One Step, One Leap: The Ripple Effect of Equivalency

Heather Greene —  November 18, 2012 — 37 Comments

One small step forward for a Pagan but a giant leap for Pagan-kind. 

Footprints in Sand

Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Blatz

Earlier this week Cherry Hill Seminary announced that the Board of Chaplaincy Certification Incorporated (BCCI), certifying body of the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC), granted Sandra Lee Harris MDiv the go-ahead to apply for her chaplaincy certification.  The letter reads:

“Thank you for your application for a theological education equivalency.  The Commission on Certification has reviewed your education credentials and it is the decision of the Commission that your request be granted.”

Many of you may already know that.  Sandra’s news was reported here at The Wild Hunt and was emailed throughout many of the Pagan networking organizations.  So why am I spending an entire post on this?  Why am I wasting our collective Sunday rehashing the story?

Really, is there anything better to do on a chilly, fall morning than contemplate the future of Pagan education within Academia?   I think not.   So, sit back, grab a cup of tea, and let’s examine how the implications of this announcement far exceed the personal triumphs of one Pagan’s journey.  Let me share what I’ve learned after a week of research and two interesting phone conversations.

How a step became a leap….

Cherry Hill SeminaryBefore ever graduating from Cherry Hill Seminary (CHS), Sandra began investigating the prospects of earning her professional Chaplain certification from APC.  In doing so, she realized that she would have to prove that her theological education, from an unaccredited institution, was equivalent to the academic work of any CHEA (Council for Higher Education) accredited school.  However, there were two major hurdles. First, there is no APC precedent for judging Pagan theological programs.  Second, there are no standards in theological courses of study across religious institutions. So how do you prove the equivalency of an unknown factor to something else that just doesn’t exist?

Solving this conundrum and proving equivalency became the basis of Sandra’s master’s thesis.   Her abstract reads:

The courses credited toward the first Master of Divinity in Pagan Pastoral Counseling from Cherry Hill Seminary are shown to parallel those of degrees from two accredited seminaries, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Tyndale Seminary, when religion-specific requirements for Bible and Christian history studies are replaced by Pagan studies and personal spiritual formation is based on the stated mission values of Cherry Hill Seminary rather than the teachings of Jesus. Further analysis, given similar accommodation, suggests that the Cherry Hill Seminary curriculum in Pagan Pastoral Counseling could satisfy the accreditation requirements of the Association of Theological Schools.

Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling

As you might imagine, the comparison was not cut-and-dried. Pagan theological course work does not always fit neatly with that of other religions.  For example, many Christian-based masters programs require in-depth Bible study classes. Pagan theology doesn’t have an equivalent text and, therefore, can’t have similar requirements. In the end, Sandra not only had to demonstrate academic course equivalency, she had to explain Pagan theological structure, proving its equivalency as well.

As the BCCI letter proves, she was successful, paving the way for future Pagan Cherry Hill Seminary (CHS) students.  During my conversation with her, Sandra, who is now 65 years old, emphasized that she did not apply for the sake of her own career.  Her goal was to “kick the door down for others” and to help establish the credibility of CHS Chaplaincy programs.  Her work, as she said, “is now a prototype for how it can be done” while the school remains unaccredited.

But that won’t be forever.  Holli S. Emore, executive director of CHS, verified that the administration is currently undergoing the lengthy application process that will eventually lead to full accreditation with the Distant Education and Training Council (DETC).  Holli described, in detail, how becoming accredited is a crucial step for the future of CHS and its students.

First, it will “earmark” Cherry Hill Seminary as a legitimate school of higher education on par with any other accredited academic seminary regardless of religious affiliation.  At this point, CHS has already been licensed in the state of South Carolina to award higher-education degrees.  Accreditation will take that a step further, setting the institution apart from make-shift online courses by recognizing CHS’ high academic standards, rigorous programs of study and degreed teachers.

Cherry Hill Seminary's Holli Emore

Holli Emore
Executive Director, Cherry Hill Seminary

As for the students, accreditation means two things.  For graduates seeking credentials, like Sandra, they no longer have to prove equivalency or justify the credibility of their education.  Furthermore, accreditation would allow CHS students to apply for federal tuition assistance including Veterans’ benefits and other Military-based aid.  Right now, CHS students pay out of their own pockets.

