Quick Notes: Protecting Sacred Lands, The Interfaith Observer, and Teenage Clergy

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 14, 2011 — 20 Comments

A few quick news notes for you on this Sunday morning.

Protecting Sacred Lands: The Environmental News Network reports that the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Oxford, in partnership with the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) and World Database on Sacred Natural Sites (SANASI), is creating a world map that will display sacred and holy places, including forests in an attempt to raise awareness for biodiversity conservation.

Sacred stream in Tibet. Photo: Shonil Bhagwat

A team of scientists from the University of Oxford are working on a world map which shows all the land owned or revered by various world religions. This “holy map” will display all the sacred sites from Jerusalem’s Western Wall, to Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Just as interesting, the map will also show the great forests held sacred by various religions. Within these protected lands dwell a wide variety of life and high numbers of threatened species. […] “We urgently need to map this vast network of religious forests, sacred sites and other community-conserved areas to understand their role in biodiversity conservation,” added Dr. Shonil Bhagwat, also on the research team. “Such mapping can also allow the custodian communities, who have protected these sites for generations, to secure their legal status.”

It should be interesting to see the final results, and what the threshold will be to discern if something is holy/sacred. What about the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona? The Hill of Tara in Ireland? Would they be willing to list modern Pagan-owned lands like Circle Sanctuary or Stone City Pagan Sanctuary? Depending on where the line is drawn, much of the earth could be considered sacred and holy (especially if you’re a pantheist). It should also be interesting to see how this intersects with initiatives like Bolivia’s Law of Mother Earth.

The Interfaith Observer: COG Interfaith Reports announces that Rachael Watcher and Don Frew will be serving on the board for a new interfaith journal/website entitled The Interfaith Observer. Officially launching in September, the journal will endeavor to “explore interreligious relations and the interfaith movement as a whole.”

Don Frew at the Parliament of the World's Religions

“It will provide historical perspectives, survey current interfaith news, and otherwise provide maps and sign-posts for newcomers. It will offer a context to explore and respond to the new religious world around us. The Observer is designed as a resource for the general reader, anyone interested in the subject; but articles will be filled with references and links for those who wish to pursue a particular subject. Along with examining our spiritual and religious differences, the journal will inquire into shared core values, offer various perspectives on the unparalleled religious diversity enveloping humankind, reflect on theological and spiritual issues, and perhaps develop a social network for interfaith activists focused on service. A long-term goal is to help grow connective tissue between large interfaith ventures and stakeholders and the rest of us. We will promote the major institutional players. And provide space for the creative little guys all over the map who are doing wonderful new things.”

Wiccan Elder Don Frew says that TIO will “be to interfaith work what Beliefnet and Patheos have been to comparative religion.” With two Pagans on the ground floor of this new initiative I feel confident that our perspectives and ideas will be included in their content. The Interfaith Observer launches on September 15th.

Teenage Clergy: This year Ganesh Chaturthi falls on September first, a ten-day festival in honor of the god Ganesha. The BBC reports that in Mumbai there is such a shortage of priests for this festival that teenagers are being trained and recruited to lead the necessary ceremonies.

Photo courtesy of the BBC

According to one estimate, there are barely 3,500 priests in the city when it needs at least eight times the number. So the festival organisers have decided to train 700 young boys and girls this year so that more priests can be made available. Interestingly, many of the children taking the “crash course” in priesthood are girls. “I know there will be some hesitation [to hire us] in the beginning because we are so young and then we are girls. But once [the clients] know that we are as good as traditional priests, they will hire us,” says a visibly excited 15-year-old Neha. […] “If the children learn the scriptures which are available in a condensed form and take their job seriously they will be accepted,” says Ganesh Pandey, a veteran priest.

You can see a video of this report, here. Why is there a priest shortage in India? One explanation is that priesthood is no longer seen as a fiscally attractive role, and many children of traditional priests are going into finance and other fields. This shortage has created new opportunities for younger people who may not have had the opportunity to become ritual leaders before. For modern Pagans, I wonder if this development amongst our cousins in Hinduism could offer a lesson in how we approach our own future leaders? To integrate them more fully into our rites, give them more responsibilities, and not shy away from teaching them our faith?

