Dissension Among the Clergy
I have been a Pagan for 11 years. That’s a long time, but I’m also only 28. I was (essentially) a solitary student and (later) practitioner from the age of 8 to 17. During that time, I did a lot of research. I’ve always been a book worm; I got it from my mother, who now self-identifies as a Christian witch. Her path has never been my path, and so I read. At first, it was just the basics of witchcraft. It was very How-To and ritualistic, but not very faith-based. So, from the time I first knew I was a witch (at age 8) until the age of 17, I simply considered myself a witch, but I wasn’t quite yet a Pagan. (And yes, I do distinguish between the two, even though the two can overlap.)
When I was 17, I moved to Arkansas and met a High Priestess by the name of Fran. I first met her during my senior year of high school. She was a substitute teacher for one of my classes. I was immediately drawn to her, like a moth to a flame. At first, it was her no-nonsense attitude, but then I took a closer look. Then it was her tattoos. By this time, I’d already started getting my own tattoos and I couldn’t help but notice hers were Pagan-ish. I tried desperately to talk to her, to get some witchy/Pagan-y knowledge from her, but she was steadfast in her beliefs: no religion in school. However, we did talk about her archaeological trips to Egypt when she was younger. I remember how I felt when I left class that day: I was heartbroken at a missed opportunity to learn from someone who was surely a Pagan Elder and a knowledgeable witch. Fran was most assuredly both of those things, and more. (You may be asking yourself what all of this has to do with dissention amongst clergy and I promise you, I’m getting there.)
Later that week, I went to my work shift at the bakery in town and my boss wanted me to work in the back with one of our temps. I rounded the corner and who do I see? Why, it was Fran. I had one of those “Ah-Ha” moments when our eyes met, and I knew she’d be willing to talk to me now. I spent the entire work shift asking her every question I knew to ask and she gave me every answer I ever could’ve hoped for, and more. By the end of the work shift, she’d left me with a standing invite out to her place. She had a standing Circle where she and her coven worshiped. I was ecstatic! Finally, I had a Pagan clergy member to talk to, to look up to, and to learn from and who deserved every ounce of respect I had for her.
Fran quickly became one of my dearest and closest friends. At one point in time, I practically lived with her and her husband Les. After a year of hanging around and learning from her, I officially became a Pagan. Fran honored me with a formal Dedication to the Old Ways, her coven there supporting me. About a year after that, I was again honored by becoming Fran’s Handmaiden within her coven. As such, I got to be a part of things that others were not, mostly clergy meetings with other local Pagan clergy.
I remember the first time I went to one of these meetings. I was very nervous and felt VERY out of place. I was by far the youngest in the group (being only 19 at the time) and I was also new to Arkansas, so I kept very quiet and simply took notes. There were some times when I’d wanted to comment, but I can’t remember that I did so, as I was new to the scene, in all meanings of the word. When we left, I remember that I’d felt a sense of pride. I was on my way to becoming a true member of a very small and well-respected group of people: our local Pagan clergy.
However, this turned sour sooner than I’d ever anticipated. Within a year or so of this first clergy meeting I’d attended, there was some dissention amongst the clergy members. It had nothing to do with our faith or our practices, it was personal. Yet this personal problem quickly became a public one. And while Fran and I were not directly involved, we did have a personal stake in the outcome, both as Pagan clergy and as Arkansas Pagans. The effects on dissention amongst clergy members isn’t limited to those involved in the disagreement, it reaches out and touches everyone in the community, to varying degrees. In that particular instance, the problem was resolved when one of the clergy members moved out of state. And yet, the ripples had already rippled out. Nothing was quite the same after that.
A few years later, a new Pagan clergy member came into the scene. At first, we were all pleased and excited by this new clergy member, as he had knowledge in areas we knew little about. As the months went on, though, we began to see a darker side to him. Primarily (for me), it was the fact that he claimed/s that he works with demons. Most Pagans, but not all, consider “demons” a Christian idea. And any way you look at it, demons hold a negative view and energy to them. What morally sound and ethical Pagan clergy would tell the world that he actively works with demons? And not just that, but brag about it! Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with a lot of us, but as long as he wasn’t bringing harm to others, who were we to shun him? We didn’t, but neither would we continue to actively associate our name with his. After a time, he sort of faded from the limelight, even if we did occasionally cross paths at a local Pagan event. Live and let live seemed to be our motto at the time. And it worked, for a while.
