religions (Judaic, Muslim, and Christian). In which case, we tend to see clergy as being at once the “preacher, morality police and spiritual guide” of society. (And it is certainly true that the above lists of roles and skills are daunting) [5].

But what about those people who occasionally take on some of the roles listed above? Not all, and not all of the time, but frequently enough that they might be perceived as clergy by some, but not others. What is their role? Do they have one?

Further Defining Neo-Pagan Clergy

Like most witches, I was taught that witchcraft was a ‘religion of priest/esses:’ we are each of us fully qualified to interact meaningfully with the gods. Further, a blessing from a new priest/ess is as valid as the blessing from a many-covened “Queen” High Priestess. Now, I recognize that not all NeoPagan belief systems will subscribe to that notion in its entirety, but the essential element of being able to personally interact with the Deity is a commonality. This element is one that sets us apart from most other religions, making creating a definition of clergy damned difficult.

An excellent observation was made that the issue is less about qualification so much as experience. All NeoPagans can (and should) interact with the Divine on their own behalf, but for special occasions (handfastings, funerals, spiritual life crises, etc.) being able to turn to another, more experienced person is a wonderful benefit [6]. When I recently performed a baby blessing for a NeoPagan couple they wanted me to do it because I am a Priestess, and because I have experience with creating rituals that are acceptable to cowan [7] and NeoPagan groups.

Merriam-Webster.com defines clergy as: a group ordained to perform pastoral or sacerdotal functions in a Christian church. In a non-Christian religion, without churches (per se) we can recreate this definition to read: a group ordained to perform pastoral or sacerdotal functions. Sacerdotal refers to the sacred rites of a religion especially those mediating between humans and God. And lo, we have a definition excruciatingly similar to the one I was first taught.
But the truth is that its pretty easy to read a bunch of books (or even just a couple), get a minister’s certificate from the Universal Life Church, and set up shop as a Lord or Lady , performing weddings and acting as clergy. I know this because I have seen people do it. So, being able to interact meaningfully with the God/dess is not a sufficient definition and having a checklist of qualifications like the one found above is also not sufficient.

And one reason people like Lady HighKickingMambo can get away with her leadership status is that Neo-Paganism is at the stage now where there are increasing numbers of members who do not seem to care much about the responsibilities of being a Priest/ess. For them it is a chance to socialize, raise energy, perhaps get some divine advice, and have fun every six weeks or so. These people are most of the ones who attend public rituals, and they won’t take part in the planning, setup, running, or cleanup. Frankly, when I look at people like that, I have a hard time seeing them as Priest/esses.

Where is the balance?

Three Rings Overlapping — A Venn Diagram Of Sorts

I believe there are three rings of participants in Neo-Paganism today, each overlapping as the roles change. Many of us stand in the overlap between two rings, and others are firmly in one (although they may have moved there from another). These rings are not meant to be hierarchical – being in one group does not make you ‘better’ than another group. They are definitions only.

First Ring: Witch/Pagan[8]

On the left (see below) is the first ring. This group is the equivalent of a church’s congregation, the laity who follow the belief system. And the key word in that definition is ‘follow.’ This is the group that is increasingly large, the ones who come to ritual, but do not participate past the calling and raising of energy — although they might be counted upon to manage a casserole or dessert for the pot-luck, even that may not be a guarantee. This group will generally handle the ordinary, day-to-day, aspects of their spirituality (if there are some), casting spells, maintaining an altar, etc.

This is also the group where you see the newcomers, the ones who came to Neo-Paganism (or from another strain of NP) and who are checking it out before making a commitment to get involved further.

Second Ring: Priest/ess[9]

The right hand ring is for the Priest/esses. Being a Priest/ess is not just a matter of being dedicated to a God/dess, it implies training in a particular mode of theology and practice. Most people who come to Neo-Paganism embrace the spirituality that is the driving force behind it, and then move on to become a Priest/ess within the religion. Priesthood in the historical sense (and in many different religious orders) is a peer oriented and ordained system. The ordination comes as a result of completing training within a tradition (or path).

I see two forms of Priest/ess: one who has studied extensively within a Tradition or Path and who received a confirmation of accomplishment via the peer ordination. Another form is when a solitary practitioner uses the term, if they have chosen to devote much of their spirituality to a particular Deity, as in, “I am a Priestess of Diana.”

In general, I think it’s important to recognize that while many participants in the many branches of Neo-Paganism theoretically have the ability to become clergy, not all of them may want or need to do this in their lives. Assuming that anyone who says, “I am a witch” for example, is capable of leading a funeral rite causes confusion and problems. But if someone says to me, “I am a Priest,” it seems appropriate for us to feel more comfortable about his or her training and knowledge. Comfortable enough that we can trust they will lead an appropriate ritual, or teach a good class, etc.

Third Ring: Clergy

In the bottom ring we have the group of people who feel compelled to offer their skills in service to the community – whether neo-pagan or not. And that is the key difference: their skills, the roles they take, the functions they perform, have an underlying purpose of service.

When I think of clergy of any religion, I imagine people who are selfless in their service to people. An example are those that believe in the necessity of their functions to such a degree they will even risk their lives – like the six Jesuit priests murdered in San Salvador in 1989[10]. Or John Kochurov, who conducted a prayer service and procession throughout his town to pray for peace while being attacked by Bolshevik forces during the turmoil of the Russian Revolution. He was responding to the people’s need for consolation, and became the first clergy martyr of the Russian Revolution in 1917 when they arrested and shot him the next day.[11] Martin Luther King, Jr. was another who gave his life in service to his community. Some softer examples are those people who work in ‘hopeless’ situations, bringing hope and support to people society would prefer to forget. People like Mother Theresa in her work in the slums of India, or Starhawk’s political demonstrations before the WTO. Or even the many nameless churches running soup kitchens and providing vaccinations to populations with no access to even basic health care.