So where is CHS in the process?  The Board has jumped through the first set of hurdles.  Now they are faced with a funding problem.  As it turns out, the accreditation process is very expensive, costing thousands of dollars.  It will take some time to raise enough funds to meet the remaining accreditation requirements.  However, with its dedicated staff and the support of the greater Pagan community it is certainly a real possibility.

In the meantime the school is gaining professional respect through alternative and unexpected means, such as the BCCI letter and the upcoming partnership with The University of South Carolina  for the 2013 “Sacred Lands and and Spiritual Landscapes” symposium.  In a recent email,  David L. Oringderff, CHS professor noted:

“The fact that [Sandra] has progressed this far speaks volumes…for the growing acceptance of Pagan spiritual formations within the Interfaith Community, and Cherry Hill Seminary’s standing and credibility in the academic community.”

So what can the rest of us take away from this?  What does this mean to the greater Pagan community?  All of these advancements indicate a shift in society towards genuine respect for alternative religions within the professional world.  Pagan institutions, like CHS, are on the front lines of this social change, breaking the boundaries that separate Paganism from mainstream society and actively standing for the legitimacy of Pagan belief systems.  The benefits trickle down to each of us, allowing for positive work at the community level.  “When Cherry Hill Seminary is healthy, that well-being extends into all corners of the Pagan world,” Holli remarks.

Labyrinth Courtesy CHS

Walking the Labyrinth
Courtesy Cherry Hill Seminary

That’s a big statement.  However, Sandra clarified it best when she explained that, “the big institutions will never be able to define Paganism.”  They can never take place of the small, autonomous groups practicing throughout the country.  However, the institutions do have a very important role to play. “[They] put Paganism into [a social] context for us and for the rest of the world,” she concludes. That work benefits everyone.

As for Sandra, she will continue the APC application for Chaplaincy certification.  Beyond that, she looks forward to working with the Fairfax County Community Chaplain Corps, a local interfaith organization that “provides spiritual care and support to community members during and after a local emergency or man-made or natural disaster.”  Once again, she takes a small step forward and who knows what size leap may follow.


Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.
  • corvidmp

    Yeah, one step closer yo completing my master plan of becoming the first pagan military chaplain 😉

    • KhalilaRedBird

      What are you doing to bring your dream into manifestation?

  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    I always hear/read people saying that Paganism has no equivalent texts to The Bible (TM), yet I believe it has many.

    Of course there are many different varieties of Paganism, but it is still possible to find texts for many of those varieties. Be it the Eddas and Sagas, or the Mabinogi, or the Kalevala or any umber of historic tales of the gods and heroes of the ‘Pagan past’.

    Sure, these may not be dogmatic canon like the Bible is, but they are still the core of what many (if not most) Pagans connect with. Without these stories, Pagans would be making stuff up without any precedent.

    • CorvidMP

      Honestly what amazes me quite often is the number of pagans who have never actually cracked open a translation of the the old myths and just studied the real source material for our beliefs.

      I guess we share that problem with Christians and most other religions though lol

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        I couldn’t agree more.

    • Faoladh

      The Mabinogi is a collection of late medieval/early modern literature. It seems to incorporate some themes and character names which may be derived from an oral mythological tradition, but it is not, itself, a completely accurate representation of such. The Kalevala is a 19th century poem which is based on field folklore collection, but is not, itself, a direct reflection of such. Although it is not my specialty, I am given to understand that the sagas and eddas we have are literary works created, largely, by monastics that may (to some degree) reflect a legitimate oral mythological tradition, but not necessarily so.

      What I’m saying is that, while these may provide some useful data, they are not, themselves, holy texts equivalent to the position that the Bible holds for Christians. They do point the way toward sacred tales, but they are not, strictly speaking, those sacred tales themselves, which have to be understood by comparison with other stories, folklore, folksongs, archaeology, and recorded mythology from other parts of the world (notably, early Vedic Hindu material, Greek and Roman writings, a few surviving stories and traditions from eastern Europe, and the living Kalash people, among other useful sources), combined with a carefully developed understanding of the cosmological underpinnings of the various traditions in question.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Since the oral tradition is broken, these are as close as we are likely to get to the ‘source material’ on the Pagan gods.

        • Faoladh

          I discussed part of the way that we can approach more closely than the extant literature that draws on the oral tradition. In addition to those methods of comparison and study, actually engaging with the gods and spirits of our various traditions is incredibly valuable. Neither should take precedence over the other, of course.

          However, my point was that the extant texts do not hold the same place as the Bible does in Christian tradition (for that matter, even the Greek and Roman texts don’t have the same position of authority in regard to the related polytheist religions as that book does for that tradition).

