I live about an hour from Buffalo. As I pen these words, the local media is dutifully exposing yet another Catholic Church sex scandal and alleged coverup that occurred within the diocese. I relay this information not to report local news, but to establish a tone for this article. Of all the vocations out there, few are so imbued with expectations from the public as clergy. As the depressing news from mainstream society so aptly demonstrates, when clergy are indicted with moral and legal malfeasance, credibility in the wider religion itself suffers.
I doubt Heathenry will ever have to grapple with the scandal currently assailing the Catholic clergy (I certainly hope not). But nonetheless, a wider question presents itself. What do we in this organization expect of our clergy, and how do we ensure their qualifications?
For purposes of this article, the question of expectations of clergy will be asked on two fronts – or, rather, the question will be viewed from two different though related audiences. The first shall be the High Rede of the Troth, acting as board of directors for their organization, and viewing the question from the standpoint of institutional memory and liability. The second audience shall be what we refer to as “the folk,” the assembled body of laity and fellow practitioners whom clergy ultimately serve.
In Asatru and other Scandinavian based Heathen venues, clergy are usually referred to as Godhi (male) or Gythia (female). In Anglo-Saxon, other terms such as weofodthegn (altar priest/ess) might be in use. Other religious or occult groups within the Heathen spectrum may yet employ other terms.
The Troth uses the terms “godsperson” as a general term for its clergy. For the rest of this article, however, I will simply use the generic term “clergy” as a neutral catch-all.
The View from the Board Room
Upon election to the High Rede in spring of 2018, I as a clergy trainee was asked by the Clergy Coordinator to serve as liaison to the Rede, a position later confirmed by the Rede. In the autumn 2018 Rede session, I began working with the Rede and Clergy Coordinator to bring some guidelines to a clergy training program that had begun experiencing a Renaissance of activity after a protracted period of abeyance.
With the advice of the Clergy Coordinator and input from the Rede, three initiatives were passed for the clergy program (55.03.01: Active Clergy, 55.03.02: Clergy Trainees, 55.03.00.01: Becoming Clergy). Thematically they dealt with the areas of activity, communication, and internalization of core values. Both active clergy as well as trainees are required to report at least once a year and communicate evidence of ongoing commitment to their vocation or studies; those that do not shall be removed. Active clergy will be required to furnish relevant contact information to be listed on our website, thus facilitating communication with inquiring laity. Finally, all trainees and clergy are required to sign the Troth’s oath of service (if they have not already done so), reflecting the organization’s commitment to inclusive Heathenry.
The ordination process has been updated. In addition to the usual studies expected of clergy students, the Rede now requires both a background check and letters of recommendation from the laity. Both measures are designed, in their own way, to filter out any candidate whose character or background would render them unsuitable for the vocation.
To summarize, the concerns addressed in these initiatives are that those who call themselves clergy are active members of the organization, are in frequent contact with the organization’s laity and governing structures, and are competent not only from an academic standpoint but from moral and interpersonal standpoints as well. For the organization to prosper, we should expect no less from those who pursue this vocation.
It serves to mention that many current members of the Rede are themselves clergy trainees. We are not demanding anything of any clergy candidate that we would not demand of ourselves.
The View from the Laity
While governing structures appraise matters from an institutional standpoint, at the level of the folk we often find more personal concerns. Indeed, at this level we encounter a spectrum of viewpoints and desired criteria.
In June of 2018 I initiated a conversation on the e-list, asking the membership what they required of their clergy. The participation was not as broad as I had hoped, but those that answered gave insightful views, and posed some intriguing questions. I will try to address these all topically.
Historical vs Modern?
A question (or argument) that frames all responses to the subject is: to what degree is our conception of clergy influenced by modern times, and to what degree should it retain a more historical paradigm?
Conceptions of clergy and other religious officials varied throughout the greater Indo-European world. They even varied within Heathenry (sacral kings versus Icelandic Gothi, for instance). The details are already well known to those who have done some basic reading, and I need not replicate the minutiae of the topic here. Let it be said broadly the ancient priest or priestess, whatever other circumstances defined their role and status, was essentially a person who performed the proscribed rituals at the correct times and locations on behalf of their community.
In broader polytheism one does at times see arguments that this essentially liturgical role of historical priesthood is what should define modern conceptions of clergy. However, this view ignores the fact that a millennia or two have passed since the historical era. The world has changed. Like or not, conceptions of clergy in the modern West are influenced by the roles of clergy from the major world religions, particularly Christianity.
The vast majority of respondents in my e-list discussion seemed to feel that some accommodation to the modern world was necessary, though details differed. Should the modern Heathen clergy model himself or herself on the Christian priest, or was the Jewish Rabbi or Islamic Iman a better model? To what extent is the modern Heathen clergy a “professional” or separate caste, and to what extent is he or she merely an educated member who has been granted religious leadership by the membership because of some extra training?
Regardless of how one defines it, the preponderance of respondents felt that any Heathen clergy worthy of the name should be invested with a spectrum of skill sets. This leads us to the topics below.
Religion is often a matter of ritual, and thus those entrusted with officiating the religion must be endowed with competent liturgical knowledge. Nearly everyone agreed this was among the main, and perhaps the most important, requirement of clergy. While clergyhood has evolved beyond the purely liturgical, nonetheless liturgical acumen remains a foundational skill.
A pithy phrase that was new to me, but which expertly encapsulated the spirit of the topic, was “hatch, match and dispatch” – rituals of birth, marriage and funerals. Of course, other rites of life could and should be included, as well as run-of-the-mill blots and sumbels. The Heathen clergyperson should be well versed in the ritual mechanics of whatever occasion is needed to unite members of the community to each other, or to their various supernatural benefactors.
