Pagan Churches

Julia Phillips

December 13, 1992

(This article appeared in issue #67 of The Cauldron)

To be or not to be, that is the question. To be an accredited, mainstream religion, with society's approval, or to be a mystery path on the fringes of society; to be a formal religion of priesthood and laity, or a path for those who seek their religious experience outside of the mainstream.

This subject has recently been hotly debated by Pagans and occultists from all over the world. Those in support (and they are vocal), insist that Paganism must come of age; must provide ministers who can lead society back to the Goddess, and who can serve the community as social workers, counselors and priesthood. Those against point out that most Pagans seek the religion in the first place because it is a path of individual spiritual growth, which does not demand that its practitioners spend a large proportion of their time spoon-feeding a congregation, or acting as unpaid social workers.

We appear to have reached a crossroads in the development of 20th (and 21st) century Paganism, and the decisions we make over the next decade will have constitutional and far-reaching consequences. Society is no longer in any doubt about our existence; it has not yet decided whether we are a Good Thing, or a Bad Thing, but it certainly knows we exist.

Let us consider the problems that we face if we wish to make Paganism a mainstream religion. Firstly, most (all?) of you reading this live in a nominally Christian society, which will usually accept (with bad grace!) the other mainstream religions such as Muslim and Buddhist. Pagans, if they are considered at all, will probably evoke a reaction ranging from amused tolerance to outright condemnation for their heresy. So, how do we convince society that we are neither foolish (but basically harmless) eccentrics, nor are we dangerous heretics, ever on the lookout for a tasty virgin, or plump little boy for our altars?

We can of course present society with the image that we wish them to see. Unfortunately, this must often be presented via the media, who, as we know so well, are more concerned with increasing viewing or circulation figures than being philanthropic about helping poor defenseless Pagans improve their image. And how do you deal with the ego-centric weirdoes (sorry, no other word sounds half so effective!) who launch themselves regularly at the world, scantily clad, demonically masked, and twittering on about the shadow, cursing, cthonic experiences and the dark path of the occult? The fact that you and I both know that a genuine cthonic experience, or encounter with the shadow, would have these types running home to Mummy pronto, is neither here nor there; the public, who knows no better, is taken in a treat. "Aha", they cry, "see, we were always told it was dangerous to dabble in the occult, and look, it's true!". And of course it is, for these dabblers will undoubtedly cause themselves, and their poor followers, a fair bit of harm before they are through.

But how does all this help our cause to become a socially respectable religion? Well of course it doesn't. Not one bit. And this is actually why I am rather fond of these ego-centric types, for although they are a superficial parody of the genuine occult path, they do serve as a reminder that the dark is ever-present, and that if we remain true to our spiritual core, then we can never be a socially acceptable, mainstream religion. Where these ego-centrics fail of course, is in promoting the dark satanic image as the ONLY path. They do not know any better, ignorance and stupidity being their main faults, and I really cannot see the Pagan/Occult community ridding itself of them. Instant fame is too strong a drug to withstand common sense and the hard work which the genuine occult and Pagan paths demand.

But those who would present Paganism and the occult as all white-light and fluffy bunnies are equally at fault. Not only is it untrue, we are leaving ourselves open to accusations of whitewashing our practices for public consumption. But, it is nigh on impossible to explain Pagan philosophy in a TV studio, to an audience with a limited attention span. The principles are simple, but need to be comprehended, and that cannot happen in a TV or radio interview. The message has to be restricted to, "we do not perform or condone sacrifices"; "we do not hold rituals for the purpose of group sex"; "we are a sincere religion which encourages each individual to take responsibility for his/her spiritual development", and similar platitudes. Trying to present this information without coming across as a mixture of Doris Day and Lucille Ball is a skill few of us possess!

But to return to the issue of accreditation and social acceptance; it never ceases to surprise me how many people reject one or more of society's restrictions or pretensions, and then do their damnedest to resurrect the same restriction or pretension as quickly as possible elsewhere. Let us consider a mainstream religion; let us look at the Anglican Church. A priest (or, gasp, a female priest!) ministers the divine word of God to a receptive congregation. At times of hatch, match and dispatch, the priest not only administers the divine word, but also functions as society's representative to ensure that all is done in accordance with accepted ritual practice. The priest is trained, accredited, ordained, maintained, and supervised, by his Church. Let him mutter an unorthodox message, and see how quickly his superiors bring him to task!

Contrast this with today's Pagan; no formal training, accreditation, maintenance or supervision from outside. There is of course in many traditions, an ordination, but these are not consistent throughout the branches of the religion, and nor are the ordinations "accepted" by most of society. In fact, many of them are not even "accepted" within the religion itself. When you have been told as often as I have that Aleister Crowley initiated your mother, or some mysterious group initiated you as you were cycling home one night and got yanked off your pedals, or "your family" has been secretly "in the Craft" for generations, you get a bit cynical about accepting some of these ordinations at face value!

And this brings to us to the matter of accreditation; I have heard it mooted that now is time for Pagan priesthood to be formally ordained, and accredited to accepted standards of knowledge, skill and experience. I would have more sympathy with this view if those who expound it do not give the impression that they are, ipso facto, of that standard already! Being of a pragmatic nature, I would also be interested to learn just who is to pay for the training colleges and official priesthood that would necessarily result from such a program?

And this brings me finally to ask if we really do wish to follow a religious path which is constructed in the pattern of one which most have us have rejected as unacceptable. Writing in Children of Sekhmet Vol 3 No 1 about the creation of Pagan and Wiccan Councils, "Lucifer" said: "Pagan Councils are forced to compromise the outlook of the Pagan Community...My real concern is that behind the many calls for Pagan unity is the genuine belief that Paganism can be socially acceptable. The implication to this being that consensus Paganism is moving towards an acceptable middle ground which society can cope with; that the ecstatic vision of the Pagan Mysteries is slowly abandoned for the coarse cloth of a ritual practice calculated not to offend."

It might be unkind to suggest that those who are desperately seeking official recognition have anything less than the purest of motives, but one does wonder. Is it simply a case that in this field, they are able to acquire titles and recognition which under other circumstances, would not come their way? The "big fish/small pond" syndrome. Or have they only superficially rejected the mainstream religious path, and all that it stands for, seeking to re-establish it in Paganism with themselves at the top of the pecking order?

I have made some contentious statements in this article in the hope that it will encourage debate (and support!) from those other spiritual anarchists out there who do not want to see their religion debased into a formal structure of hierarchies, priesthood, and laity. I believe there is a place for open Pagan gatherings, and that experienced Pagans are best placed to organize such gatherings. Where I draw the line is in accepting that any "official" body may legislate in matters of individual spiritual growth.

The Pagan movement has always been self-regulatory in practical terms. This may not be obvious to those who are calling for "accredited priesthood", but I can assure them that the Pagan grapevine is active and effective throughout the world. We do not need framed certificates over the fireplace ("This is to certify that Lady Anthrax can worship to the satisfaction of the Convergence of Associated Deities" - Peregrin, Web of Wyrd #6), to prove our spiritual worth.

B*B Julia

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