“The Call to Serve”
Titled: Ordainment, Priestly Vows
When a pagan tells you they are ordained or are a priest or priestess, it is easy to get confused. Many things may be meant by this depending on their tradition and what sort of clergy they are. It may mean they’ve been initiated into a priesthood tradition like British Traditional Wicca. It may mean they’ve been selected by their group to perform the function of the priest or priestess in their circles. It may mean that they have been ordained within their wider tradition. It may mean that they have somehow obtained some certification that registers them as a legal clergy able to perform legal weddings and handfastings in their state or it may mean that this individual has gone through a long process of higher education and training and become ordained by a large organization or tax-exempt church. Also, there may be several levels of priesthood involved, with each position serving a different function or serving as an organizing council.
The legal status of pagan clergy, as paganism is not a single, organized institution, can vary, with many people who are recognized by their group as priests not being recognized by the state as such while others who may have no group, tradition, training or even ordination ceremony, may be able to obtain legal ordination. There is no pan-pagan standard of what a pagan clergy should know or do or what kind of education they should have or even what duties are expected of them. Some pagans have spent a great deal of time, energy and money preparing themselves to serve while others have not felt the need to do this. Therefore, when you encounter a priest who offers to do a service for you, it helps to ask about background, tradition, education and legal status, depending on what services you may need from them. I’m not, here, going to spend any time discussing the hows and whys of obtaining legal clergy status with the state, but focus, instead, on the ritual aspect of ordination, as it is a rite of passage, a change in social status, not legal status.
The varieties and functions of pagan clergy are none too different then the variety and needs of pagans themselves. I’ve even heard it said that it is difficult, in this day and age, to be a lay-pagan and that all pagan are, in some way, clergy.
When: Ordination occurs when a person has decided or been lead to pursue ordination and has passed through whatever prerequisite teachings, experiences or approvals needed to reach whatever level or type of clergy they are trying to become.
Why: The purpose of an ordination ritual is to establish a person as a priest, priestess or whatever title is given to members of clergy in their tradition. Along with this come the rights and responsibilities of those who serve, which may include things like leading rituals, performing special ceremonies, providing spiritual counseling and support, leading a group or coven, teaching, helping people network, mediating issues between group members, serving as a public representative of the group, participating in outreach or interfaith programs and conferences, upholding various traditions, providing guidance, serving in life-cycle ceremonies or rites of passage, or doing prayer or spellwork on behalf of their group or other individuals in need. It most often involves serving a community of some kind. How loosely defined that community is and what duties are required will depend on the tradition and the calling of the individual priest or priestess.
This was probably the most difficult for me to research so far, not having any books on the subject or being able to easily find sources online describing actual ceremonies, which led me to believe this was an entirely different sort of passage. My searches left me frustrated, mostly leading me to avenues for gaining legal status as a clergy with the ability to perform legal marriage ceremonies and since legalities have little to do with profound personal changes or the ceremonies that mark them, at least not to me, this didn’t help much. Other information explained what ordination was and what ordination meant within a particular tradition, which is admittedly vastly more important than the structure of the ceremony itself, but never outlined what a ceremony might look like, and having never attended one, I have no clue myself other than that they are sometimes described as being very similar to initiation ceremonies.
Instead of trying to come up with a single vague outline of what such ceremonies might look like, I’m going to take three different ceremonies and try to draw some themes within them individually instead of lumping them together… only one of these is specifically a pagan ceremony.
Moonsmith, a listener and friend, lent me an abbreviated description of his own ordination as a member of a tradition he did not name but described as having eclectic features. I hope he doesn’t mind that I’m taking the foolish liberty to further abbreviate his ceremonial experience in my own words according to what I understood from his description and draw some thematic conclusions from it. Hopefully, he’ll forgive my naiveté and brashness in this as I mean him only respect and am grateful for the information he shared with me.