That’s all I have for now, have a good day!

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • On Teenage Priesthood, The Correllian Tradition has made a commitment for a decade to incorporate youth into the path.This is historical, as Don Lewis himself was a teen priest in the 70’s. emerging to leadership in the 80’s. Many who began are now in their 20’s and 30’s, leading groups and moving into leadership role. In fact, that is why we are behind ‘The Young Witches of Salem’ project, as it will give voice to a younger generation. I deal with the fact many teens and young adults feel completely outside of the community, by elders.

    • **I deal with the fact many teens and young adults feel completely outside of the community, by elders.**

      I read this with interest because I know that I am guilty of not including my children in more religious activities, and guilty of not explaining more to them about my/their spirituality. I was raised fundamentalist Christian, and was forced to participate in church activities. As a result, I tend to go overboard in trying to make sure that my kids don’t feel pressured to participate or believe in something just because I do. Because of this, I now have kids who call themselves Pagan, but really don’t have the faintest idea what that entails.

      • I have observed this as a common theme among Pagan parents, often expressed as some desire not to “indoctrinate” one’s children. Maybe its from being raised in a liberal Christian household where various religions were viewed as different ways to experience god, rather than a fundamentalist viewpoint…but the idea that teaching=indoctrination is not one I share. I have to agree with a point raised in an interesting essay called Raising Pagan Children by Neal Jansons–If we don’t see fit to teach our children what we believe to be true, and how it works and why, then we have ceded that responsibility (and our beliefs) to either “secular materialist culture or monotheism” via “television or kids at school” (as he puts it).

      • Magaly Guerrero

        I think not educating children on spirituality is a bad idea. I’m against indoctrinating children who don’t understand what they are getting into, but history of religion should be part of every child’s upbringing. That way when they are old enough, they can make their own decisions. The idea of “kids who call themselves Pagan” or anything else without having “the faintest idea what that entails” is a very scary one.

  • Anonymous

    For modern Pagans, I wonder if this development amongst our cousins in Hinduism could offer a lesson in how we approach our own future leaders? To integrate them more fully into our rites, give them more responsibilities, and not shy away from teaching them our faith?

    That’s a fascinating concept. I’m not sure that teenagers are ready to assume the role of “clergy” (although, as a teenager, I’m sure that I’d have differed). But they certainly can (and should be given the chance to) assume important roles in, and help to lead, ritual. I think that the annual Spiral Dance in SF attempts to do this, correct? IMHO, as a former high school teacher, teens need time for their “own” rituals AND need to be integrated into larger community rituals. Many have noted that the lack of meaningful initiation rituals for young adults harms our society.

    Meanwhile, the stigma associated with being Pagan continues to make it difficult for both teens and adults. I once hosted the granddaughter of a dear friend, come to DC for a Summer internship. This young woman was Wiccan, and that was accepted by her family, but she could only practice on her own, as in her area, there were no public groups. And many covens (and this is true of my own) won’t take members younger than 18 for fear of being caught up in a nasty divorce, etc. even if both parents originally give consent.

    Good on the young girls in India, stepping up to fill a void.

  • I see no problem with young people assuming clerical roles within our community, as apprentices first and moving onward and upward, especially those who have been practicing several years. Quite a few teens and young adults I’ve met are more in-tune with their beliefs on an incredibly deep level, sometimes more so than those who are twice my age.

    Now granted, I am of the persuasion who tends to value experience over education, because book smarts only gets you so far in spiritual matters. After all, what good does it do if someone can go through all the motions of a formal ritual if there is no spiritual benefit gained – no power raised? That’s just called acting. There are some people who are innately gifted in raising power and communing with Nature and Deities, and the younger these people are, the less corrupted by the world at large. Innocence can truly be a blessing.

