Follow-Up to the Clergy/Laity Discussion

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 a comment on Sarenth’s post on the subject, someone said this:

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…

“Progress”

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.

Hierarchy

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. 

Hostility

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.

 

 

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5 thoughts on “Follow-Up to the Clergy/Laity Discussion

  1. “To many of us, we’re programmed to think of hierarchies as ladders: things that are meant to be climbed.”

    I’ll respond to other points you have made here separately, but I wanted to respond to this point in particular since it is the crux of my point in regards to hierarchy. I do not see hierarchies as being ladders to be climbed. I see them as means of organization. There are ways of understanding and skillsets that are relevant to different roles within an organization, whether it is a non-profit, a community, a temple or church, etc. I use the example of the Board of Directors that I served on in my post. Had I been trying to do the Executive Director’s job, not only would my own role have been lesser for it, the Board as a whole, and all the communities and schools we served, would have been harmed by our misdirection.

    How we understand and deploy hierarchies in this country is absolutely part of the problem we are facing within any organizing body, especially ones that require voluntary cooperation as opposed to, say, jobs where we sign contracts with an enforced hierarchy involving directed responsibilities and a pay scale.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “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.”

    As I wasn’t at Devora’s workshop, I can’t comment on this.
    I will admit to exasperation and irritation with folks who claim out of one side of their mouth that everyone is a priest, but then have no Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and/or community that they serve in such a role. As someone who started off their religious life as laity and then was pretty-much thrown into various spiritual specialists roles, I also find exasperation and irritation with those who pretend like those of us called to, placed, or asked to step up into these roles are somehow better. We’re not better.

    We have different skillsets, assuming we’ve been trained up properly. In some cases, we’re having to learn as we go because we’ve been asked to step into some kind of role, but no one is around in physical space who can take the time to train us. In others we’re thrown into the deep end of the pool and we try to tread water till we learn how to swim. For those who have no desire to jump into the water, that doesn’t mean they’re bad people for not wanting to swim, but it does make those who learn better swimmers.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “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.”
    When people ask me if they “Should become I shaman?”, I may laugh and/or tell them some variation on “Not if you can avoid it”. There lies the gag, though: generally speaking, if you’re meant to be one, you can’t, and if the Holy Powers give you a choice, not only are you lucky, but They may be giving you an out or testing your resolve. I don’t laugh and say “Not if you can avoid it” because I think I’m better, but because, having walked the road, I know it is not an easy one. I know that in many ways my life was easier before I became one, though I could not understand myself, this world, etc. without that perspective today.
    I think that finding contentment rather than happiness would be my advice to folks, regardless of whether they are clergy or laity, spiritual specialist or someone with no mystic experiences at all. Not ‘settling’, but contentment. Happiness itself can be fleeting, here one day and gone the next. Finding contentment is, to my mind, more long-term, and less transitory.

    “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.”
    This is part of what makes it so hard to organize lasting communities in the first place. The demands of the overculture simply don’t wash with animist and polytheist religions to begin with.

    “Progress”
    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.
    This whole section I can agree with, though I’m really not sure why folks get the idea there’s any kind of ceiling on laity vs. clergy. I think that if you’re called to worship one God or Goddess, i.e. as a henotheist, that’s just as good as someone called to worship a whole pantheon. For my part, I know I can’t worship every God, nor would I try to. I’m not sure if this is an online phenomenon or what, since I don’t see a lot of this in the folks around me.

    “Hierarchy”
    I wanted to briefly returning to this. Part of why I look at hierarchy as a major issue is that our relationship with it and power structures is screwed up in this country. A person acting as an administrator is absolutely useless without the folks further down the line doing their job. Too many administrators and not enough ground workers, and not enough can get done. Too many ground workers and not enough administrators to organize them, resources, etc., and things can turn into a chaotic mess in a damned quick hurry. The Executive Director was the figurehead of the group, and chief administrator for the group. My role was as a Youth Liaison, making sure the non-profit was serving us well as students, and helping him perform his job well in terms of voting on projects for us that made sense, helping provide direction on what programs we would be interested in, etc. If I did not do my job as the Liaison, the non-profit was less effective. If I tried to be doing his job as figurehead, not only was I taking away work from the equally needed work I was doing, I would be doing his job far with far less skill, and thus, less efficacy.

    “Hostility”
    I could not agree more with the hostility section if I tried. Our overculture punishes failure to a degree that is obscene, while stating out the other side of its mouth that failures are learning experiences. It’s toxic.

    I’m more or less in agreement with your other sections. I think that hierarchy can be of help, but I know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, or part of their solutions. That’s fine. I just don’t want folks to demonize hierarchy, as it can be part of the constellation of solutions on how to better organize and develop our various communities.

    ”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 could not agree more with this!

    Thank you for exploring this and giving your thoughts on it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for writing so many of your own thoughts in response! I can’t say that I was so sure that I’d get so much from “the other side”, you might say; interestingly enough, all of the written responses I’ve gotten so far have been from the god-bothered or priestly-types, and nothing so far from layfolk, except maaaybe a single person, but I didn’t double-check.

      I was going to add another section onto this as a random last consideration, but I think it deserves its own post: the concept of the “vernacular”.

      At any rate, cheers, and maybe I’ll see you at MGW?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ooh. I’ll be interested in reading how you dive into vernacular.

        I’m not sure about MGW yet. It cost quite a bit for me to go last year, so affording it is something I will need to look into.

        Like

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