Guides, Not Gatekeepers
Updated: Aug 22, 2022
One major challenge facing all forms of Paganism, regardless of the particulars, is the role of the clergy. As a group of new forms of spirituality there is a lot of debate, discussion and questions on whether there should be any sort of clergy and what place they have in the new community that is emerging. Part of what shapes this is, even though many Pagans don’t like admitting this, most of our expectations of what religion is, means and should look like has been shaped by the norms of the dominant practices in the present day. For most Pagans this means some form of Christianity where clergy also serve as leaders, counsellors and religious officiants all rolled into one.
Regardless of the specific form clergy take, the role they play poses serious questions to all our communities. To put it simply: should being a clergyperson also endow that individual with the mantle leadership and all that entails or is their purpose to be guides for others in the community? Some might say these two functions are one in the same. Such a claim misses that taking on a leadership role gives that person power over others which can get in the way of and at times work directly at odds with serving as a spiritual guide. What further complicates this is most forms of Paganism embrace building direct relationships with the Powers, raising additional questions of whether having clergy in leadership positions even makes sense when in theory anyone can reach the Powers on their own.
In the case of Norse Paganism there are additional causes for friction. As far as all available sources can determine there was no formal clergy of any kind in the ancient world. The closest there was to any resembling a priest were the goðar, district representatives and chieftains in Iceland who served as community leaders and presided over sacrificial feasts. The term, more commonly used as goði or gyðja, has been used since in the modern day to refer to the closest thing Norse Pagans have to priests and priestesses but this is a somewhat inexact fit. Historically the main function of the goðar was to serve as representatives for their regions and their religious duties mostly consisted of hosting major religious rituals for their people.
Further complicating this is they are not the only historical examples who could scan as clergy to modern practitioners. Another possible contender are the vǫlur, more commonly known as vitkis and vǫlvas, who were the seers, mystics and sorcerers of the ancient world. They were regularly consulted for guidance, divination and the blessings of their power by others. This effectively makes them, in some ways, channels for information from the divine in a way that many clergy are said to be today. There were also the skalds who were the storytellers, poets and keepers of knowledge for the Norse peoples. In some ways this also makes them a good candidate through their understanding of the ancient lore.
The best solution for this dilemma is for clergy to focus on study, offering spiritual guidance and encourage communities to lead themselves by collective, directly democratic processes. The main reason embracing this approach is it provides clergy with the space to focus on what they do best. When it comes to giving clergy space nothing clutters the mind or energy more than having to juggle the many responsibilities that come from holding a position of leadership. This can often get in the way of doing the job of spiritual guidance and leads to burnout. Putting power in the hands of the community frees prospective clergy from such burdens and helps foster better understanding of practice in the whole of the community.
Another critical reason for keeping leadership separated from clergy status is to prevent possible abuses of power. History and current events are loaded with examples where people used the mantle of the sacred to abuse others, create their own personal fiefs and dictate their demands regardless of the needs of others. This does great harm to people and spiritual practice by undermining the credibility of all spiritual workers. Keeping power vested in the community and not automatically bestowing it on people who hold spiritual offices prevents such abuses from happening. This also means it is necessary for the community to retain the power to determine who they consider to be their spiritual workers and remove people from such positions when they abuse the trust given by the community at large.
In the Way of Fire & Ice this collective principle is reinforced by recognizing all three sacred roles of goðar, vǫlur and skald as equally important yet possessing no special claim to power over others. Each of these purposes fulfils a necessary function in ritual and dispersing it between the three allows people to focus on what they do best. Someone might, for example, have an excellent head for the lore and leading others in song during ritual but has no interest or skill in the mystical aspects of practice, making them a better skald than a poor vǫlur. You may also have people in your community who shy away from the jobs of facilitating and organizing ritual, which are the hallmarks of a good goðar, but are supremely skilled at the mystical aspects of practice making them an excellent candidate for studying as a vǫlur.
This separation, along with allowing people to better specialize in the aspects of spiritual work they are most drawn to, also helps in addressing the question of power. Through honouring the lore through having three separate, equally important sacred roles power is effectively divided making it difficult to concentrate such influence in a single person. Such division ultimately helps the community both through the greater skill that comes from specialization and by ensuring no such single-person rule under the mantle of clerical authority is ever possible.
Even with these ideas and solutions the question of how to best guide others in spiritual practice will always remain a hotly debated topic. What works best will always grow, change and adapt to the needs of people in the present. As long as the discussion continues, people keep debating these ideas and proposing new solutions everything will continue to move in a productive, healthy direction. What matters most, like all other things in spirituality, is the focus must always be on serving the needs the spiritual and not reinforcing power for the few.