    But there are two ends to that experience, namely *life* experience, which many younger people simply do not have. I’m not talking about the girl who sailed around the world by herself, or child stars, or those who’ve been tossed around from one foster family to another – *they* have genuine life experiences many of us adults will never have and many never come to truly appreciate. I’m referring to kids and young adults who’ve only left Suburbia to go on annual family vacations, who haven’t had to worry about paying for college or work for pocket money while studying, who haven’t had to go to bed hungry, who haven’t had anyone close to them pass away – that sort of thing. Those are life experiences that anyone who calls themselves clergy should have, at least a few of them.

    Has anyone seen Gran Torino? If you can get past the Archie Bunker-isms, it’s an incredibly solid, poignant film. The priest in that movie, he had no life experiences when he lead the sermon over the protagonist’s (Clint Eastwood as Wally Kowalski) wife’s funeral at the very beginning – merely reciting what he learned recently in the seminary without truly understanding the concept of death. Later in the movie, when the good father meets “Mr. Kowalski” (Grrrrr! hehe) at the bar, who’s a retired Ford machinist and a Korean War veteran holding down fort in modern-day, crumbling Detroit, ole Wally says to him,

    “You are a twenty-seven year old virgin who likes to hold the hands of superstitious old ladies and promise them eternity. What do /you/ know about death?” Well, without spoiling too much, the good father /does/ learn quite a bit about death, struggles, hardships, overcoming obstacles and quite a bit more by the end of the movie. Ergo, a perfect example of what I expect in clergy.

    • Grimmorrigan

      Great film one of the best I’e seen. Eastwood reminds me of my Grandfather in it. However I can never watch that film again. It hurt too much.

      • I felt the same about The Wrestler – one of the best movies I can’t bare to watch over and over.

    • Pagan Puff Pieces

      Cranky old-fashioned veteran racist is Jesus! It’s like a dream come true!
      But in all seriousness, it is a good movie.

      On a similar note, I remember hearing someone say “There’s no priest worth his salt who wasn’t an atheist at some point.” Has a young priest gotten through the inner turmoil yet (Well, dogmatic little me was struggling a lifetime, and still does, so… maybe someone’s completed it younger than me, or maybe it never stops)?

  • All of these articles are good news. Good news makes me happy.

  • On ‘teenage’ priesthood or clergy (though I am not sure that concept has ever suited the majority of our contemporary Pagan traditions) – I was initiated as one of the first WildWood priestes at the age of 18. I was taken into Persephone’s service and celebration at the age of 16. Many of us in Western cultures forget that our Pagan ancestors in Europe (and even through into Christianity) marked their medicine people, shamans and priest/esses from birth and these children were often sent away to elders and teachers who would train them in sacred arts and the mysteries of the spirits and deities. Often by mid-late teenagehood these individuals were consecrated vessels and servants of a multitude of deities.

    Though we do not often possess the cultural context or orientation for those of us who discover at quite an early/young age that we are destined for the priest/esshood, this does not hinder the tutelage that comes directly from the Ancestors, the Gods or even more broadly the Earth or Cosmos HerSelf (often on all levels). While I was quite blessed to be born into a traditionally animistic and polytheistic family, I grew up in a Western country (Australia) and found the paradigms here did not parallel those whispered of in my family.

    I am now an author of two books and one forthcoming and a co-founder (although we don’t often use that term) of the WildWood Tradition of Witchcraft. I have had many opportunities to reveal my priesthood publically not only in the wider Pagan community (and in several countries), but also in the Interfaith arena. I have discovered that my value has not been judged by elders or teachers who are older than I am, in fact I am welcomed and often celebrated. I believe this is because on some level many in the Pagan community are aware that the young need to rise up, make their mark and bravely take their place in the priest/esshood so the work can be done. There is so much of it to do.

    • Aine

      I too was raised in a Pagan(ish) household (because my mother studied Witchcraft, Wicca, and Paganism before I was born and considers herself an atheist or animist depending on the day). My mother strongly discouraged me from pursuing clergy in any way and has continued to caution me against it, but I knew from an early age as well that the work of the priest(ess) was the work I should do. I was healing through touch when I was young without really knowing what it was, and there have been other little (and big!) happenings in my life that have shown me that this is my path.

