Does it make me a bad Pagan to have attended midnight mass a few days ago? If so, I’m a baaaa-a-a-ad Pagan! Mom invited me to the pre-mass concert her choir was performing at her church on Christmas Eve, and I stayed for the service. This was the first full Catholic mass I’ve attended since becoming an ADF clergyperson, and the compare-and-contrast aspect was interesting enough to actually keep me awake that late. >8) I was particularly surprised by the very informal was that Father Rick addressed the congregation during his sermon (“Smells and bells, that’s what we Catholics love about church!”) and how, right before we left, he asked everyone if there were any birthdays or anniversaries to be announced. (Yes, some wise-ass said “Jesus”.) (No, it wasn’t me.) This definitely wasn’t what I remembered mass at St. Anthony’s being like when I was a kid. Even after just an hour, it was apparent to me that this was a welcoming, functioning religious community of the kind that we Pagans aspire to.
I bring this up now because, well in part because it happened three days ago and when else would I bring it up? But it also ties in with the topic I’d had in mind for this week anyway. On one of the ADF mailing lists, a new person asked the question, “if I’m not really a polytheist, do I belong in ADF?” I’ve already discussed how personally frustrating it is to keep seeing this same question (or slight variations) asked every few months on our lists for the last thirteen or fourteen years now, and sometimes I wonder if this is some sort of torture being inflicted upon us by a dark deity out there, a variant of “Chinese water torture” or spending time with a four-year-old. Yeah, I know it’s a new question to the person asking, and a pressing one I’m sure, but gods this gets repetitive. (This might actually be the best argument in favor of replacing our mailing lists with forums, since a single thread answering the question would prevent anyone from ever needing to ask it again. Except that my own forum experiences suggest that people never read the old posts, so we’ll just end up with dozens of threads floating around covering the exact same frickin’ question, over and over and over, like water torture being applied by a four-year-old.)
And as always happens when someone posts “that question”, dozens of replied were posted within a few hours, throwing the old “orthopraxy not orthodoxy” and “whether you feel like you belong is the important part” arguments, which are of course correct. The sad part is realizing that people in actual real-world groups never need to ask themselves this question. Anyone attending a Grove ritual, or a coffee hour, or a mass at St. Roch’s for that matter, will know whether they belong without having to ask. It’s only because we’ve allowed people to join ADF from remote locations and give them the tenuous contact of e-mail that people can wonder such a thing. Even I have to admit that e-mail can only fill so much of someone’s needs, and they’ll need to fill in the gaps themselves with whatever information they have at hand, and when those people aren’t as borderline autistic as I am, part of that missing information is whether they’re really accepted by the group.
(At this point during the writing process, I take back what I said about “the question” being the most frustrating aspect of ADF to me. Letting solitaries join without being able to adequately communicate to them that being a sol adds an extra level of difficulty to the process, for fear of coming across like we’re trying to scare them off, that’s more frustrating to me.)
So with “the question” asked, and many other people answering it the usual way, what is there for me to do? Well, if there’s one thing I know how to be, it’s the “Trickster’s Advocate”. Why answer the same question the same way when I can change the question around and answer it in a different way? And so, with a simple inversion, we have: “If I belong in ADF, what do I believe?”
First we have to figure out who “belongs” in ADF, with a slightly narrower answer than “everyone” or “everyone in ADF” if we want this to take less than ten thousand words. So discarding the “we’re an orthopraxy so anyone who does our rituals our way is a member” argument for now, let’s look at the org. Which of us take oaths dedicating ourselves to ADF or some part of it? Not our Dedicants, who only take an oath to pursue the study of Neo-Paganism of some sort. We could go with the members of the Mother Grove (ADF’s Board of Directors), who are encouraged to take service oaths at Wellspring, but the MG members who can’t be there don’t take such an oath, and even then, they usually only remain on the MG for a year or two. Besides which, I’m not on the MG any more, and if I’m writing the article, I need some data I can work with. So the members of the Clergy Council have taken an oath to serve the members of ADF, and they stick around for years and years. Plus, we have our own song. If anyone “belongs” in ADF more than other people do, it’s probably us.
So what do we clergyfolk all believe? Sadly, I haven’t had time to send out a survey so I can make absolutely certain, but I know what we’ve talked about, and I know what I believe, so we have a starting point. Most of us do seem to be strict polytheists, and not duotheists or “all gods are one” types, though if one of us said that they were, it wouldn’t be a problem. And we all think that we belong in ADF, which is really the only bit that matters.
So then, if we do share some beliefs (not a huge surprise, really), what do some of us believe that others don’t? We’re not all Celtic practitioners, of course, though I’m happy to note that the “if I’m not a Celt, do I belong in ADF” questions on the lists all dried up over five years ago. (You’d have thought that the existence of Norse, Hellenic, Vedic, etc. mailing lists on the ADF server would have tipped them off a little earlier than that, but like I said, people seldom seem to check such things.)
Again, I haven’t sent a survey out (might be an actual plan if I ever want to turn this into an Oak Leaves article), but I can be certain of some things that the other priests think that I don’t. The importance of the Earth Mother to our work, for instance, which I’ve addressed here before. “We honor her because RDNA honored her” is hardly a convincing argument, since we’re not RDNA, and “because Isaac honored her” isn’t much better. (If we want to slavishly mimic RDNA, I’d much rather look to their foundation as an act of protest against an authoritarian policy at their college, and require ADF Groves to address social justice issues with some of their quarterly service projects. But that’s just me.)
And on a similar note, I don’t think that Paganism is inherently a nature religion. No, seriously. I’ve nothing against nature worship, I used to be in our local Naturalists Guild back when we had active local Guilds, but at this point I consider polytheism to be the defining aspect of Paganism, and nature worship can be an aspect of that, but it’s not required. (As a Heathen once said when asked if theirs was an earth-based religion: “As opposed to what, a Mars-based religion?”) Worse still, I worry that our constant refrain of “Pagan equals environmentalist” is off-putting to members of other religions, who, believe it or not, sometimes want to take care of the planet just as much as we do. And what better way to annoy them than by telling them they’re Pagan if they do care? I know how livid I get when monotheists say that only their faith really cares about helping the needy, and damned if I’m going to pull the same on others.
So without rambling on too much longer (at least until I decide to turn this into a doctoral thesis or something), it’s clear that we ADF Clergy don’t agree on absolutely everything. We do agree on some things, though. We like being in ADF. The community of ADF is meaningful to us. The rituals of ADF are meaningful to us. And, like every other member of ADF, those are the only ones that we really need to agree on. Part of the Grand Experiment That Is ADF is getting people together who don’t agree on every last thing, and coming up with a system that works decently well for all of them. Whether you “belong” in this Experiment is entirely for you to decide. If you decide that it isn’t, then good luck on your spiritual journey, and if it is, then welcome! And either way, may the blessings of the Kindreds be with you.
Rev. Rob Henderson
Senior Druid, Shining Lakes Grove, ADF