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I am not suggesting that books are the only source of knowledge, but they are invaluable in increasing knowledge, if only initial introductions.

          • Faoladh

            I feel like we’re not really conversing at the moment, as I’m not sure what that has to do with what I wrote. Obviously, I’d agree with that, but it seems to miss the point of what I am trying to convey.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I was clarifying my point as, rereading, it seemed I was suggesting the primacy of historical books, which was not really what I am trying to say.

            I would agree that the extant texts do not hold the same place as the Bible does in Christianity, but I would suggest they can come close.

          • Faoladh

            Ah, that’s fair.

            I still maintain that they can only have value by engaging in wider study creating a context for the literary texts.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I agree, context is vital. But more knowledge is hardly a bad thing, is it?

          • Faoladh

            Exactly. Which is why treating the extant literary texts as though they were equivalent to the Christian Bible is a serious mistake.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Depends on how you view the Bible, I guess.

          • Faoladh

            Depends on how Christians view the Bible, actually.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            In a variety of ways. I was raised Anglican, for example. The Bible is there to inform, but is not the be-all and end-all of faith.

          • Faoladh

            That’s fair enough.

        • Faoladh

          Furthermore, “as close as we are likely to get” is a matter of wishful thinking. It is a desire to take texts and make a use of them for which they are not suitable. Their proper use, from the perspective of modern polytheist religion, is as a point of comparison, not as an authoritative reference.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I’d take them as far more authoritative than some of the newage-hippy-bullshit out there (Doreen Virtue, I am looking at you!)

            Not saying that they are the be all and end all, but I am of the belief that they give a far ‘truer’ representation of the gods than a lot of modern reinterpretations do.

          • Faoladh

            I think that they are an important indicator, but that comparative methods are at least as important.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I approach belief scientifically. I look for verification where possible.

          • Faoladh

            I think that we may be saying nearly the same thing at this point.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I think so. Use as many independent sources as possible and look for constancy between them.

          • Faoladh

            Yes, comparison to similar traditions, archaeology, folklore, and so on (as I note several replies back).

      • RE: the Kalevala. In my experience, modern Finnish Pagans don’t actually look to the Kalevala for religious instruction/ inspiration etc; they go right to the actual source material collected by folklorists in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries- much of which is collected in what is known as the SKVR (Suomen Kansan Vanhat Runot), which is encyclopedic in length. While the 19th century may seem a late date to look for inspiration as Pagans, the place where most of the folklore was collected, Karelia, essentially had a syncretic religion where indigenous practices mixed in with Christianity to quite a high degree.

    • kenneth

      There are plenty of valuable (and perhaps under-appreciated) texts which inform pagan religions. None really serve the same role as the Bible or Torah or Koran do for their respective religions. Within Abrahamic trads these books are near-universally recognized as the foundational documents of the religions themselves. They are regarded as the detailed administrative regs which God issued persuant to covenants with particular groups of people and then dictated out in detail through certain prophets. They are the source of law and the authority of law giving among these groups. They are packed full of proscriptive and prescriptive laws about how to be a good Christian, Jew, Muslim etc. The very existence of the religions themselves derives from the texts themselves.

      Pagan texts are not so much the corporate charter docucments and personnel policy manual as they are collections of valuable myths for the edification and education of individual pagans. They’re great for imparting in people a better sense of who and what the gods are, how they struggle, and how people might conduct themselves with valor and honor and kinship and a healthy relationship with the gods. Their understanding and use is tied to a great extent to the traditions our of which they arose and none are considered the sort of universal seminal texts and justification for a pagan religion in the same way the Christians view the bible. I don’t think we as pagans are any lessened by that fact, but it does mean pagan seminary candidates will find themselves developing some new and more meaningful yardsticks for scholarship and baseline competency for chaplaincy.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Sure, there are fewer instances of lists of Pagan commandments (although, Hávamál springs to mind, for those interested in Germanic practices, and there is always the Wiccan Rede for the Wiccans), but the Bible is far more a collection of stories about the Abrahamic god(s) and heroes than a listing of commandments (although these are contained within).

        There are people who claim deep personal connection to gods that have no similarities to the consensus view. For some reason, we can’t call these people out as delusional/’whackjobs’, even though we manage just fine at doing such with fringe elements of Christianity.

