Church Envy

Church Envy

Author: Arion The Blue

I live in the Bible Belt, and it’s hard to throw a stick without hitting at least a couple of churches. Christians take their religion seriously, here, and in some rural parts of my state it isn’t unusual for the devout to attend church three or four days a week. Sometimes more than one. It seems like any two-bit preacher with a bible and a hat to pass can bootstrap himself into a successful storefront church dispensing the Gospel in neat, affordable, easy-to-swallow bite-sized pieces. Religion, at least Christianity, is an industry in the South as much as it is a spiritual exercise.

Of course I’m Pagan, and so I view these guys with a kind of amused tolerance. Watching a street corner preacher attract enough followers to justify a permanent building is a kind of rite of passage, here, and the lengths to which they’ll go to do that are impressive. Everything from culture-warfare to anti-homosexuality to tent revivals go towards that magical goal: giving the preacher a chance to quit his day-job.

I’m less amused when I see my Pagan coreligionists attempt to do the same thing. For more than twenty years I’ve been listening to a long line of self-appointed Pagan leaders decry our lack of organization and attempt to browbeat the members of this nascent religion into aping the forms and fashions of the dominant religion.

Once upon a time I might have agreed with them, back in my more militant youth. But with age and experience comes Wisdom, if you’ve the wit to realize it, and at this point in my life I feel that what these would-be Pagan bishops are actually suggesting is unhealthy for the development of our religion.

Don’t misunderstand me – the traditional Southern Christian church plays an important role in the community outside of its purely religious functions. In most rural communities churches act as a kind of tribe, a social safety network that looks after the parishioners’ many needs when no one else will. Churches here hold softball tournaments, bake sales, dances (except the Baptists) , concerts, yard sales, and all manner of other social function. People meet their future spouses at these events. When someone’s house burns down, it is the community church to which they turn for solace and support. And they have those big, impressive buildings . . .

When faced with that kind of organized alternative to your happy, whacky Pagan circle or coven, for a certain kind of Pagan a bad case of Church Envy begins to creep in. Maybe you mentioned to a Christian preacher that you, too, are clergy, and had him dismiss your faith and your spiritual vocation out of hand.

Maybe you tried to get your coven listed on the local Interfaith Council and were rejected because you aren’t a “real church” in their eyes. Maybe you just got asked one too many times “So what church do you attend” and were tired of explaining your religious philosophy to someone with no conception of anything but “Baptist or Methodist”. Or maybe you decided to devote your life to Paganism in a big way and simply believe you should get paid the same way that Christian preachers are paid for their work.

The fact of the matter is we aren’t Christians, and we don’t have churches, in the strictest sense. The idea of the church was Christianity’s answer to Paleo-Pagan temples, and the early Church certainly emphasized the church community over the adoration of a particular divinity. Those early churches were known as Meeting Houses, implying the community of believers gathering to hear the Word – and since the vast majority of the believers were illiterate, the only way they could participate in the community was to hear someone read to them.

Eventually the reader became a priest, and the function of the church became more similar to Pagan temples before they destroyed all of the Pagan temples. That position was supported by the contributions of the members, who were conveniently divinely mandated to bring 10% of their earnings to the priest for his maintenance and upkeep. That institutionalized the Christian priesthood and created a professional class of priests whose actual jobs varied from real community support to praying non-stop for the salvation of humanity. You probably know the rest of the story from there.

But there are fundamental differences between Christianity and Neo-Paganism, differences that make “churching up” a poor idea. Again, I’m not attempting to discourage Pagans of all sorts from gathering together however the spirits move them – good community is the bedrock of all successful religions, and it’s never more important than when you’re a minority religion. Indeed, our traditional feelings of oppression from the majority have long encouraged us to gather in small, intimate groups for our religious rituals and instruction – the covens and groves.

But does it necessarily follow that, in order for us to be successful, we parrot the organizational structure and paradigms of Christianity? I think not. Indeed, I believe we lose something very valuable in doing so.

The arguments for institutionalizing the Pagan clergy and leadership usually revolve around a few individuals who see these big churches around them and want to feel competitive. They claim to need manicured temples in which to hold handfastings and wiccanings and requiems. They make a big deal about the inconvenience of buying a lot of camping gear and driving across the country to meet up with fellow Pagans, preferring instead to do so in the luxury of a well-appointed temple with spacious parking and expensive landscaping. The simple coven or grove is not enough for them – not big enough, not organized enough, not impressive enough.

They want more.

They’ve got a bad case of Church Envy, and nothing less than full parity with the older, well-established, well-funded Christian churches will satisfy them.

Worse, they claim that only through Pagan churches can we find our place in the community and serve the greater community at large. Individual efforts, or the efforts of small groups, are disparaged as being pointless and selfish – only by gathering in great numbers, buying buildings, and passing the ubiquitous hat can we affect positive change in our community. They put our coreligionists in decidedly Christian terms: throngs of seekers begging for ministering, as if they were helpless sheep waiting to be spoon-fed their spiritual development by a small group of wise elders (in an air-conditioned facility with a break room and splendidly appointed clergy office, presumably) .

Why can’t we be more like churches, they whine, and why can’t we pay our leadership so that they can lead us properly, instead of mucking about with a day job?

These divinity-school wannabes devoutly want a paid gig, and who can blame them? Christian preachers only “work” one day a week – and Pagan festivals are much further apart. Considering our low population density in even the thickest urban jungles, one would be hard pressed to find 300-400 Pagans of any stripe to even join such an institution, much less subsidize the self-appointed leadership. They seem to have a long list of “services” they’re willing to provide for that fee, some of which have traditionally been performed gratis for the benefit of the Pagan community. Apparently planning a simple Beltaine ritual requires a salary and benefits, in their minds, and should be subsidized. Likewise instruction on tarot, spellcraft, and all the other aspects of our religion that have always been given freely by the Wise.

