Clergy and Laypersons

I know what you’re going to say “Gef, why no Earth Day post?”


Seriously though, you don’t need a special day to think about saving the planet, but that’s not what I want to discuss today.

I see this term “laity” being tossed about in relation to Paganism(s) lately, and it reminded me of a discussion at the Cauldron awhile back about the roles of clergy and laypersons, and why most Pagans felt the need to “be their own priest/ess”.

First, what do I mean by “laity”?

A layperson is someone who is not a member of the clergy or in a specialized profession. Full stop.

And yet, for me (and, I suspect, for some of you) this term carries a lot of baggage. In my birth religion, not only are there strict restrictions on what a layperson can do (and they get very specific on this), but if you happen to be a woman, you can kiss any hope of advancement goodbye, because NO PRIESTHOOD FOR YOU!

But it’s okay, they tell you, because women can be saints! And people pray to saints! Oh, and Mary! Mary is cool! Why do you need the priesthood and it’s weaksauce earthly power when you can be super awesome after you die???

Uh huh.

So you see why I have this gut reaction to the term when I see Pagans, polytheists, and the like toss it around so casually.

The thing is, the divide between “clergy” and “laity” kind of falls apart when you consider solitary practitioners. In a nutshell, here are some of the things the average Pagan does on a daily basis:

  • Set up altars/sacred spaces (in fact, this is often the FIRST THING anyone tells a beginner)
  • Make offerings
  • Commune with deities/spirits/other entities (through various methods)
  • Perform divination (for self and others)
  • Study texts associated with their tradition
  • Create and conduct rituals (at times, even public rituals, depending on tradition)
  • Celebrate holidays

In many cultures, at least some of these items were things that were done by members of the clergy (and most of the time, clergy had particular specialties as well). The average person likely had home-based rites that they performed, but if you wanted to, say, consult an oracle, have some divination done, or someone in your family needed to undergo a rite-of-passage, you may have needed the services of a specialist.

I think it’s blatantly obvious to everyone that most of us don’t have access to clergy in the same way that our ancestors did. Nor do we have the kind of numbers that would support a full-time, hereditary clergy.

And then there are those of us who are just fine doing things on our own.

Most importantly, the deities don’t really seem to give a fuck whether everyone they talk to is a member of the clergy or not.

Now am I saying that the concepts of “clergy” and “laity” have no meaning? Well, as a solitary, I think the distinction is largely irrelevant to what I do. After all, my community is myself. I mean, obviously I don’t have a license to officiate at weddings and such, but nothing’s stopping me from (theoretically) getting one (except that the Canadian government has very Christian-centric guidelines when it comes to deciding who can and cannot legally marry people).

So, I suppose what I am saying is that I am not an ordained clergywoman, even so, I’m not sure referring to your average Pagan as “laity” (or assuming that, indeed, “clergy” and “laity” have universal roles that can be applied across traditions) is really the correct term to use. Of course, this could just be due to all the baggage I’m carrying re: a religious tradition that basically said “BEGONE WITH YE, WOMAN!”

Personally, I think I’m more of a Pagan Beguine.

11 thoughts on “Clergy and Laypersons

  1. This is particularly interesting to me, as (loosely) part of a tradition that is attempting to create a truly well-trained Clergy who function AS Clergy to a larger “pagan” (but not necessarily individually practicing) “laity”. (Public rites, etc.) ADF is kind of an unusual critter in the pagan umbrella for that, and I don’t always know if I agree with it. Certainly, I am solitary and there are no priests near where I live, so if I need anything, I do it myself. And certainly they encourage everyone to have familiarity with solitary practice, whether they also work with a group or not. So I go back and forth on this one, especially as the family member of an ordained (Christian) minister. There are a lot of demands placed on functioning Clergy, and to be honest, paganism doesn’t have a great track record with keeping its teachers from burning to a crisp and dropping out of the community.

  2. Some people I know who use the term “clergy” do all the things on your list, just like other Heathens or Pagans, but they also do things like offering oracular or divination services on behalf of their gods, attending interfaith events to represent their traditions, reaching out to Pagan/Heathens in prison, and actually getting legally ordained so they can marry people and access patients who need them in hospitals. These folks often use their own time and money for their efforts and the training that goes into them, with little support from others, and on top of that, often have to deal with a sense of entitlement from those who are perfectly happy to monopolize their time but recoil at the thought of “tainting” the proceedings by offering them compensation of some kind, be that money or a return offer of services or goods. Most of them consider it a calling and make these sacrifices willingly, more or less, but I have seen firsthand how other people treat them even when benefitting from their help, and it’s often cringeworthy 😛

    So I would argue that a useful definition of Pagan/Heathen clergy revolves around a significant amount of real-world service to the community, rather than strictly worship and ritual. All of us should build relationships with our gods using the methods you’ve described, among others, but only some have the time, energy, drive, and opportunity to put the extra effort in and become professional pastoral counselors, theologians, and community leaders, on top of being regular Pagans.

