I don’t want a Pagan church

Every now and then, in the Pagan blogosphere, you will see the same discussion crop up: someone decides that what they really want Paganism to become is an institutional organised religion with full-time paid clergy and hey, guess what? They’re just the person for the job!

These discussions tend to be fruitless, as organising Pagans is very much like herding cats and people on the internet tend to be an argumentative bunch anyway.

From my experience, a lot of the calls for the creation of something like a Pagan church come from folk in the USA, and who can blame them? The dominance of Protestant Christianity there has cemented a deep idea of what “a religion” should look like: institutions, buildings, hierarchy, clergy, congregations, money.

This is all absolutely not what I want from my Paganism. If you want to create a Pagan church for your own tradition, go for it, why not? I wouldn’t try to stop you even if I could. But I also won’t be darkening your doors any time soon.

I don’t think that fitting into what is ultimately a culturally Christian mould is quite right for Paganism. For one thing, Paganism is not a religion, it’s a loosely-afilliated bunch of different religions, traditions, philosophies, spiritualities and activisms that run the gamut from deity-worshipping polytheism through to complete atheism and beyond, by way of magic, witchcraft and hippy counterculture. There’s no way any one institution could cover all these different needs and beliefs without things getting complicated, leading to schisms and arguments.

Paganism is also not a “revealed” religion. There are no holy books, no set liturgies, no creeds and no need for mediators between us and the Sacred, however you conceive of it. Once you have clergy, you have a divide between them and the rest of us, the “laity”. The Divine becomes locked away in temples and churches, fixed into one particular form, accessible through approved rites and words.

This can lead, as we have seen in organised religions today, to the consolidation of power in the hands of the clergy, and as we know, power tends to corrupt. I see no reason to believe that a Pagan church would be any less susceptible to corruption and abuse than a Christian one. People are people, whatever their religion.

One of the things I love about the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids is precisely that they don’t ordain clergy and don’t call anyone a “priest”. The three grades of Bard, Ovate and Druid are seen more as an ever-flowing spiral of knowledge and wisdom, with no one being necessarily better than any other. Members of the Order can follow any religion they choose, or none.

There is, of course, a place for celebrants, trained and skilled people who can lead rituals, hold weddings and funerals, guide and teach others in the tradition. And these people should be paid for their time and effort, of course.

But all of this can be done and is being done without the need for a Pagan church or institutional religious structure. Both in the Pagan community and in the Humanist community, we see examples of a “post-institutional” role for celebrants, chaplains, teachers and the like without the baggage of being attached to a religious hierarchy.

And there is a need for groups, not every Pagan can or should be a solitary their whole lives. But the groups that I have experienced, from small local gatherings to national Druid Camps, have been built from the ground up: grassroots efforts by the community, for the community, and have been open to all, whatever their belief and affiliation. These groups are not really religous institutions, they are community gatherings that coalesce around a shared love of nature, of story and song, of magic and wisdom, of the inspiration of Paganism both ancient and modern.

I cannot see what a Pagan church or equivalent could add to the Pagan community that we don’t already have in other forms, unless the goal is explicitly to change the heart of modern Paganism from an organic, inclusive community-movement model to a specifically, perhaps even hierarchically, religious one.

As a former Catholic, I have seen the best and worst of what happens when religion is institutionalised, formalised, organised on such a scale. At best it can create a global “tribe” but it does so by squashing dissent, extinguishing difference and forcing conformity. At worst, it leads to horrors.

We live in the most pluralistic religious society in recent history. And I think the virtue of Paganism is precisely that it is not just another religion among many, with its associated buildings for worship, schools, priests, doctrines and the like.

Paganism, for me, is a relationship: an organic, living connection between people and the land. It cannot be held in temples and buildings, it cannot be bound to fixed forms and dogmas. It grows and twists, taking on new shapes, new expressions, and blossoming in a thousand flowers.

My Paganism is not an “alternative religion”, it is an alternative to religion.

I don’t want a Pagan church. I want a wild, flourishing Pagan forest.

Perhaps I’ll see you there, in the dappled light and shade, beneath the trees.

7 thoughts on “I don’t want a Pagan church

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  1. WORD. My practice is very informal and bespoke, and I like it that way. I practice with a friend via the internet and we have agreed on a very simple opening and closing to rituals that we both use, but then it’s kind of witch’s choice about what happens in between the two. Honestly, as a lapsed Wiccan, when rituals start to get too elaborate and rote I really switch off. If magic works, it works because I’m focusing and connecting to something, not because I said the right words or had the right props. Nature is my ‘church’ and everything I do is my ‘prayer’.

    I am so into the imagery of a flourishing pagan forest, you have no idea! Biodiversity and diversity of ideas are essential to keep a healthy forest culture and pagan culture. Some of us have our heads in the canopy, while others are focused on the mushrooms growing in amongst the duff on the forest floor. Some of us are looking for paths through the woods, while others have their favourite grove that they return to time and again. It doesn’t matter that we’re not all doing the same exact thing because we’re all appreciating the same forest.

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  2. I love the idea of internet rituals! I’ve recently started practicing Druidry with a small local group (usually around four of us) and the rituals are more scripted because I think sometimes with a group you need to all know what you’re doing, but there is still space held for inspiration and personal additions to the rite, which I think strikes the balance well.

    I definitely agree with your statement about nature as church and action as prayer. I think that’s one of the joys of Paganism, that it isn’t just a “religion” that you do on feast days and ignore the rest of the time, it is a philosophy that informs your daily actions, the choices about what to eat, what to buy, how to travel, how to treat other people (human and non-human alike).

    Of course I’ll go for the forest imagery, Druid here after all! I’m glad it resonates with you.

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  3. Yes, a thousand times yes. When I hear those calls for institutionalized pagan practice I have to wonder. If someone wants institutionalized religion there are already a million flavours out there to choose from. And to my ears it does sound very much like a re-do of Christianity. (I love what Violet Sphinx said above about participating in a bespoke practice. What a lovely way to put it!)

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