Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Church Envy: A Response

Over at Witchvox, Terry Mancour (aka "Arion the Blue" and "The High Druid of Durham", at left) has posted an article this week on the subject of "Church Envy". To say that he doesn't think Pagans need buildings is an understatement. To say that he is insulting and condescending towards those who disagree with his point of view is being charitable. To his credit he does hurl down the straw men he creates with great vigor and verve, but ultimately with little substance.

His central theme seems to be that Pagans who aspire to permanent holy sites, with buildings and other facilities, are doing so (in his eyes) for the wrong reasons:

"The arguments for institutionalizing the Pagan clergy and leadership usually revolve around a few individuals who see these big churches around them and want to feel competitive. They claim to need manicured temples in which to hold handfastings and wiccanings and requiems. They make a big deal about the inconvenience of buying a lot of camping gear and driving across the country to meet up with fellow Pagans, preferring instead to do so in the luxury of a well-appointed temple with spacious parking and expensive landscaping. The simple coven or grove is not enough for them – not big enough, not organized enough, not impressive enough."
That most Pagan and Heathen leaders and groups who want to do more than simply meet in somebody's living room have other, much more legitimate reasons than he presents, doesn't seem to occur to Mr. Mancour. It's not about luxury, or appearances, or the other superficial reasons Mr. Mancour seems obsessed with imposing on those with whom he disagrees. It's about having a sacred space which is permanent, rather than ephemeral; doing so allows us not only to create a stronger metaphysical connection with a particular place (and the spirits of that place), but also to maintain permanent physical features such as shrines, sacred wells and springs, and God-images.

Mr. Mancour continues:

"Worse, they claim that only through Pagan churches can we find our place in the community and serve the greater community at large. Individual efforts, or the efforts of small groups, are disparaged as being pointless and selfish – only by gathering in great numbers, buying buildings, and passing the ubiquitous hat can we affect positive change in our community."
I'm not really sure where he gets this idea, but no one I've ever encountered speaking on the subject has ever said that having buildings and land is the *only* way to accomplish those goals. Doing so *does*, however, make accomplishing those goals much easier. It is not "pointless" or "selfish" to serve the greater community from our collective garages. It is just not nearly as efficient or effective as doing so from a place of our collective own. Mr. Mancour is making a virtue out of poverty and allowing his obvious personal disdain for those of us who actually have achieved some level of affluence to color his perceptions of how the Pagan community as a whole should behave. News flash for Mr. Mancour; not everyone wants to live in near-poverty, nor do we think our religious institutions (be they coven, grove, kindred, or tribe) should encourage such a lifestyle.

However, Mr. Mancour seems to think that collective action in such a cause is somehow unworthy, if not downright wrong:

"If there really are throngs of eager seekers just begging to get out of our beautiful natural parks and into a majestic, air-conditioned and well-lighted temple, then they’ll be more than happy to fill your coffers full – but I’m not certain that the result would be, in fact, a Pagan one. Time, treasure and talent might be fitting offerings to the Goddess, but personal sacrifice is also demanded from time to time. If you aren’t willing to suffer, you aren’t willing to learn. If you want it so badly, you should find a way to pay for it yourself."
Aside from his tiresome insistence that such facilities must perforce be laden with luxury (and just what is so wrong with wanting air conditioning?), this fetish of suffering is, ironically, a very Christian concept; one has to look no farther than Calvary to see its basis. He keeps saying "you" in an accusatory fashion, as if all efforts at temple-building and land-buying are some sort of scam that scheming High Priests are perpetrating on their naive coven-members. But the leader-aggrandizement theory is only one point of his attack. The notion that the coven-members (or kindred-members, or tribesmen, or whatever) might actually *want* to pool their resources is also depicted as nearly impossible to reconcile with Paganism:

"Pooling resources might make sense in specific instances, but the fact is we don’t have the same needs as other religions, the same values or the same philosophy – so paying for the privilege of “enjoying” the services of those religions seems like a hollow and cynical endeavor. It certainly doesn’t seem like a wise way to advance the Pagan cause. Since most of us provide these “services” to each other without money changing hands anyway, I can’t see this as progress towards anything but making us "Christianity Lite"."
We don't have the same needs? The need for shelter, for companionship, for a sense of place is universal, and not limited to Christianity. Buddhists have temples. For that matter, for all his complaining about how Pagans don't need land or buildings, they seem to have done pretty well with them for thousands of years before Christianity came. You know; the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Norse, Celts... Were the Saxons slain by Charlemagne practicing "Christianity Lite" because they had a temple-complex centered around their sacred pillar, the Irminsul?

That his article and other writings are also filled to the brim with a virulent anti-Christian sentiment is probably close to the mark as far as the source of his attitude; his hatred of all things Christian is so all-encompassing that anything the Christians do, no matter how effective, must somehow be wrong wrong wrong.

There is a bit of inconsistency in his views, however. He is apparently all in favor of neo-pagans taking money as part of the Federal "Faith Based Initiatives" program. For instance, he writes to the Canada Free Press on the subject, where he states quite plainly (and correctly, in my opinion):

"Why should we be denied the same access to federal funding as our Christian neighbors?"
Why indeed! But why stop there? Why should we be denied the same access to facilities as our Christian neighbors?