I think of people who do not chose or appoint themselves clergy, but who find they are in that position nonetheless. They are chosen by the Divine (however such is defined in their faith) with that choosing being recognized by the people. In general they do not claim the title on their own, nor do they take credit for what Spirit does through them, and many see the gifts of Spirit as a curse. For example, the new Dala’i Lama does not announce himself to the world; the recognition comes from others. Even the process of “ordination” is a recognition by one’s peers as to our status, hence the statement, “many are called but few are chosen”. Many people go to monasteries and seminaries for a variety of reasons; they spend their time studying, contemplating, and praying. Whether they continue on that path is contingent on both their desire and their being accepted into the order. Whether they actually become clergy or not is determined by that status conferred on them.

Being clergy is not about individual needs, but instead about serving the spiritual and physical needs of their people. And so, clergy are also examples of how to live in a way that secures peace, comfort, health, wealth of various sorts, and longevity, including morality. By their lives they teach those they serve how to live long, peaceful, healthy, prosperous lives.
Clergy are not just as role models for healthy, balanced, living, but also for living a spiritual life. They are a people of faith who truly, deeply, believe in the tenets of their faith. They live their faith daily and do not distinguish a time for the mundane and another for the spiritual. Through their example, the people they serve gain the strength, comfort, peace, and stability provided through faith.

Although I cannot conceive of clergy without a group to minister to, I truly do not believe that there is an inherent hierarchy or ‘flock’ when clergy is present. While it is true that many people are conditioned to follow and too easily give up their individual responsibility for doing the work themselves, a good Neo-Pagan clergyperson will work with them to break this conditioning, and insist on the retention of responsibility.

I believe the Priest/ess will frequently overlap with Clergy, and to some degree, vice-versa. It is rare for the Witch/Pagan to overlap with the Priest/ess and rarer still for them to move into the Clergy realm. But it is still possible. (Following my rule that nothing is impossible, although some things are extremely difficult.)

Summing Up

I see this article as a question posed to the NeoPagan community, an offering to the conversations beginning to be spoken, and a perspective on how one might consider the topic. It is also potentially the beginning of a dialogue between you, the reader and I. Your thoughts about this subject are welcomed, particularly regarding the three structures I’ve conceived and the issues raised by others as part of my initial query.

~by Lisa Mc Sherry

[1] My definition is based on Issac Bonewits’: “a general term for a variety of movements both organized and nonorganized…as attempts to recreate, revive or continue what their founders thought were the best aspects of the Paleopagan ways…blended with modern humanistic, pluralist and inclusionary ideals, while consciously striving to eliminate as much as possible of the traditional Western monotheism, dualism, and puritanis. Isaac Bonewits “Defining Pagan Leadership” from his website at www.neopagan.net/PaganLeaders.html, 2001.
[2] These definitions are from the following members of the Pagan Clergy mailing list: Lord Joshu, Aidan, Estara T’shirai, RavenDreamer, Rev. Amanda R. Wagener, and Raven; with the exceptions noted.
[3] Selena Fox, personal email, February 25, 2003.
[4] Judy Harrow, personal email. February 25, 2003.
[5] Akhet Hwt-Hrw. Post to the Pagan Clergy mailing list. Quoted here with permission.
[6] Elizabeth Barrett, personal email. August 10, 2003.
[7] For the purposes of this article, ‘cowan’ refers to anyone not self-defined as NeoPagan.
[8] The various No-Pagan traditions may have group-specific terms.
[9] The various No-Pagan traditions may have group-specific terms.
[10] The El Salvador Martyrs from their website at: www.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/10th-anniv.html. Excerpt taken on August 2, 2003.
[11] On The Canonization Of Archpriest John Kochurov (1871-1917) from the web site: www.holy-trinity.org/feasts/kochurov.html. Excerpt taken on August 2, 2003.

Sources and Notes:
Ainuglin, “Pagan Clergy‚ A Simple Question but Not-So-Simple Answer” from www.witchvox.com/words/words_1999/e_clergy2.html, May, 1999
DeAnna Alba, “Pagan Clergy?” www.pagansonline.com, July 2003
Elizabeth Barrette, personal email. August 10, 2003
Elizabeth Barrette, “Vested Interest: The Pros and Cons of Pagan Clergy,” www.worthlink.net/~ysabet/spirit/clergy.html, 1998
Isaac Bonewits, “Indo-European Paleopaganism and its Clergy 1.6,” www.neopagan.net/IE_Paleopaganism.html, 2001
Isaac Bonewits , “Defining Pagan Leadership,” www.neopagan.net/PaganLeaders.html, 2001
Selena Fox, personal email, February 25, 2003.
Judy Harrow, personal email, February 25, 2003
Lavender-Moon, “Pagan Clergy, Training, & Academic Scholars”, Solitary-Pagan.Net www.solitary-pagan.net/PaganEducation.htm, 2003
Iain Mac an tSaoir, “Thoughts on Clergy — What is Clergy?” www.witchniche.com/essays/essays/thoughs_on_clergy.asp, July 2003
Pagan Clergy mailing list responses, February 2003.
Morgan Ravenwood, “Pagan Clergy: What Qualifications and Credentials Should They Possess?” www.twpt.com/qualifications.htm, 2003
She-Wolf, “Pagan Clergy,” www.therune.com. July, 2003
Sunfell, “Some Thoughts On Pagan Clergy” www.sunfell.com, 2002
Nicky Ryborg & Erin Gough, “What it Means to be Pagan Clergy” celt.drak.net/ceili_sidhe/clergy.html, 2001

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