    I use “gydja” to describe myself, but I don’t think of myself as clergy. I’m semi-cloistered, and the function I serve is much more akin to an anchorite than a priestess. Also, unless I’m horribly mistaken, my impression is that “gydja” means “godwoman,” which I am, and also implied a kind of counselor/mentor role, which I sometimes fulfill. I have a lot of respect for those who are full-time clergy, though. It’s not an easy job even with full community support, which is almost unheard-of in Pagan circles.

    • What Elizabeth said.

      For me, clergy has always been defined by what they do for the community as much as what they do for the Gods. Ancient priests performed sacrifices on behalf of their community. Modern Christian priests act as counselors for their congregation. Mystics, on the other hand, interact directly with the divine and may or may not care about their fellow worshipers.

      The thing is, not everyone is cut out to be a priest or a mystic. I’ve got no problem with the idea of being pagan laity. While I do have a bit of a mystical bent, I think I’d be just as happy making devotional artwork and personally communing with my Gods, while letting someone else who’s called to it do those other things on your list.

      • “Clergy” as a concept grew up in a Christian context (it derives from Latin for clerk and appears in the 1300s, apparently?). So it carries with it a lot of Christian assumptions, I suspect, and I’d consider ‘what they do for the community’ as a factor in there to actually be one of them.

        I’m more familiar with Egyptiana than other things, for obvious reasons, but the “servant in the house of the god” job – priesthood, in other words – didn’t have a whole lot of community service tied to it, given the bit where the community wasn’t allowed into a lot of those spaces. (A lot of priest jobs were part-time, but I’m not sure we know a whole lot about what they did the rest of the year. “Magician for hire” is a known gig, at least, and whether or not that counts as clerical services is bloody fiddly.)

        The counselling-services-for-the-congregation thing, though, that’s not something that has a lot of historical parallels I’m aware of. And it’s something that I think it’s worthwhile to think about for people who have callings to various forms of pagan officialdom: what is actually a part of this job, on the one hand, and what roles that aren’t a part of older religious forms does one want to create based on modern models of what it is to be a religious official.

        • I think we’re kind of on the same page here. My mention of Christian pastors may be an unnecessary tangent, and distracting from what I was trying to say.

          Ancient priests weren’t counselors, etc, but they did serve their community – all the more so in cultures where the laity weren’t allowed in the temples, etc. The entire community benefited from their service to the Gods, and all were punished if the Gods were neglected.

          Modern pagans, on the other hand, have to be more active than either ancient “lay pagans” or members of larger contemporary faiths. This is a good thing for those are called to it – but others, who would be perfectly devout worshipers if the structure existed to support them, now get labelled “playgans” because they’re not “doing the work.”

          • Which is FUCKING CRAZYMAKING. Gah.

            (I’ve had people go off on me for suggesting that, y’know, a good how-to 101 book is *more directly useful* than a library of academic books that people would have to comb through, analyse, and interpret in order to derive something relevant to religion.)

            • Oh yes, I know people like that. They say you shouldn’t read “how-to” books because “you’re just getting someone else’s opinion”.
              And I’m just like: “Um, HELLO?! Have you never read any academic texts, because ACADEMICS HAVE OPINIONS TOO! They just like to hide their opinions beneath the guise of “scholarly objectivity”. They might have particularly well-informed opinions, but at the end of the day, they STILL have their biases.
              Call me crazy, but in terms of establishing an actual practice, I’ve found books like “Essential Asatru”, “Northern Tradition for the Solitary Practitioner” and “Visions of Vanaheim” infinitely more useful than all the stuffy academic articles in my collection, because scholars generally aren’t trying to reconstruct a religion or anything like that–they’re trying to argue with each other. This is what they do, they argue.

              I think somewhere, someone missed the fact that Heathenry is not an orthodoxy. It’s not. There is no Asapope, teh lore is not the Bible, Odin is not YHVH, Loki is not Satan, etc. etc.

              • A lot of recon-types don’t have a fucking clue that academia is not a practice of Determining The One True Way, it’s an ongoing argument, constantly refined.

                And even if the argument is about ancient religion, it’s not the same thing as a process of actually, functionally having a religion modeled on that ancient religion.

                Mmph. Sorry, a little pissy; this argument has been on my mind a lot of late, because of someone who took serious exception to me speaking up in favor of books actually about religion as more actually useful than a cross-section of argumentation.

  3. I think it really needs to be ok for people to be pagan and part of a laity. It needs to be ok for people to believe in and lightly worship the gods without doing hours of homework a week. And they need to not be ostracized from our communities for not being hardcore enough about it.

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