Mr. Mancour seems to think that such would lead down a slippery slope to a place where Pagans look too much like Christians (I'm sensing a pattern):

"When Pagans in my community are in need, word goes out and stuff gets done by those who take individual responsibility to do it. And that is what lies at the crux of this matter: Responsibility. Once we start paying for our clergy and these so-called clerical services, we cheapen the spirit of individual responsibility and sacrifice that called many of us to the groves and covens in the first place. Once we put a price-tag on such things as devotion, respect, instruction and service, we start down the dark and lonely road of abandoning our individual responsibility – and there are plenty of other churches out there that already offer that "service"."
He does seem to make broad sweeping generalizations ("individual responsibility and sacrifice...called many of us") that I, for one, would challenge. That may be true of Mr. Mancour, and perhaps those in his immediate orbit. But I could probably point to just as many for whom one of the chief attractions of Paganism or Heathenry is in fact the sense of community and the pull of finding security in belonging to a greater whole; such is the essence of tribalism, and although that may be anathema to an ultra-individualist such as Mr. Mancour, it is nonetheless a legitimate point of view fully consistent with either the broader Pagan or Heathen world-views. Having clergy professionally trained in such things as counseling, history, languages, etc., making them an actually legitimate source for knowledge and succor somehow leads to an erosion of personal responsibility? It might be at odds with the way that Mr. Mancour approaches his religious faith, but there are places for specialists, and not every person can (or should be expected to) be an expert in all things.

He closes his article with a cheap cop-out, claiming an implied imprimatur from the Gods supporting his point of view:

""Lack of funding" isn’t an obstacle to getting things done; it’s merely a challenge of the moment. If the Gods so will something like a temple to be, then you can bet that the resources will magickally appear."
That, too, is a very Christian point of view; that our material success or failure is wholly a product of the Will of the Gods. I would argue that such fatalism-- placing outcomes completely in the hands of the Gods and waiting for Fate to simply plunk down a check for $100,000 before lifting a finger to do the work ourselves-- is inconsistent with the Pagan and Heathen world-views. To take the example with which I am personally most familiar, in the Germanic world-view such passivity would be unthinkable. Struggling and striving to attain one's goals, especially ones which bring glory and renown to the person who achieves them, is a central theme. We don't wait for our Gods to drop a life of ease at our feet; we go out and seize it by the throat. Just because the resources don't magically appear doesn't mean the Gods *don't* want it. Maybe it means they want *us* to go out and do it.

I happen to think that having permanent temples, and land, and even paid clergy, are Good Things. With temples and land we can, as mentioned above, have statues and shrines, sacred springs and offering wells. We can open that property to the spirits of the land, offering them a place where they will be respected by those who walk the ground, as opposed to being ignored and actively abused 357 days out of the year when they have to deal with profane softball leagues, teenagers tossing beer cans on the ground, dirt-bikers, and (horrors!) Church picnics.

Permanent buildings are not only useful for weddings and rituals. They also serve as center points for the community, and serve that function better than someone's living room or back yard. Is it perhaps fear of success that drives this attitude? A need to be "counter-cultural"? When we limit our groups to the size than can fit in a living room, we ensure our own marginality. By having facilities that can accommodate much larger groups in a physical sense, we enable our own potential for growth. They also allow us to start proper schools for both adults and children, with places for the equipment, supplies, books, etc. necessary for modern education.

Professional clergy is a hot-button topic even more so than buildings and facilities, and my response to Mr. Mancour's article is already long enough. Suffice to say for now that having clergy (for want of a better word; in the Heathen conception that broad category can be taken up by any number of specific roles) that is professionally trained is better than relying on well-intentioned amateurs. One does not have to be a full-time priest living in a vicarage to be able to provide professional counseling services, or be a certified non-profit financial manager, or be trained in large event planning...

Mr. Mancour seems to have issues with Christianity, and with those people and groups he sees as edging too close to what the Christians do. In so doing, he borders on the abusive and argues his case poorly, propping up straw men and making broad generalizations. But in a most ironic turn of events, he seems to take an almost Calvinist view of the world, waiting for the Gods to provide, and extolling the virtues of both poverty and suffering. There are places for small, organic groups of Pagans who meet in their living rooms and do ritual in public parks. However, there is also a place for larger and more organized pagan groups who see the virtue and utility of growing up (in a social sense) and owning property and expecting professional services from their leaders.

3 comments:

  1. Well said! I read the original article, too, and am very pleased to see your intelligent, well-reasoned response. Thank you.

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  2. I agree with the above. Excellent review, and well thought out. Clearly Mr. Mancour obviously didn't, with his generalisations :)

    As one heathen to another, I can wholeheartedly agree with your point on "leaving it to the gods" to get it done. Totally and utterly contradictory to our worldview.

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  3. I agree that you make a very good case for why seeking decent public facilities is nothing to be ashamed of, and that it does not imply any kind of unacknowledged conversion to Christianity. Thanks for the thoughtful piece.

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