Column: Reckoning with Priesthood

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Author’s note: New readers should know that this is the second in a series. For those who would rather not play catch up, the overview is this- I think that the Christian church is an integral part of American culture and that, whether or not we grew up in the church, American Pagans are carrying pieces of its worldview. The goal is to identify those pieces, look at them directly, and decide whether they can serve us as they are, become useful when reframed in a more Pagan way, or gotten rid of. Hopefully doing so will soothe old hurts and push us further down the road to an integrated and healthier Pagan paradigm. (It took me a few more words to say that, last time I tried.) 

At any rate, let’s talk about priesthood.


Today I am complaining because I am always overscheduled.

In practice, there are a lot of reasons for this, but they aren’t the point of this story. The point is that, as I am talking to a friend about all the work I need to get done, they lean back and grin, looking smug as a student who helped write the final.

“Is it work,” they ask, as if they already know the answer, “or Work?” The inflection on the capital letter is distinct, a shorthand we have developed over years of talking about magic, about the rituals and events that form my personal practice.

I make a face at them, fond and annoyed at being called out like this. “They’re becoming the same thing,” I admit, and sigh. “Which I’ll worry about when I have the time.”

The grin widens, and they lean forward, poking the table right in front of me as if to nail their point down. “That’s because you’re a priest.”

Spluttering isn’t a graceful thing to do, but it’s the only word for the noise I make in return. “I’m not- there’s. I don’t-”

They just cross their arms and turn their head away. “You can’t argue with my experience,” they say, amused, and pointedly go back to their book.

I am left still spluttering.

*

It might seem like serendipity that so many of the communities I am a part of are wrestling with what priesthood means right now, but I don’t believe in coincidence. The conversation seems to come from every corner – from my own order, from the discussion groups I visit, from my friends as they wrestle with their own experiences.

What makes a person in the Pagan community a religious leader? What does it even mean to lead in a community that is as disparate as ours? What resources do these people need to do their jobs, and how should they be compensated? Are their duties even to the communities, or do they serve the gods first and foremost – and how can they balance those roles?

I have examined these questions for years, turned them over in my hands until the edges have worn down and the details are smooth as a stone. As my religion grew more important to me, taking up increasingly more space in my life, I was faced with the question of what to do with it. Something helpful: that was important. I knew that much. Something that made the world better. I pored over books about the Pagan community, long before I knew how to find it directly, and read about the many theologies that made it up. What Work could I find in this world?

The path that emerged seemed fairly straightforward. The first step was to find the tradition that spoke to my experience. Then I would be expected to go as far in that tradition as possible, eventually reaching mastery and turning to offer my help to others. I would be expected to develop mystical and spiritual wisdom, direct and intense relationships with the divine, a robust and unique theological perspective. I would be expected to become a priest.

The word “priest” is, itself, not the issue. I’m using it here because it is the easiest, most common term for what I am trying to gesture towards. Priest, from Old English prēost, is the generic. In specific it is gothi or gythja, scion, herald, beloved of the gods. They all mean something different, holding some unique set of traits, responsibilities, and gifts – but that is too much to pull out into the light and examine just now.

“Priest,” then. Let it be so.

Uruk King-Priests, circa 3300 BCE [Wikimedia Commons]

The church I grew up in didn’t have pastors. Which isn’t to say that the congregation didn’t want them – there were a string of men who came and did not stay, who felt as though they were not supported, who were sent on in shame. What we had instead were lay leaders. This meant that any of the men who formed the governing body of the church could take the pulpit, if he felt called to do so. As long as the congregation liked what he had to say, he was allowed to stay.

At the time, I assumed that these men had all had some training. Nobody ever claimed they were divinely inspired, and even if that had been the story, the politics of the situation would have told me otherwise. What I knew was that these men had been selected by the congregation as people whose insights I should hear. I listened to them all with the same, admittedly poor, attention and respect that I paid to my less interesting teachers.

Looking back, I have no idea whether any of these men had any training. For what I experienced, very little would have been required. They would stand at the front of the room and elucidate on a theme, focused around a reading from the Bible no more than five minutes in length. After that, and the following song, they would stand at the front of the church and shake hands as people left. That, in my understanding, was their entire function. Bring the people together, tell them how their religion should look, and congratulate them afterwards for listening so well.

As I drifted from the church, and learned more about its history, my attitude toward these leaders took a dip toward contempt. How dare someone with questionable credentials claim some greater knowledge of the divine! My disinterest in the Sunday sermon became disdain as I used my newly-developed skills of logic to pull apart their arguments and challenge their conclusions from the quiet of my pew. Disdain turned to real anger when those conclusions used the sacred to deny the equality of members of our congregation. Eventually, those sermons were too much, and I stopped going to church.

Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with presenting the wisdom earned through study and experience to those who are still seeking it. When I set about looking for a way to serve my community, this was the model that suggested itself first, the one that best suits my strengths in academic pursuits, communication, and my utter surety that at the end of the day I’m right.