In their arguments they cite our “ineffectiveness”, without recognizing the basic truths about Paganism: we are not Christians, and our values, goals, and spiritual pursuits do not conform to the Abrahamic Faiths’ structure, physical and metaphysical. Why do we need manicured lawns and pristine buildings for our rituals, when the open sky and green grass serves the purpose so admirably? We are a Nature Religion, and retreating to indoor temples in our quest to commune with Nature is counterintuitive. Why must we pay someone to do our spellwork for us, when the focus of Wicca, Druidism, and the other Pagan traditions has always been on the spiritual development of the individual, guided at need by capable elders (without coin passing hands) ?

Why do some feel compelled to be “taken seriously” by Christian churches, when we all know that at best the recognition will be patronizing, and at worst stir up enmity among the ignorant? It is a hallmark of Wisdom to be true to our own selves, not clamor to be like the religion which most of us fled at first opportunity. Incorporating as a religious organization is simple, in most states, and many of us have done just that to satisfy certain legal or insurance requirements for rituals, take advantage of tax-exempt status, or have a useful paper organization available at need.

But does legal incorporation necessarily mandate that we get buildings, paid clergy, and institute tithing to cover these costs? I don’t believe so. Indeed, I believe that following down that path leads away from Wisdom, and unnecessarily eschews some of the very principals most of us came to Paganism to follow.

Paganism, from Wicca and Druidism onwards, has never been a pay-to-play, fee-for-service religion. It has been a religion about cultivating individual spiritual development, free from the structures and strictures of Christianity and the other Abrahamic faiths. Indeed calling us a “Faith” is itself a misnomer. Faith does not play a central role in our religion, Wisdom does. And compensating our leaders for that which they should be happily willing to give for free defies Wisdom and invites maliciousness into our ranks.

The issue isn’t a High Priestess misappropriating Church funds to buy a new car – it’s establishing an institutionalized clergy in the first place. Paganism is a religion of the clergy – we are all, in most traditions, priestesses and priests of the Old Gods. To choose a few among us to conduct rites on our behalf, or try to teach that which is best learned on our own, or to organize a major event that has traditionally been run on volunteer labor, and pay them for that purpose ignores and defames the essential role of the individual in our religion.

And that volunteerism is critical. While it won’t pay the light bill, buy land or a building, the moon and sun seem pretty reasonably priced, and the public parks and private gardens most of us have traditionally used are a real bargain. Considering it our Paganly duty to contribute towards these things for the benefit of others smacks too much of Jim and Tammy Faye Baker’s pathetic pleas for alms back in the 1980s. Insisting that solitaries and those who don’t care to contribute to the upkeep of a professional clergy are somehow undermining the Pagan religion and stifling its growth and development is disingenuous and hurtful. Most of the Pagans I know are solitaries, and they choose to be so often because they are hesitant about joining an “organized” religion.

If you want some land, get a job, go to work, earn some money and buy some – and if you’re public spirited enough, deed it outright to the non-profit religious organization of your choice. If you want a building, then start a PayPal fund and hold a bake sale. Win the lotto and buy a nemeton. Write and sell a book and donate the proceeds towards it. Have a yard sale. Solicit volunteer donations, perhaps, for a specific purpose. Plenty of us have done that time and again when there is need in the community.

If there really are throngs of eager seekers just begging to get out of our beautiful natural parks and into a majestic, air-conditioned and well-lighted temple, then they’ll be more than happy to fill your coffers full – but I’m not certain that the result would be, in fact, a Pagan one. Time, treasure and talent might be fitting offerings to the Goddess, but personal sacrifice is also demanded from time to time. If you aren’t willing to suffer, you aren’t willing to learn. If you want it so badly, you should find a way to pay for it yourself.

Some tout the great benefit to having a public temple and offering “free” classes and workshops, once they’ve been freed of the responsibility of working for a living. While I respect their dedication to the Craft, I have to wonder about the value of such “free services”. Once you make ministering to the Pagan community a job, then you begin to strip away the value of the pursuit of Wisdom as your vocation.

Everyone gets paid for their job, and once they’ve accepted that coin they’ve also accepted a whole host of other things that go along with having a job – including indifference, clock-watching, medical benefits, labor relations, and the lot.

But a true vocation for the priesthood should be pursued honorably and with a willingness to sacrifice. The efficacy of the ritual of someone who is paid to do it is, in my experience, considerably less than that done by someone who has, themselves, sacrificed their time and treasure (with no hope or expectation of reward or recompense) to perform it.

Pooling resources might make sense in specific instances, but the fact is we don’t have the same needs as other religions, the same values or the same philosophy – so paying for the privilege of “enjoying” the services of those religions seems like a hollow and cynical endeavor. It certainly doesn’t seem like a wise way to advance the Pagan cause. Since most of us provide these “services” to each other without money changing hands anyway, I can’t see this as progress towards anything but making us “Christianity Lite”.

When Pagans in my community are in need, word goes out and stuff gets done by those who take individual responsibility to do it. And that is what lies at the crux of this matter: Responsibility. Once we start paying for our clergy and these so-called clerical services, we cheapen the spirit of individual responsibility and sacrifice that called many of us to the groves and covens in the first place. Once we put a price-tag on such things as devotion, respect, instruction and service, we start down the dark and lonely road of abandoning our individual responsibility – and there are plenty of other churches out there that already offer that “service”.

“Lack of funding” isn’t an obstacle to getting things done; it’s merely a challenge of the moment. If the Gods so will something like a temple to be, then you can bet that the resources will magickally appear.

For those who walk in Wisdom, thus has it always been, and thus shall it always be.