My views on the role of Pagan clergy have definitely changed since I started down this path twenty years ago. (Egads, that means that next year it will officially have lasted for half of my life.) Back in my early twenties, when I heard the phrase “every Pagan is their own priest”, I thought it was totally cool and revolutionary and stuff. Fight the power!
Given how old I am now, I guess a slightly more conservative attitude was inevitable, and if anything I’m a little surprised how much of a “fight the power” kind of guy I still am. But on the clergy thing, I’ve completely changed. Now I see that “everyone is their own priest” thing as elitist claptrap. Sure, every Pagan *can* act as their own priest, I’m definitely not claiming to have any special relationship with the gods in general, and certainly not with someone else’s household gods. I’m definitely a “Protestant Pagan” in that sense. But spending this much time as a Pagan, and as a Senior Druid, and as a Dedicant Clergyperson in ADF, I know all too well that not everyone *wants* to be their own Priest. And further – and here’s the bit I know will get some people out there angry with me – not everyone is *good* at it either. Many people through the years have asked me for help creating personal household rituals or ideas for their altars, and I’m not about to tell them to figure it all out for themselves. Nor the folks without the experience or self-confidence to do their own ritual or magical work. Yeah, I suppose I could run a thirteen-week class to teach people everything they need to know (assuming I had the patience to be a teacher), but is that really something most people want to commit to? Sure it would be great if everyone was an expert at household ritual. It would also be great if everyone could sew their own clothing and fix all of their own car problems. Reality doesn’t work that way, and I’m happy to share my knowledge and experience – which I’ve put a lot of my own time and effort into acquiring – with those who hear the call of the old gods but don’t necessarily know what to do about it.
I think that Pagan clergy can also fill other roles besides helping people with their personal religious practices, of course. In addition to leading group ritual with our Groves or other kinds of groups, we can perform specialized rituals like weddings, funerals, and sainings (or whatever we’re calling Pagan baptisms these days), which most people wouldn’t need to do for themselves more than a few times in their lifetime, and so might not have the chance or the inclination to get good at performing them.
And since the clergy of other religions perform pastoral counseling, I think our clergyfolks should be ready to do the same. (No, I’m not thrilled with the word “pastoral” in this context, as I certainly don’t think of other Pagans as sheep, but I have yet to hear a term that would mean something similar to most people. I’ve heard “professional helping” used before, but to me a professional helper is someone who picks up your dry cleaning and drops the kids off at soccer practices while you’re at work, not someone you talk to about your problems.)
I think that prison work is important, too, and definitely not something we can take a “let them be their own priest” attitude toward. These are folks who want at least a little external guidance in their practices and their interactions with the gods. And prisons generally aren’t keen on letting random pagans come into the prison to help with rituals, they require some kind of official recognition of clergy status. I just got a letter from a prisoner in Adrian who is leading rituals for his Pagan group, only because nobody else in the group feels capable of it, and he desperately wants a clergyperson’s advice, if not their presence. Should we tell him to figure it out himself? And hope that the other prisoners still get something out of the rituals?
And of course, there’s the hardest part about being a Pagan clergyperson, and the main reason I haven’t been able to convince anyone of my Grovemates that they can be Senior Druid instead of me: the public relations part of it. Whether we like it or not, the media doesn’t want to do interviews with random Pagans who claim to be authorities on the subject, and when they look for someone to interview for their Halloween or summer solstice articles, the letters R E and V in front of someone’s name are a good sign in their view. And when prison chaplains, or hospital chaplains, or other authorities are looking for information on what Pagans do and need, the same rule applies. No, I definitely don’t feel like I know everything I should about our traditions, and I probably still won’t even after I finish the Third Circle of the ADF Clergy training Program, but I definitely know enough to be helpful in those situations, and I honestly think that one good newspaper article (well, newspaper Web site article, these days) or helping one prisoner or hospital patient to honor their gods and make themselves get better is worth more than a hundred angry letters about how someone has denigrated the name of Paganism somewhere.
So if you don’t think you need a priest to practice your Paganism, I’m fine with that. But as a whole, I think our movement needs well-trained clergy out there, or we’ll forever be spinning our wheels reinventing the wheel – no, wait, that metaphor’s too weird even for me. Or we’ll forever be struggling, both in terms of taking care of our own and being taken seriously by others.
Rev. Rob Henderson
Senior Druid, Shining Lakes Grove, ADF