It took several hard lessons for me to realize that I have no interest in the constructed authority that comes with calling this priesthood. Too often, this leadership transforms into the accumulation and careful, slow release of knowledge to those who are without. Knowledge is the most secret and dreadful source of magic. There is a lot of power in its control, whether or not power is what we seek. I wasn’t interested in wielding power, so priesthood seemed as though it was out of the question. I went looking for another way to work.

Henry VIII with Charles V and Pope Leon X, 16th c [Wikimedia Commons]

It was years later, long after I had left the church, that I even encountered the idea of a Christian pastor offering anything more than Biblical explication. By then I was engaged in a solitary and mostly academic spiritual life of my own, very separate from the passive participation that had been my Christianity. It was truer to what I believed, and more nurturing, but gods was I lonely. I missed the community that comes with ritual, the social ease of knowing that the people around you share a fundamental way of seeing the world.

Feeling a bit like a fox in a hen house, I went back to church.

The pastor who greeted me was not named Daniel. I cannot tell his name, because he is the man who performed my wedding ceremony. He also met me for coffee when I first approached the church, listened through my first halting explanations of my religion, and reaffirmed that I was welcome in any space he had any say over. I know that at least one of these things would put his job in danger, should the denomination he serves ever find out about it.

Daniel was also the first person I ever met who made priesthood look like work. Getting ahold of him was almost impossible – if he was not at a church function, he was visiting the sick, or counseling someone, or answering an urgent call. When I did catch him, as we slowly grew our friendship, he was always tired – of restrictive church policy, of the challenges posed by spiritual work that was brought to him but was ultimately not his to do, of sheer fatigue. It seemed like grueling work that left him with fewer resources than it should, even with the support of a sizeable congregation.

I still thought he was doing it right, even before I knew what “it” was. His theology wasn’t mine, but it made sense; it made things better. His congregation grew and shone because he was there with it, building it into a community by his sheer presence. He was the shuttle thread in a tapestry, and watching him work was a surprising joy.

There is a verse in the book of Mark, “for even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” Daniel was like that. And the idea of someone whose job was to serve, that was powerful, for me. It was something I had never had, and, I realized, it eased something in me. It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but it was close.

When he moved, I left the church again.

*

These are oversimplifications, a binary of extremes pulled out of the hundreds of denominations and thousands of churches in America today. They are the models I have to work with. On one end, religious leadership looks like authoritarian power brokering, an educator tasked with dragging the less worthy toward the divine. On the other, service to the community looks like constant, taxing emotional labor without the means or time to make the work sustainable. Neither of them is how I want to work with my religion.

I understand why so many Pagans turn to other cultures to find alternatives for what this sort of work might look like. I’ve looked there too, at the cultural isolation of the shaman, the precision and training of the ougan, but taking these roles feels like theft of a kind that I cannot justify, and cannot even really manage. At the end of the day, when I look at my own practice (and that is what it is, practice, patterns carried out through repetition and muscle memory) I see my learned Christian ideas of priesthood playing out again and again, like a house from which there is no escape.

It has occurred to me only very recently that I feel a lot better about stealing things if I am already inside the house.

Acts 2:3-4 – “They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” [Wikimedia Commons]

Today I am stealing the word “ministry.” I am not exactly sure who I am stealing it from; when I learned about it, we called it “spiritual gifts,” but in my understanding, it is the way Christians speak about the different ways people are called to serve their gods. Priesthood is the best known, the shepherding of a community with kind but firm leadership, but it isn’t the only option. More esoteric denominations include divination, healing, spirit work, and magic, even if they don’t use those words, exactly. There are whole practices dedicated to discerning which gift someone has been given and training them to use it well. Nobody is expected to have access to all of them.

Discerning one’s ministry is a process, a conversation between the individual, the community, and the Divine, and it seems to be entirely Christian. My experience of Pagan practice has been strangely universal, a direct line from initiation to a specific sort of mastery. Not all would reach that mastery, true, but there were no alternatives presented. As I have studied, I have realized that mastery was not something that I wanted to pursue. I have never been interested in magic for its own sake, never even wanted to learn energy work or healing. Still, I felt the expectation to study and become at least a deeply mediocre generalist, creating holy oils with the same sense of duty that once accompanied algebra homework.

In the concept of ministry, suddenly, I felt as though I were being given permission to play to my own strengths and to spend my time investigating what they were. For the first time, my path unsure, I felt like I had the freedom to explore.

I am still in that period of discernment. I may be there for the rest of my life, testing connections, reaching out to the gods in different ways as I navigate the dances where we can partner most fluidly. And it is here, gleefully free of the word priest for the first time, that it has found me again, in someone else’s mouth.

I am trying to hold it gently. There are too many things I expect of the word, too many images to force myself to conform to. I remember them, and I try to take them as lessons, to take the bits that I find useful for my own life and discard the rest.

My work is internal, a constant evaluation and restructuring of myself in community. Apparently, that Work is enough.

“Priest,” then. Let it be so.


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