In seeing some of the responses so far, I have a few more things I want to say, both directly related and indirectly related to specific things.
In my experience there is a tendency within paganism/polytheism that many within a year or two if converting want to suddenly be a priest and leader, and they lack the call to the role, or the experience and understanding to function as such. It becomes a thing of ego, instead of as an ambassador to the Gods, Ancestors and vaettir.
And this reminds me of what, exactly, prompted me to think about this phenomenon in the first place: the derision. The very brief tangent between the priests at Devora’s workshop where they touched on polytheist fads and misguided attempts at achieving priesthood had an undercurrent of derision to it. Exasperation. As though layfolk are children that need to stop pretending that they’re adults.
And I think this is why (at least, for me), when I read someone in a position of religious authority try and tell me that I should be happy to not have any religious authority myself, it often rubs the wrong way.
Here, we live in a world where we not only have no overarching pagan community structure to help us contextualize our work and worship, but the current overculture itself makes hypocritical and contradictory demands of us as citizens of the western world too: that we should always strive to be more, to be at the top, to be an authority, while also conditioning us to call out others for stepping out of line. Which brings me to…
The notion that we should all constantly be “progressing” in our religious lives, always “deepening” our practice, always getting to know the Gods “more”, isn’t… necessarily good. (In fact, this seems to be a pretty Christian, not pagan, conception of the goals and reasoning for worship.)
And this emphasis on more – more Gods, more spirits, more devotion, more rituals, more offerings – is maybe part of the narrative that drives people to perceive that the position of laity is bound by a glass ceiling, and above that is the station of clergy, which theoretically has none.
Sarenth talked a lot about hierarchy being a major issue, but I’m not sure I wholly agree. For one, having clearly delineated group or community roles does not an hierarchy make; having someone else’s needs and decisions trump someone else’s, simply by virtue of occupying a position, does. So, I disagree that polytheist communities necessarily need hierarchy in order for people to feel that they have a role to play.
However, the thing about hierarchy is that we are, most of the time at least, taught that it is something to triumph over rather than accept or transcend. For us USians, the myth of the American Dream, that anybody can do anything if they just work hard or believe in themselves enough, is so ubiquitous, so pervasive, that it often informs the stories and happy endings of our mass media, it makes the news, and it’s a lie we verbally tell our children countless times over the course of their lives. (My father recently told me that he believes that every young woman should see the movie Joy that came out last month – I politely disagreed.)
So, to me at least, it is no wonder that there really isn’t any positive way to describe a practice that is at equilibrium. Instead, it’s “stagnant”, or “not going anywhere”, or “rote”. We can’t even talk about a stable and sustainable practice without even unintentionally implying that more, would in fact, be “better”!
To many of us, we’re programmed to think of hierarchies as ladders: things that are meant to be climbed.
But what happens if we attempt to climb the ladder and do it wrong? Or fail? Onlookers are often quick to admonish us, to think of us in terms of Icarian hubris.
I can’t say whether I see this more from clergy or laity, but both of them do it. Dismissing these attempts at “attention-whoring” or egoism is something that we need to stop doing. These folks didn’t invent the concept of personal progress, didn’t invent the corporate ladder; they are simply taking a certain concept of self and self-worth that they’ve been forced to buy into all their lives, and are bringing into their paganism because no one told them otherwise.
What to Do Now?
Honestly, I still don’t know.
This is a major culture clash: the society we’ve been raised in is fundamentally incompatible with paganism and polytheism in so many ways; from how we’re told to conduct our relationships, to our social contracts, to the roles we occupy in our communities (or lack thereof).
I have no prescriptions. Unlearning the contemporary, post-modern methods of achieving selfhood is vital, no matter which side of the glass ceiling you’re on.
For those of you who want to know what to say and how to speak on the topic, I can’t tell you what to do. I’m not interested in doing that for you. If you’re part of a community, then that will inform you. If you’re not, then that will too.
Figure out if you’re perpetuating an hierarchy in how you interact with your community. If you don’t want to, be mindful of your words and actions and counteract the impulse to sort people in categories of power and non-power. If you do want to, set about ways of doing so in a healthy, holistic way that relies on consenting participants. Nobody likes being told what to do and what not to do by some rando with a blog.
What to Do In the Future
A different landscape for pagan clergy/laity relationships, and pagan communities in general, won’t come about until we start putting in the work now. There is so much for us to learn and unlearn, especially as first-gen converts, and waiting for mass society to change first, for capitalism and post-modernism to fade into irrelevance, for the Christian doctrine of linear progress to once again become a minority mystical tradition… well, you can do what you want, but I’m not going to hold my breath.
I think as our religio-cultural traditions continue to grow, we will all have more opportunities to be part of real, physical communities where we can worship and experience the Gods together, where we can rediscover and reinvent what roles we might want to take up within those communities, and where we can build up trust and systems of accountability that don’t so easily make bogeymen out of the people we don’t know so well.