More on Clergy


In my discussions of clergy types, some brought up issues of hierarchy and dogma.

I extended my research into the clergy standards and formats of various modern religions, in this case, Abrahamic ones which deal with these issues. I bring them up as a topic for discussion. Please let me know if you agree with the suggestion, or if you think I’m barking mad.

The words, clergy, and cleric come from latin Clericus, from Gk. Kleros, lot or office. (Indeed in the RCC, Anglican, and GOC, clergy take Holy Orders, with ordinations (of some sacramental character). A related term is clerk, since the only literate folks in Medieval Europe were the clergy, who filled most clerical and administrative positions in the primitive bureaucracies of the feudal system. Clergy originally meant someone ordained preachers or priests. The term cleric, not implying priests (as intermediaries) is often used to describe Judaic and Islamic clergy, who are not priests. (Islam never had a priesthood, and the Judaic Priesthood fell into disuse after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, which due to various conflicts, was the only allowed place to offer sacrifices to Yahweh, beating out Samaria, Shiloh and Elephantine).

Traditionally, Episcopal organization of churches, with bishops overseeing (the meaning of Episkopos, or bishop), and ordaining the other major and minor orders of clergy, are very hierarchical.

In response many Protestant churches eliminated the episcopate entirely. Assemblies or synods of elders make policy, not bishops, and elders or the congregation elect and choose their ministers. The individual congregations are more or less independent even of synods/assemblies, though leaving those would mean the others might view them as lacking any authority.

In such systems, ordination is usually a certificate that recognizes and confirms a minister’s call to be a minister, acknowledges that a period of discernment and training for the call (usually a degree from a seminary), and authorizes the minister to become a pastor of a church. The congregation then elects from those with this certificate. (In some denominations, they don’t even have to do this, and can elect anyone to the ministry).

Ministers serve a congregation, or run a parachurch ministry (a subministry in a church), or serve as chaplains to non-congregational organizations (as a chaplain).

In episcopally organized churches, the title of minister is not used as a title for their clergy.

Ministers, and priests often serve pastoral care, either at home, or at the church, or with formal counseling via ministers licensed to provide formal counseling. They research and study religion, scripture and theology, plan and conduct worship services, preach, preside over sacraments, provide leadership to the congregation, parish or church community, usually with the aid of church elders (usu. called deacons or elders), they build the community, and develop networks and relations within the church and greater community (usually as a representative of the church), supervise prayer and discussion groups and retreats, seminars and religious education, coordinate volunteers, train church leaders, and provide pastoral care, pray and promot spirituality, maintain records, teach on spiritual or theological subjects, and may prophesize or establish new churches.

So to pause, we have here, as a summary, ministers are prayer leaders and ritual planners, leaders of the congregations and representatives to the larger community, preachers and teachers, and provide pastoral care. They are not necessarily ritualists, and I note that most of the churches that run on this model do not have much of a ritual structure.

They meet, they sing hymns, give testimonies, get sermonized. In between, they gather for Bible Study. But the old ritual, the old liturgy, which is kept strongest by the churches with Holy Orders, such as the GOC, RCC, and Anglican Communion, is not done. In Presbyterianism and Congregationalism, they do the old rituals, especially Holy Supper (Communion), once in a while, but its rather rare. Otherwise, its fairly free form, and usually centers on a sermon, a teaching, and prayer (remember, hymns are a form of prayer).

Moving right along, lets go to the next most decentralized Abrahamic faith is Judaism. Before the destruction of the Second Temple in 79 e.v., the Jews had two loci of authority. One was the elders, both the Sanhedrin, the 70 Elders, going back by Mosaic succession back to Mt. Sinai, by laying on hands, the Semicha ordination, and the local elders of each town. The elders were well versed in the Law, and acted as judges. (There was no separation of Church and State, Law was religious law, which included sections on property law, criminal law, etc.). The Sanhedrin met, discussed the law, and tried cases (most famously, the case of Yeshu bar Yosef). These elders, included amongst themselves, the Scribes of the New Testament, who studied, and interpreted the Law. They also included the proto-rabbinical Pharasees, who also studied the law and commented and taught it.

The other locus of authority was the ritual authority of the Levite Priestly tribe. The highest ranked Priest (Kohain), was the Kohain Gadol (lit. Great Priest, but better known as the High Priest), descended directly from Aaron. Each village and town had a Kohain, of the Levite Tribe to handle small rituals. Then there was the High Priest and his 20,000 other Levites who managed, and operated the Temple, and conducted all sacrifices there. The rituals themselves resembled the rituals of other neighboring nations (goy=nations, gentiles=nations), with purificatory lustrations to enter the sanctuary, lustrations before the ritual, the blood sacrifice, the burning of a portion of it for God(s), the communal eating, the reservation of a portion of the sacrifice for the Priests (in this case, the Levite tribe). Early on, the old Tabernacle at Shiloh seems to have maintained some ritual function, while temples were also built in Elephantine Egypt by Jewish Mercenaries hired by the Egyptian Pharaohs, and due to its association with Kingship under David (who moved the sanctuary to Jerusalem, and started planning the temple) and Solomon (who built the temple), the Kings of Israel, built their own Temple at Samaria, which is maintained to this day by the Samaritans. Other sanctuaries are mentioned in the Book of Judges. Eventually the Kings of Judah, and their High Priests consolidated all ritual at the Temple Mount, and suppressed the other sanctuaries. Only rituals done there were valid. This left the Priests in a bind, when the Temple was destroyed. They could not conduct rituals anywhere else. The ritual authority faded away, but the Kohanim are still around, and still expected to live by the rules of purity established for the Levites, and as an inheritance of the Blessing by the Kohain Gadol on Yom Kippur, the Kohanim, in Orthodox Judaism (and maybe in Conservative Judaism), still bless the people on Yom Kippur, using a gesture the Leonard Nimoy made into the Vulcan Salute (but with both hands held together). Some Orthodox wish to restore the Temple, and in such a situation, the Kohainim would regain ritual authority. This is the New Testament Sadduccees.