His ceremony starts with the selection of the person or people who will officiate the ritual, which is someone of sufficient experience and status to be able to legitimatize the role of the ordinees. It falls upon the ordinees to make most of the arrangements and serve as gracious hosts to attendees and facilitators.
Gifts for attendees and a feast are prepared as well as all other logistics takes care of in the most polite and proper way manageable.
An altar and sacred space is set up and consecrated, and emblems of the office of clergy set out for each ordinee. This sacred space will be used very carefully throughout the ritual with attendees not entering the space at all.
The ordinees are each challenged before they can enter this sacred space, asked to acknowledge the inner change and their calling.
The ordinees are blessed and then each recites vows they have composed describing their personal commitments and individually defining the role they intend to fulfill in turn.
The ordinees are blessed again and offered their emblems of office, then each proceed to an inner sanctum to commune privately with the energies they are devoted to.
Each ordinee is then announced with their title and all present are blessed and sealed and from there the gifts are presented to the attendees and officiant and the party begins.
I also looked into ordination traditions outside of paganism, and found a description of a catholic ordination, which I’m going to whittle down to the basic themes, which may bear some similarities to other ordinations.
The ordinees are called to gather and to approach the altar.
They are questioned about their education and a sponsor may speak for them assuring that they have completed their training.
They are accepted and blessed
Each ordinee goes through a ceremonial question and answer session with the bishop and then recites a promise of obedience to God and the church.
The ordinees are prayed over for guidance
The litany is chanted, which when I read it, seemed to resemble an invocation.
Each ordinee is individually blessed and consecrated by the laying on of hands and they are then presented as priests.
The priests then take on the vestments of priesthood and proceed into a more traditional mass which they lead including anointments, communion and a general blessing, their first action as priests.
After the ceremony, there’s a big party for the family and friends who supported them on their journey.
The last ordination ceremony I looked at was in one of the Buddhist traditions. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Buddhism it is that while their beliefs, teachings and practices carry intense beauty, their rites of passage tend to lack the pomp and circumstance of other religions and are often very simple, bare-bones practical affairs… perhaps owing to the idea that celebrating the individual too much might lead to pride and accumulation of unnecessary karma, but that’s just an observation and a guess.
A person wishing to take on the role of a Buddhist priest first approaches the priest and formally and with great humility, asks to be helped out of the cycle of rebirth. When accepted, the candidate gets his head shaved and buys the proper robes, then presents them to the priest who ceremonially returns them to the candidate who puts them on and then formally requests to be ordained. The priest then repeats several core teachings and the candidate is then accepted as a student.
After completing his lessons, the candidate will be presented to the priest again who will speak for him with the other priests in private, verify that he has the proper tools, including a bowl, a spoon and the right number of robes and the candidate will then be asked several questions pertaining to his physical health or other obstacles that might prevent ordination including “Do you have Leprosy?” “Do you have eczema?” and “Are you a man?”
The candidate is then given a new name and the priests send him away to discuss it. He is then called back to make another formal request.
The questioning process repeats in public and then the priests give their consent to make the candidate a member of the order.
I do not know if they have a party afterwards.
What are the general themes?
Themes around ordination might be quite obvious. Any deities that the candidates are devoted to might play a big role, as well as the emblems used to recognize a priest. The serious devotion of the candidates and the details of their future role and moral code might be also considered themes.
Many features of initiations may appear as this is an initiation into a priesthood.
Changing of clothes or donning of symbols showing to the world that this person is now a resource and may be sought out to perform the functions of a clergy seems to be universal among the three I described, as well as saying vows or promises to serve. Receiving a blessing or consecration of some kind from the officiant who is of higher status seems to also be common.
How is the person’s life changed after the rite?
After ordination, a person is officially considered clergy and then bears whatever responsibilities, duties and privileges are due priests or clergy of that tradition. It is very possible to go through several ordinations to reach different clergy levels within one tradition or to become a priest in more than one tradition or religion, but once ordained, an individual and their community may feel that they are properly positioned to serve their deities and their communities according to their tradition and calling.