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The Changing Face of Priestessing

by M. Macha NightMare

Movies, television, books — Witches are turning up everywhere in pop culture. And, as more and more people seek a religion that meets their spiritual needs, that addresses their everyday concerns and the bigger questions in life, they are finding their way onto Pagan paths. Discouraged by the rape of Nature, by the declining quality of air and water, agriculture and animal husbandry, we find hope in Paganism. We create rituals of commitment and renewal in the face of ecological perils. We rejoice in our diversity. We encourage creativity and self-expression.

As more people find themselves drawn to Pagan practices, they seek information and connection on the Web. Priest/esses have rallied to meet that challenge. Together, we have created ways of teaching and learning online. In many ways, the World Wide Web has supplemented, and in some cases even enhanced, the passing on of the Craft of the wise. People search on the Internet for Pagans to conduct their rites of passage or to counsel them in crisis. In response to this need, priestesses and priests, individually or as a dyad, perform services that we might recognize as being similar to those that mainstream clergy perform.

Priestesses and priests, individually or as a dyad, perform services that we might recognize as being similar to those that mainstream clergy perform.

Pagans, more than ever, are seeking the support of other Pagans: for instance, some Pagan expectant parents are more comfortable having a witchen midwife attending the birth of their offspring. I sometimes receive phone calls from distraught people who are witnessing a loved one go through the process of dying. Because of my work on The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, they believe that I might have a special understanding of their situation, and they seek my counsel. I suggest ways of coping. These people also reach me through e-mail, and through the Web I spin out all the words of comfort I can.

My colleagues and I have created memorials and funerals. To hospital chaplains, hospice workers, and funeral professionals who ask for advice on how to serve their Pagan clients, I have spoken about our beliefs and practices. I have also lectured to college classes on Pagan views of death. This is one part of my ministry.

Laura Spellweaver, of Massachusetts, is a priestess who performs rites of commitment. Most of these rituals are marriage ceremonies, legal in the eyes of the state. Laura, like many others who conduct weddings, conducts premarital counseling sessions. She also keeps a collection of liturgical writings from which those who seek her services may choose selections to weave into their own unique ceremonies. Laura is one of many Witches across the continent who have responded to a calling and developed a specialized ministry.

Pagan counselors who have secular training in therapy may specialize in such areas as working with victims of domestic violence or child abuse. As with any human being in any profession, their spirituality can enhance and enrich their professional practice.

As a Priest of Bridghe, Patrick McCollum is a remarkably skilled and gifted goldsmith. He is the Wiccan chaplain for the State of California Department of Corrections, the first Pagan chaplain in any state to be appointed to serve Pagan inmates. Patrick also serves on the Prison Issue Task Force of Lady Liberty League, as well as being a consultant to prison administrations in seven other states and to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Patrick's ministry, called Our Lady of the Wells, is now one of several throughout the country. They exist in a number of states among them, Washington, Arizona, Missouri, Tennessee, and Florida.

Pagans, myself included, who are doing prison ministries are beginning to find colleagues on the Internet. We are sharing information that helps other prison ministries. Witchen "clergy" working in the prisons also enjoy professional relationships with other prison clergy and with prison staff. We also work in concert with adult-literacy teachers, who offer social services within the prison system. We have formed alliances that benefit prisoners, their families, and ourselves.

More and more frequently, hospices and hospitals have patients who request the ministrations of Pagan clergy.

Ordained interfaith ministers now have training in Pagan beliefs and practices. In addition, some Pagans are called to the interfaith ministry; they train at interfaith seminaries such as the Golden Gate Interfaith Institute in the San Francisco Bay Area. With such training, these witchen folk join with interfaith ministerial colleagues to serve in schools, hospitals, and prisons, to officiate at weddings and funerals, and to assist at other meaningful events in the lives of their co-religionists. On the peninsula south of San Francisco, there is a Witch who serves as a hospital chaplain. More and more frequently, hospices and hospitals have patients who request the ministrations of Pagan clergy. I'm encouraged when these chaplains, nurses, and other caregivers seek me out upon hearing that I'm conducting a workshop or when they come across The Pagan Book of Living and Dying. They are motivated by their desire to serve their clients in a way that is respectful of their faith tradition. I'm similarly encouraged when my co-religionists train to provide chaplaincy services to people of all faiths.

Some Pagans use the term "clergy" in defining their community responsibilities, but there are parallels between the roles of the Judeo-Christian clergy and Pagan priest/esses that cannot be fairly drawn. For one thing, Witches do not have a sacred text — we obtain spiritual guidance from spirit and spiritual encounters. Gus diZerega provides us with a clear explanation of the differences:

"A traditional Wiccan priestess or priest does not preach...Neopagan priestesses and priests are often teachers, but what they teach is not primarily doctrine. Rather, it is how to act within a small group that, as a coven, works with the world of spirits and Spirit.