      I now plan on getting a major in Comparative Religious Studies and hopefully attending Cherry Hill after that, perhaps a graduate program as well. I’m also working on creating a new tradition and group, mostly online, and you-Gede Parma (Mr. Parma sounded weird in my head!)-and your writing inspired me to do this. After all, seeing what you had done gave me hope that, even when my family opposed it, I could follow my spiritual goals. (Ha, does that make sense?)

      And I’m quite looking forward to your new book and have enjoyed the other two.

      • Thank-you Aine for your comments 🙂 I completely agree – if you feel called, you feel called…

        Haha, and yes it would feel weird if anyone called me Mr. Parma *shudders*


  • Preserving the sacred lands are very important and being a Witch and one who grew up being taught that Nature was to be nurtured and not destroyed I would love to see the Rainforests, Isle of Tara and many other sites in which today are being destroyed for monetary gain to be protected from any more destruction.

    As for teenage clergy, this is not something within our family we allow. We do know that there are many wise teenagers out there, but to be a Priestess or Priest of the Gods takes a lot of sacrifice in ones’ life and a child is a child and should be allowed to be young as it only comes once. While, yes, there are those who are special and are taught from a very young age within a hereditary line and their studies are for a life time and only upon reaching a specific age are they allowed to teach after years of training. The Craft of Old is not a crash course it takes a lot of serious dedication and many life experiences to gain the Wisdom to lead others. The Clergy, Priestess, Priest, Reverend, Ministers are there as leaders and organisers of groups and people and for a young teenager this can be to much if without enough training and studies.

    Within our family we do not teach the young we wait until they are of a legal age to begin any form of training, outside of general advise and recommended reading we do not allow the children to cast magic or lead such sacred and important rituals.

    Many Blessings

  • Kelly NicDruegan

    The only prohibition against teaching Pagan religion to children of any age that has ever made sense to me is if those kids are not *yours.* If they are not your kids, then any teaching should be done only with full parental knowledge and consent.

    However, if they ARE your kids why shouldn’t you include them into your religious practice… in an age-appropriate way of course. To do otherwise has always struck me as implying that there was something “dangerous” or “unseemly” about your faith, and why on the Goddess’s green Earth would any Pagan want to do that?

    • I think there may be a misunderstanding. My kids go to ritual, and participate. But I don’t think they know what it _means_. They know what I say it means, but I don’t think it’s something they feel in their hearts; I think to them it’s just like going to Christian church with their friends. They like the socializing and the potlucks.

  • Andi

    Priests in India are *paid* when they perform services, usually paid directly and their temple is given a donation. As their culture becomes more secular, there are fewer full-time priests needed, except for the big festivals, when there aren’t enough to go around, and it isn’t really a part-time commitment.

    Modern American pagans shy away, sometimes with violently, over the idea of tithing, or paying the priesthood directly, even though this is normal and necessary for every other faith. Some think that our faith will never be taken seriously by ourselves or the wider culture as long as our priesthood remains unpaid volunteers and not professionals.

  • Éireann

    From reading comments here, I don’t think modern American pagans ought to think of Hindus as their spiritual cousins. The American pagan idea of clergy seems to stem from either American Christian ideas (have you soul-searched and questioned your faith/become an atheist yet?) or New Age ideas (touch healing as part of calling). Ethnic traditions are not necessarily based on a philosophy which one questions, or on viewing clergy as healers. Clergy in these cases serve a relgio-social -function- to lead communal religious services. Philosophy and healing are likely taking place via other designated experts. Our cultural framework for the term ‘clergy’ doesn’t match that of other culture’s, and so it is not a clear parallel when discussing it in our culture compared to another.

    • Rev. Mike Walker

      I have a slightly different view. I understand Clergy roles as complex
      and comprising many factors (personas?), such as Priest/Sacerdote/
      Ritual-Leader, Healer/Counselor, Seer/Prophet/Wise-Speaker, Manager/Administrator, Advocate/Activist, Community-Organizer and/or Community-Builder, Chief Cat-Herder, and many more. I agree with your thesis that a one-for-one comparison between clergy of different faiths is not possible, but don’t think that means that no comparisons at all should be made. These are not apples and oranges, they are mandarin and navel oranges — enough similarity that discussion and discourse is still beneficial.