Existing somewhere within the religion were the nebulous set of practices and understandings we loosely lump under the term “magic.” Broadly, within the Heathen religion, we might classify these magical practices as runes-galdr, seidhr, and various folk magic practices.
Magic incorporates within itself a certain liturgical paradigm, but often subsumes that liturgical role within a contemplative or ecstatic framework. It is also important to note that while religion was often communal in nature (comprised usually of families, or clans and tribes, and occasionally inter-regional festivals), esoteric work was usually conducted by individuals or small groups in private.
It was felt that any clergy should have familiarity with these esoteric venues in order to answer basic questions and provide rudimentary help to laity where such need arises. However, from a practical standpoint, clergy need not necessarily be experts in these areas. Esoteric experts need not be (and often are not) licensed clergy, but people who may exist in a less official capacity within their religious scene. A clergy should nonetheless know enough about said practices to make an informed referral of an inquiring laity to said expert.
It is my own opinion that, beyond a basic foundation, the level of esoteric skill expected of an individual clergy member depends largely on whatever patron deities or spirits (if any) they hail. For instance, a self-described priest or priestess of Odin should probably know a fair bit about runes, while those devoted to Freyja should be expected to be reasonably conversant in seidhr and witchcraft. Different deities presumably have different prerogatives for their devotees.
The most modern influence from the world religions on Heathen clergy, and not coincidentally the most controversial, is the expectation of “pastoral” counseling. There is an expectation that someone licensed as clergy can provide not only spiritual counseling but personal counseling as well.
Should a Heathen clergy provide a sympathetic ear to listen to, or a shoulder to cry on? There was some debate on the matter. At least one person objected to the very term “pastoral,” evoking as it does a “shepherd-sheep” power dynamic from Christianity that is not quite applicable to Heathenry clergy-laity relations. And yet, the lonely or desperate individual often has nowhere else to turn in moments of crisis. Despite the conspicuous notes of macho, rugged individualism one at times sees from Asatru, even the strongest individuals sometimes still need help. Clergy are there to help.
The Heathen clergy member is most often not a licensed social worker, therapist or psychologist. But they should have enough training and empathy to stabilize a desperate individual long enough to refer them to an appropriate expert or social service to receive further help. They should understand the psychology of group dynamics as well, for often a troubled individual comes entwined with a troubled family or social unit.
In some US states, “pastoral counseling” is a specific skill set which is licensed by the state after a requisite period of training or education. Therefore, this particular term may be problematic in reference to a range of expected abilities from our clergy. It should be understood, however, that regardless of whatever semantics we employ, the idea of clergy as a frontline counselor is generally agreed upon.
Scholarship and Theology
To what degree should a clergy member have mastered the academic material of Heathen religion and history (commonly referred to as “the Lore”), and to what degree should they be able to use it to furnish exegesis to a querant?
A founding and former member of the organization seemed to feel the priests (or at least the Elder priests, in his hierarchical designation) should have the equivalent of a Ph.D program in Germanic studies. That idea was jettisoned at some point in the organization’s history. But the Troth clergy program does require a certain number of courses in the Lore program to be satisfactorily completed before one can apply to be clergy.
If we have esoteric experts who are not necessarily clergy, we have plenty of Lore experts who are not necessarily clergy. But there is a widespread sentiment the clergy person must be conversant with the basic primary texts that elucidate a Heathen religion and worldview. They must be able to not only understand it themselves, but to explain it to Heathens and non-Heathens alike who may ask questions and seek information.
Those who become clergy are often go-getters who take important communal tasks upon themselves – else it is doubtful they would have heard and answered a call to clergy. If many kindred leaders are not necessarily clergy, many clergy are nonetheless in leadership roles. This begs a basic understanding of managerial sciences and leadership development. How we in the Troth can better provide that leadership training is a discussion we plan to revisit in the foreseeable future.
The Laugh Test
It if often said in Heathenry that one is a clergy member if one can say in public that one is clergy, and no one in proximity explodes in paroxysms of derisive laughter. This is true to a degree. However, the wide and wonderful world of Heathenry contains many individuals and groups who internalize different values and viewpoints. What is the source of laughter to one does not hold true across the board. There most likely will always be someone, somewhere, that may laugh.
My perspective on the matter is as a member and leader of the Troth. The question is: are we in the Troth producing quality clergy candidates whom our membership (if not necessarily all of Heathenry) can respect? If a clergy candidate passes the requisite training as deemed by the clergy officers, can find two members of the laity to vouch for them, and can pass a background check to the satisfaction of the Rede, then they deserve not the laughter of naysayers but the praise of the folk for successfully assuming their vocation.
But with that praise comes the sobering humility that theirs a sacred call to serve the folk and the gods under the mandate of the organization. And that truly is no laughing matter.
It would seem our ideal clergy member has received substantial training in the fields of liturgy, esoterica, counseling services, scholarship and administration. The folk feel these areas are crucial. The successful candidate has also been filtered through a background examination to make sure no faults in legal history or character would render them unsuitable to their calling. Once in place the clergy person is active with the community, reports updates, and keeps in communication with the organization.
This article was meant to provide a snapshot of view points on the matter from different perspectives. It is not meant to end the discussion, but rather to further it. As Heathenry matures, as our own organization evolves, no doubt we will revisit this conversation periodically to assess the need for updates or revisions. And that is as it should be.
Redesman, Clergy Laision and clergy trainee