A few years ago, Fran passed away. And while I was her Handmaiden (and thus the next High Priestess), my training was incomplete. I left the coven, heartbroken and lost in my way. I had been ordained (under Fran’s advisement) via the Universal Life Church, but I’d never registered myself with the state of Arkansas as Ordained Clergy. That was a personal choice. However, with Fran gone, there was a huge void left in the Pagan clergy here in Arkansas. Upon Fran’s deathbed, Amaya, a former solitary, was left in her place as High Priestess of Nefer-Per-Netjer. This didn’t sit well with everybody, and as is usual after a death in a coven, there was a lot of shifting within the coven dynamics and local Pagan clergy. During this time, I was solitary. I met a few other Pagans and clergy members that I had not met before. Shortly after all of this had happened, another of our senior clergy members also moved out of state. It was a weird and difficult time of transitions, but after the dust settled, I eventually made my way back to Nefer, my home. Our local Pagan clergy was no longer what it used to be. There were new faces and not all of them friendly.
At what point can Pagans and Pagan clergy speak out against a “fellow” clergy member that they feel have done something unbecoming of a clergy member? Over the past 11 years, I’ve watched the Pagan clergy here in Arkansas shift dramatically, both in members and relationships towards one another. When I first began attending the clergy meetings with Fran, the clergy was unified as clergy, although their personal paths may have differed. But over the years I have watched as personal problems have become public ones and personal beliefs have become public contentions. This isn’t OK with me. I know that my feelings about these issues are my own, but that doesn’t mean that others don’t share my point of view. Personal issues should remain personal; to make personal issues public is both unprofessional and petty. This is especially true for someone claiming to be Pagan clergy. Being Pagan is hard enough, why bring more negative BS our way? If you have a problem with someone, work it out with that person. There’s no need to act a fool in public or on a public forum such as Facebook. Personal problems that bleed over into the public eye are subject to the public’s opinion. And they will be, for better or worse. In my opinion, the only time a personal problem should be made public is *IF* someone is actively being harmed by XYZ.
I once spoke out, publicly, about one of the aforementioned clergy members because he had an outburst at a Christian church across the street from where he lived. I did this for a few reasons: 1) He was caught on video (which was posted to YouTube) during his church outburst. 2) He had quit exhibiting clergy-like characteristics several months prior to this incident. 3) His outbursts drew the attention of the local news station. 4) I wanted to publicly distance myself from him and his negativity. I spoke out because I felt the public had a right to know how I felt and what they might be dealing with should they decide to engage with this man.
Now, however, I’m faced with a different dilemma: a local Pagan clergy member has repeatedly, publically, let his personal problems with my HPS bleed over into the public eye. This upsets me (and the rest of my coven) both personally and as a Pagan. Amaya isn’t just my High Priestess, she’s my friend. It’s upsetting personally because not only did he used to be a dear friend, but because he’s let this personal dissention become a public one. This situation bothers me as a Pagan because his actions are sowing the seeds of discord in our already too small community; but also because I expect a certain amount of professionalism from a clergy member. Our leaders are supposed to set the bar for others to aspire to, not lower them. As an Elder, he should know better than to let something like this happen, especially towards someone who has been one of his closest friends. It reflects badly on all of our local Pagan clergy, not just on him. What could’ve happened that is so awful that he cannot work it out or get past it? What could justify his actions? Is it worth trying to mediate?
I don’t know. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know why he thought his actions were acceptable. I don’t know why I attempted to mediate privately with him, as he hasn’t done anything he said he would. If anything, he’s done the opposite, which, again, is unbecoming of a clergy member and a Pagan leader. I don’t know what’s left to be done here, if anything, but one thing I do know: I’m tired of the dissention amongst the clergy. I don’t know if there’s an easy answer here, or if there’s any answer at all. But I hope, beyond hope, that when the dust settles our local Pagan community will be whole and stronger than before.