Pagan chaplaincy growing in Canada

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CANADA — The presence of a chaplain is not an extraordinary thing on a Canadian university campus, in a prison, or at a hospital. In recent years, it has become more common across the country to see minority religions being represented. At the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Wiccan chaplain Samuel Wagar volunteers his time to serve the Pagan and Wiccan campus population. He also participates in any interfaith opportunities that arise to create understanding and spiritual growth opportunities for the greater Pagan community.

University of Alberta Wiccan Chaplin Samuel Wagar [Photo Credit: Ed Kaiser]

In recent weeks, that work is keeping Wagar very busy. He and the team of chaplains at the University of Alberta were on call to provide services for the more than 1,000 evacuees from the Fort McMurray fires, who found shelter on the university campus. This past Sunday, Wagar and members of his temple attended Edmonton Pride Day festivities. The celebration included an interfaith service.

In a Skype interview with The Wild Hunt, Wagar described his participation in this service as well as the valuable collaborations that are often born out of events just like this. Wager said:

Last Sunday I was part of the interfaith service for Pride Day, and that is something that our church has done for the past three years. I get these opportunities because I am a chaplain; I get introduced to people and I get opportunities to collaborate with them. There were seven of my temple members there at this event, to engage with other religious communities, that is very valuable for all of us.

The issues of the world are too big and dirty for any one approach. We really have to find a way to pool our approaches to learn from each other. From my perspective as a Wiccan Priest, it indicates to what extent we are now considered a normal part of the conversation, and that is a change from a number of years ago. It was the suggestion of the United Church minister involved in coordinating the service that we should do a Wiccan web weaving as the central ritual element in the ceremony. So I ended up leading this central element.

We were talking about connections and intersections and the way people have different identities and that these different identities lead to different connections with people. So it was an obvious and very good symbol for that kind of connection. But, it wasn’t a suggestion that came from me, it came from this Christian guy! It is because they recognize the particular expertise and particular ways of approaching things that Wicca has, as being a valuable part of the conversation in a way that didn’t happen, even ten years ago. It wasn’t tokenism, it was obvious that this was a very good metaphor for what we were trying to talk about in the larger ceremony.

Across the country in Toronto, the presence of Pagan chaplains on campus dates back to the 1980s. Brian Walsh has been one of two active chaplains at the University of Toronto since 2002. He has also served as a spiritual care worker at a hospital for the last ten years.

Pagan Chaplain, Brian Walsh (photo by Rebecca Weber)

He clarified these two designations in a recent email exchange with The Wild Hunt. Walsh explained:

While the two words are often used interchangeably, especially in the US and in faith-based environments, the two roles are quite distinct and here in Canada they are being separated more and more. So, while it is certainly the role of clergy and chaplains to stand as tradition-bearers, to form a bridge between the tradition behind them and the person in front of them; the role of a spiritual care provider is to bracket the tradition behind them, and maybe even their own opinions about the divine, in order to facilitate the meaning-making of the person in front of them, irrespective of how that relates to their own or anyone else’s tradition.

Given that religion can be not only a resource, but also a source of problems; having a person whose scope of practice is focused on the individual rather than their cultus of origin can be vital to enhancing a person’s spirituality, agency, and wellness.

The process of becoming a chaplain in Canada varies by region and also by where the chaplain will be working. Walsh said:

The process in universities and private institutions is highly variable, but hospitals usually require training through and membership in CASC, the Canadian Association of Spiritual Care.

Prisons and some other institutions make choices that may be strongly influenced by multi-faith organizations, whose members might be primarily interested in insuring their particular group has representation, and only secondarily interested in inter-faith dialogue; though recently organizations like Kairos (an ecumenical movement for ecological justice and human rights), are trying to insure quality of care while still maintaining a faith-based structure (22% of prison chaplains today are hired through Kairos, including a pagan or two).

In most instances, becoming a pagan chaplain, or a spiritual care provider who happens to be pagan, requires training beyond what is normally offered within this or that tradition as well as community support. I have occasionally received inquiries by people less interested in the work and more interested in seeing if it a short cut to status in the community… it’s not.

What comes after chaplaincy? For Wagar, the next stage of evolution will be the launch of his new venture: The Edmonton Wiccan Seminary. This institution will train Wiccan clergy to lead and establish public temples, provide Wiccan religious education for the general public, and also publish resources for religious education on the Wicca. The seminary will be an independent body in agreement with the Congregationalist Witchcraft Association of Canada, a federal organization founded by Wagar and his coven in 1991. This organization has provincial offshoots in British Columbia, Alberta (CWAA) and Saskatchewan. Membership into any of these groups will not be a prerequisite to enrollment in the Seminary, but ordination into CWAA will be available to successful graduates.

Wagar explained his rationale for creating the seminary, saying:

For many years I have realized that well-meaning bibliophiles don’t necessarily have the formal or systematic theological training and understanding or training and understanding in things like group dynamics, bylaws, organizational stuff, all things that if we are serious, we need to do. I’m a part of a minority tendency in the Wiccan movement that wants this stuff, most of us don’t. It’s institutionalization for lack of a better word and hopefully in a way that doesn’t exclude those people who aren’t interested in the institutions, but provides supplements to them.

The seminary is not about training coven leaders, but temple leaders. I really don’t like projects that are the project of only one person and that live and die with their enthusiasm. It will initially be my project and I will stay the dominant person for the first five or six years. Hopefully by that point there will be other people to take it over. I’ll be 60 later this year, so I figure this will be a nice retirement project and then I can go off an cultivate my roses or something….not likely given my history.

The papers for the seminary are about to be submitted and, once processed, The Edmonton Wiccan Seminary will be an incorporated not-for-profit entity. Registration for students will open in September, with classes starting January 2017. The real-time experience will be based in Edmonton, but there is potential for online classes. Mentorship opportunities are also being negotiated with the affiliated CWA groups in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.

Times have changed in Canada and the number of Pagan chaplains is growing. Wagar looks back and candidly remembers his first thoughts about his calling to serve his community this way:

When I started this chaplain stuff, I was actually a little nervous, and a bit defensive I thought I may have to defend myself, and our beliefs. It has been extremely positive, almost without exception. What seems to have happened, is that we have crossed a watershed. Wicca and Paganism is now a respectable, small, religious current.