Wakeful Priesthood

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As is so often the case, I am motivated to write by a discussion I have read or been a part of in internet land over the past few days and weeks. This post is no different and coincidentally, I note that Nimue has been motivated to write on a similar subject here with a slightly different slant. It is an issue I have considered and grappled with for a few years now, searching for a path that I would consider to hold the most honour. The issue is that of Pagan Priesthood.

As always within the pagan community and its many branches, gaining consensus on an issue is somewhat like herding cats. This in particular is a difficult and thorny subject, with many and varied viewpoints which seems to elicit some very emotional responses. Not least I suspect, because many pagans arrived in their chosen tradition, in part as a direct rejection of established religion and all that entails. The language of priesthood is for some, simply too close to this. Perspectives range from those who do not see the need for a priesthood at all, feeling that they do not need anyone to stand between them and the gods, those who rely on priests for teaching, ritual and guidance, and those who appoint themselves as professional priests taking on the role full time. Unlike established religions, there is no ‘church’ to appoint, pay or regulate those who take on the role and whilst there may be small groups and teaching schools who do offer training anyone can chose to undertake the role. Whilst I firmly believe this to be a strength of paganism and seriously hope we never go down that sort of C of E route and all the corruption it entails, the lack of it does create some problems of its own which require careful consideration. After all, where do the priests come from, who makes them, who ensures that they are not fiddling with the children, and further do we need them at all?

My answer to that final question; ‘do we need them at all?’ is an emphatic yes. Whilst many do feel that they do not need a priest to minister for them, having the confidence to do this themselves, there will always be times, and I can think of many in my own life when we need to hand that role over to someone who is really good at it. A perfect example is a wedding, a day when we have so many things to think of: the dress, the cake, the flowers, the ring, whether Auntie Betty is being looked after, that we need someone to do this for us. After all, we are probably not cooking the wedding breakfast or serving the buffet ourselves either. We need the day to be an ‘Occasion’, the community – our friends and family need the gathering, the moment, the spectacle, to feel the job well done, to recognise and support our moment of transition and change and this for many, requires a person who can hold the space and the focus for us to do what is needed. But priesthood is about more than the rituals and the weddings, it is about shouldering the responsibility that our traditions will continue, that we will teach the next generation the skills needed, and within that, comes the role of the teacher. There really is no substitute (I believe) for the dedicated, one to one teaching relationship that guides and mentors us through the decades of learning the skills and working through our own ego sufficiently to do it well. It is usually the pagan priests who offer (or should be offering) this kind of dedicated teaching.

So to return to the previous questions: who appoints a priest and ensures they are doing a good job? I would give four answers: The Self, The Gods, The Ancestors and The Community. Each are an important ingredient in the mix and a vital part of good teaching ensures that the student (and would be priest) has sufficient relationship with each to understand what they are taking on when they step forward. Each of these four is a post in itself, the first three arise out of our own deeply personal relationships and sense of duty, service and calling, but it is community that is perhaps most immediate. For unless the community we serve recognises us as holding the role of the priest and more specifically that we are doing it well, with ethics and honour,  no one will ask us for those services.

It is the consideration of community that leads me to the issue of payment or exchange. After all, the priest provides a service, gives up her time, incurs costs and expends emotional energy. Not only that, but people value what is given to them most when they feel that they have made equal payment in exchange. So should the priest charge? Again this is a loaded issue with many feeling that it is somehow wrong to charge money for spiritual services. Whilst I am not of this view, I do believe that we need to exercise care when mixing priestwork and money. There are a number of charlatans out there and integrity so often seems inversely proportionate to the sums of money involved. Priestwork is not the same as any other job where we can demand a living wage from an employer for the work we do and I worry when I hear folks expressing that the community owes them a living or has a responsibility to support them. Because I don’t believe it does; that responsibility rests solely with ourselves.

Priesthood is a job of devotion and service first and foremost; it has to be to retain its integrity. Sadly there are a number of folks out there offering magical healing, a way to the truth or worse, exploitation. The ethical responsibilities of the priest, working with people in sometimes extremely vulnerable spiritual situations means that it is of paramount importance that we keep our egos in check. Getting rich is one sure fire way to exaggerate, out of all sense of proportion, our own importance. I firmly believe in the principle of equal exchange and it is what I base the priestwork that I do upon. I will ask for expenses where I am out of pocket and an exchange of energy for my time. Sometimes that energy takes the form of money, sometimes it is a favour, a bill paid, food or shopping or cleaning. It will depend upon what the person has, how much they can afford and what they can offer. Not being paid the agreed price or not being paid on time is of course deeply disheartening, and frustrating and a different issue entirely. Yet,  most working within the priesthood do not expect to grow rich, I have a strong instinct that to struggle, to a greater or lesser extent, is a part of the role. Priesthood has a long tradition of simplicity, monasticism, and frugalness. It is integral, important and it keeps us humble. If we arrive in the priesthood without realising this, we may be in trouble. To what extent we struggle with day to day living is, to a certain extent, between us and our gods and the opportunities we make and create for ourselves. If we do not have enough, we are not asking enough or more likely, not clearly enough of the right people in the right way. Possibly we need to reassess our perspective on what enough actually is. But then I believe this is a good philosophy for life in general.