        I have personally had arguments with people about the nature of certain gods because their knowledge has been derived from popular culture (notably certain recent comic-inspired movies) whereas I come from having read (translations of) the ‘source material’.

        No, I do not believe everyone’s beliefs are equally valid. I believe that, for some, wishful thinking and fancy come into play a lot.

        Why should this view be either controversial or taboo?

        • kenneth

          I wouldn’t say this view is “taboo”, but it certainly can be controversial because it deals with the core controversy of all religious movements: What is the true nature/will of the gods and whose interpretation is “correct”/authoritative on the matter?

          I wholeheartedly agree that more scholarship is better than less and that all pagans could greatly benefit from a grounding in the literary tradition of their path, even if original sources are fragmentary. On the other hand, our religions are not, for the most part, primarily rooted in revelation through prophets and compiled into tomes meant to be closed canons or God’s standing memo to all people for all time.

          We deal much more with direct interaction with deity, and so if some guy claims to have met Odin in some way very atypical of what the text say, what do we do? We can say it’s wishful thinking, or pop culture fantasy or total bullshit, and it may well be. On the other hand, it may be that his experience is real and shaped by his own limitations or a god manifesting himself a certain way meant only for that individual. The ancients understood this sort of thing and so you didn’t see a lot of councils rooting out heresy etc. At the end of the day, you have to decide who you will work/circle with and what is a reasonable baseline of scholarship and dedication.

          For the purposes of certified chaplaincy, candidates should be able to demonstrate an understanding of texts key to their traditions and perhaps an overview of other common pagan lore. There will always be mismatches when we try to cut and paste a Judeo-Christian template on what we do, so my hat is off to those few willing to take on the long and expensive pioneering work.

          • Jason White

            “We can say it’s wishful thinking, or pop culture fantasy or total
            bullshit, and it may well be. On the other hand, it may be that his
            experience is real and shaped by his own limitations or a god
            manifesting himself a certain way meant only for that individual.”

            This is why I like the Recon concepts of UPG/SPG/CG — it gives a structured way to describe ideas as separate from the lore, but still possibly relevant. If one’s experience of a deity isn’t shared with anyone else, and is completely dissonant with the lore, then it’s likely not as broadly relevant as, say, an experience that is shared by a number of people and then later backed up by new scholarship.

            There’s a place in Pagan faiths for new experience and lore, but I can’t help but feel it’s important to maintain a solid grounding in the past.

            “There will always be mismatches when we try to cut and paste a
            Judeo-Christian template on what we do, so my hat is off to those few
            willing to take on the long and expensive pioneering work.”

            Hear, hear. The rest of us owe a great deal of gratitude for the work they do, and how much their hard work on this end will benefit us all in years to come.

    • KhalilaRedBird

      “but they are still the core of what many (if not most) Pagans connect
      with. Without these stories, Pagans would be making stuff up without any

      One of the beauties of current Paganism, to me, is the openness to the many ways by which we humans connect with our gods — and the very many real, personal, and important gods with whom we connect. We are not restricted to that subset of the Ancient Ones whose followers “wrote stuff down”, and our Ancient Ones may be new in name and form to those who have yet to encounter them. For this reason, I find “making stuff up without any precedent” to be unnecessarily derogatory, even if that is how you may see us. We — and our gods — live here, now, and the challenges we face together are those of the present and future.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        It was not meant as derogatory, it was observational.

        Without any form of corroboration, people can say whatever they like and be expected to be taken seriously. All I was asking is where the line gets drawn.

        If people feel that is derogatory, that is fair enough. My concern is truth, not tact.

        • KhalilaRedBird

          When people speak of their personal experience and relationship with their gods, they deserve to be taken seriously. When they offer judgments on someone else’s personal experience and relationships, they may be crossing a line intruding into areas beyond their ken. Truth is important; so is tact.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            ‘Seriously’ was, perhaps, the wrong word.

            There are plenty of people out there peddling snake oil. How do you spot the difference?

          • KhalilaRedBird

            Listen. Ask questions respectfully. Assume that they are telling the truth as they know it. Try to find ways consistent with your own experience in which you *could* understand what they are saying — and only offer judgment to save a life.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I’ve done it that way before (well, apart from the saving a life part, that really is not my style). I got screwed over. Now I approach things with a mind that is actually more open than it used to be – I am open to the idea that someone could be wrong.

  • kittylu

    would be Pagan seminarians could also try anthropology. Even though it has a history of detached voyeurism enabling exploitation thats what I plan on doing.