". . .They are primarily judged by their ability to work with spiritual powers...These abilities link traditional Wiccan priestesses and priests with healers, diviners, mediums, and shamans in many other Pagan traditions...Next in importance (and for sensible people just as important) is their personal spiritual maturity. Last, and often distantly so, is their institutional affiliation."

Pagan Seminaries and Ovaria

As the Web grows larger, more webs intersect and intertwine, our communities expand, our religions evolve. There are, and have always been, those among us who seek to deepen our practice, to hone our skills, to explore unfamiliar territory, to push boundaries beyond the known.

Beginning in the late 1990s, particularly, Pagans began to perceive the need for more advanced training. We saw that we had much to learn from one another. Some of us wanted to pursue knowledge and experience in a more structured way. People who had been in the movement for years wanted to engage in deeper work than much of what could be found at festivals, where people of all levels of experience gathered.

Some of these people attempted to fulfill this goal by pursuing advanced studies in conventional seminaries. An example of such an institution is the Starr King School for the Ministry, a Unitarian Universalist member of the Graduate Theological Union, in Berkeley, California. I know several people who have obtained Master of Divinity degrees from Starr King. Another formal institution whose program harmonizes with a witchen worldview and that grants degrees and ordination is the University of Creation Spirituality (UCS) in Oakland, California. Founded by former Dominican priest Matthew Fox, UCS articulates Ten Principles of Creation Spirituality, the last three of which are especially applicable to Nature religions:

  • We are all sons and daughters of God; therefore, we have divine blood in our veins, the divine breath in our lungs; and the basic work of God is: Compassion.
  • Divinity is as much Mother as Father, as much Child as Parent, as much Godhead (mystery) as God (history), as much beyond all beings as in all beings.
  • We experience that the Divine is in all things and all things are in the Divine (Panentheism) and that this mystical intuition supplants theism (and its child, atheism) as an appropriate way to name our relation to the Divine and experience the Sacred.

A number of other schools offer related programs, including the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco, Woolston-Steen Theological Seminary, an adjunct of the Aquarian Tabernacle Church International, based in Washington State, New Mexico's Ardantane Project, the Matrix Program, sponsored by the Circle of Aradia, based in Los Angeles, and the Reformed Congregation of the Goddess-International.

Reclaiming, which is not a school but an extended teaching community, offers week-long summer retreats called Witchcamps. There are Witchcamp communities throughout the United States, and in Canada, England, and Germany. Communities of folks who have sponsored Witchcamps have taken on the challenge of teaching in their own cities and towns. (For more information, see page 38.)

A Pagan "graduate school" that I have personal experience with is Cherry Hill Seminary, located in Vermont. Cherry Hill Seminary is open to walkers on all Pagan paths. I recently audited a 13-week course called Boundaries and Ethics for Pagan Pastoral Counselors. Although the seminary, which is seeking accreditation from the state of Vermont as an institution of higher learning, conducts many of its more basic courses at its Bethel campus during weekend and weeklong retreat sessions, Boundaries and Ethics took place in cyberspace. The teacher was in western Massachusetts, and the students logged on from New York, Ohio, Florida, Texas, New Jersey, and California. We all had standard psychology textbooks, and we were given assignments supplemented by additional readings posted on our private Yahoogroups site. We discussed our readings via an e-list and read an online weekly lecture. Then we met in real time in a chat room for a class discussion. With classes such as this, Cherry Hill Seminary has begun the process of deepening and broadening our work and defining ourselves and our movement.

All of these emerging programs, which help us deepen and broaden our experience and practice, have been fostered by the World Wide Web. They might have flowered without the Internet, but it would have taken years. Due to the speed of electronic communication and its ability to reach so many people so readily, Pagan learning has expanded far beyond what any of us could have imagined in the days before the Net.

Each Pagan training approach mentioned here is one aspect of a broad spectrum. Each reflects a different view of contemporary Witchcraft — from Dianic, to anarchic, to conventional, to academic. And each deals with ongoing training in a distinct way. They all have something unique to offer. But every one—the RCGI Cella Program, the Ardantane Project, the Woolston-Steen Theological Seminary, Reclaiming Witchcamps, Cherry Hill Seminary, and many more that are not named here—has been profoundly affected by the Internet.

Excerpted from Witchcraft and the Web: Weaving Pagan Traditions Online, to be published in February 2002 by ECW Press.

M. Macha NightMare, Priestess & Witch, teaches in the Pagan Pastoral Counseling Program at Cherry Hill Seminary in Vermont. Contact,