I chose not to work as a full time priest, because whilst I know and have known those who do, in many ways I feel the same about the career priest as I do about a the career politician. It is not sustainable in the long term and we are in danger of losing touch with the world in a way which is not healthy. Not only that but in making priesthood into a career we are in danger of losing what brought us to it in the first place and it becomes nothing more than a job like any other with it’s toil and tedium. Having other ways of paying the mortgage not only keeps our feet on the ground and helps us to remain useful in wider society beyond the small confines of our own perspectives, but it removes the sense of desperate financial need on our ministry and prevents the breeding of that dreadful sense of entitlement, loneliness, bitterness and frustration when inevitably we don’t earn enough.

The primary motivation of the priest must be the work we are doing for the gods and the community beyond any finacial recompense. That is not to say we should not receive fair exchange for the blood sweat and tears, and of course we all need to eat but the life of a priest was never one of ease, nor should it be. This keeps us wakeful, striving, searching, doing our best and the rewards that priesthood brings in terms of our own satisfaction, relationships with the gods and ancestors is in many ways the payment we receive for choosing to walk this road.

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6 thoughts on “Wakeful Priesthood

  1. An excellent piece – thank you

  2. angharadlois says:

    The clearest and most balanced response to this debate I have read so far. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

  3. Nimue Brown says:

    A hearty ‘yes’ to all of that. Very well put. I couldn’t imagine trying to be a ‘priestess’ full time, it would be too restrictive, and there are too many jobs for which that hat would not suit at all 🙂 In the meantim, I’m hankering after a ‘will work for cake’ t-shirt!

  4. Brian Taylor says:

    You make the case very well. I remember some old friends with long involvement in a radical Jewish Goddess circle agonising over whether one of them should become a Rabbi. They proceeded with certain structures of accountability in place. I forget the details. Perhaps, especially in the case of supporting or guiding extremely vulnerable people, there’s a need for peer support and supervision, as well as more formal accountability, to a grove (or organisation)?

    There are, of course, democratic, self-organising options, involving rotating roles, particularly facilitation and leadership, and sharing learning. This can work well in my experience, but is not necessarily unproblematic. Some folk undoubtedly have particular gifts, and it seems sensible for the wider community to encourage their development, not least by developing clear guidelines and ethical principles, and promoting care-full discussion. I do wonder whether separating the kinds of functions you mention, rather than aggregating them within a priesthood, might be helpful, given that the notion of the priest has strongly negative connotations for some of us?

    Some of the difficulty around the issue of payment is undoubdtedly aggravated by the fact that income inequality has been allowed to mushroom, in the U.K at least, over the past 30 or so years, to the point where haves and have nots can find it hard to see each other’s humanity. Very many people have their life choices severely limited, of course. I think its important to make concessionary rates explicit, and that individual support for vulnerable people should ‘free at the point of delivery’, hopefully by being funded by the wider community. I know of therapy organisations that have managed to do this.

  5. Wodensown says:

    Wide words, well spoken

  6. Snowhawke says:

    Nell,
    Thank you for these wise words. Here in Maine, we have had the same ongoing discussion within our pagan community. I am the VP of an organization called the Maine Pagan Clergy Association. We formed this organization for two reasons. One was for people who fill the role of pagan clergy to be able to gather and break bread together, share stories, insights, lessons, and to ask questions from like minded people. The second reason was to be able to work with the State to have our civil liberties ensured. Pagan clergy was not recognized as such by the State. So we were not able to perform the same legal functions as the clergy of mainstream religions, namely marriages and hospital visitation (here in the States, legal clergy are allowed in the intensive care units. Some hospitals won’t allow people to act as clergy without licensure) So we recognized the need for an organization to grant legal status to pagans as clergy/priest. And we have succeeded. The State changed the definition of clergy from those who lead a congregation (implying the need for a building) to those who are recognized as clergy by a group.

    As to full-time priests within paganism? Given that we number at most a couple of thousand here in Maine, I don’t see the need. Certainly thought, there is a need for priests to fulfill the role. I have had numerous requests for services, marriages, blessings, counseling, prison ministry, etc. There are people in the community who need a priest at times, someone to listen, to lead ritual, to counsel. And I think it only honorable that we fill that need.

    Charging money for services is a sticky issue and I think it best if we simply not judge if people charge (within reason) for services. We live in the paradigm of Capitalism and the abstraction of money. We all have bills, no matter how simply we live. I have expressed my thoughts in the same way as you, there needs to be an equal exchange of energy when possible. Of course with crisis and end-of-life and the like, it is simply something we as priests do, as part of our gifting back to the gods, the community and the land itself. It is just part of our ethical responsibilities.

    In all the work I do as a priest or in the role of teacher, I always make it perfectly clear that no one will be denied due to a lack of money. I don’t charge for any service as a priest. I do charge for teaching – subject to the rule in the first sentence of the paragraph. Druidry should not be limited to those who can pay.

    To the bigger question of pagan priesthood, It is needed. And the need will grow as we as a community grow. If we lived in a community where the number of pagans was in the same realm as Christians, we would have great demand and need for priests. And our community would support that need. And we can’t wait until there is such demand to begin to develop functional priests, priests that are recognized legally in our society. I am licensed through our Maine Pagan Clergy Association. Even though I have never been asked for credentials, I didn’t want to risk being denied access if a community member was in serious circumstances in a hospital. And this has happened repeatedly here in the States.

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