Even before the fall of the Temple, Jews gathered to pray three times a day, if they had a minyan, a minimum quorum to pray. To aid this, they build prayer halls, where they gathered together to pray. To “gather together” in Greek is “synagogue” (in Hebrew, they are called Assembly Halls). Despite the Reform Jewish name “Temple” applied to their synagogues, they are not temples, they are prayer halls. Any Jewish male, of age (who has received his bar mitzvah, or coming of age ceremony) may lead prayers, and indeed, traditionally, part of the bar mitzvah is the new adult leading prayers. Some groups allow women to lead prayers and have bat mitzvahs. Usually, as a mark of respect, the person acknowledged as having the most extensive knowledge of the law, and the commentaries on it, would lead prayers, and would teach. A teacher, in Hebrew, is a rabbi. Since they also made rulings as elders, they are a direct descendant of the Sanhedrin and the Elders of the Bible, and due to their knowledge of the commentaries on the application of the law, they also descend from the Pharisees.

The idea was to make Judaism portable, and transferable. Synagogues spread to the local towns in Judaea, and to the diaspora. The synagogue kept Jewish identity and religion alive in the diaspora. After about the 4th Century e.v., ordination by semicha fell out of use, and a verbal form (a letter of recommendation from another rabbi), took its place. No formal ordination is technically required, because the congregation would accept the judgement of a respected elder that the new rabbi knew enough to teach and make judgements on the law, and the man was usually a member of the community and they knew of his knowledge first hand. In some Orthodox communities, no semicha is even done.

In the 19th century, some reformers (both Conservative and Reform), began to model the synagogue on the Protestant Churches around them. They trained their rabbis in schools, and issued certificates of ordination (essentially a degree) attesting they knew the law well enough to make judgements. These were Pulpit Rabbis, who installed pulpits in their synagogues, and made sermons, provided pastoral counseling, and represented the congregation to the larger community outside, functioning like a minister. They began to perform other non-rabbinic functions besides teaching the Law, and answering questions about the Law. The Orthodox rabbis keep their teaching role as primary, though elements of the pulpit Rabbi are beginning to infuse even their communities. Some Reform synagogues even added in organs to play during services.

Rabbis were never considerd to have any special powers or abilities, and were not intermediaries between God and the People. They were teachers, and respected elders, and due to their knowledge may be expected to sermonize on the Law on occasion, or lead prayers. Any adult Jew can lead a ritual, perform a marriage, or head prayers. Congregations usually elect their Rabbi, or otherwise choose them. Each Rabbi is technically independent of each other. The congregation turns to their rabbi for most questions, and each Rabbi knows of other Rabbis, but does not have to abide by their rulings or judgments. Usually, they recognize Rabbis who are as strict or stricter than they are in terms of Halalakh (generally purity laws, like Kosher rules), as legitimate. “Ordination” or Semicha is in two levels, the easiest level is yorei yorei (he shall teach), a teacher, who can make rulings on Halalakh, and very rare, yadin yadin (he shall judge) who make rulings on property, money and inheritance.

Conservative and Reform Jews send their Rabbincial students to seminaries (to be distinguished from the Orthodox Yeshiva, which trains anyone in the Torah and Talmud, not just potential Rabbis), where they take varying amounts of study on the Law and Commentaries (Torah and Talmud, with the Conservatives studying more than the Reform, but are not usually as well versed as an Orthodox Rabbi), and Bible Study, Biblical Criticism, pastoral care, psychology, and the history of Judaism. Both usually require a bachelors degree to enter the seminary, and they earn a Masters equivalent (Masters of Hebrew Literature). The Orthodox do not require a university education, save Yeshiva University, which requires Undergraduate degrees, and issue an M.A. and ordination.

But to wrap up, there is no need for an ordination (semicha) to be called a Rabbi by the students or congregation. It is not a title you give to yourself, it is granted by others.

Islam, on the other hand has no formal ordination process. Sunni Islam is extremely decentralized, and Shi’a Islam less so, though still very decentralized. I will focus on Sunni Islam for our purposes here. An Imam is a prayer leader in the Mosque. Anyone can lead prayers and be an Imam (leader), there is no need to be a cleric of any sort to do so. Usually a Shaykh (elder, lit. elder, e.g. Senex). In Sunni Islam, one of the founders of the four main schools of legal interpretation are also called Imams.

The Shaykh is a title of honor, given to someone who is well versed in Sharia Law and its applications. The educated class of Muslims who know Sharia are called the Ulema, and they arbitrate and judge Sharia Law. They judged based on the consensus of interpretation in the Ulema (though they divide up into schools of interpretation, each school views the others as being equally valid and correct, there is, a priori, no dissention or conflict in their understandings of the Qu’ran).

Broadly speaking, to be in the Ulema (consensus), they have to finish several years of study of Islamic sciences and law. Traditionally these clerics teach at religious schools and seminaries. They used to have judicial, executive and military authority, though in the modern world their power has been greatly reduced. (This is not true of Iran or Taliban Afghanistan). Their main role is to be judges in Shari’a courts, based on their rank in study,and to teach, as well as advise rulers, and to preach, sometimes leading prayers or sermonizing on points of Shari’a as applicable to current (often political) events.

Highest ranking clerics of all are called Muftis, who are the most well versed interpreters and expounders of Islamic Law, and able to issue a Fatwah (official ruling). They usually rule on Capital Crimes, and can overrule civil courts, or lower Sharia courts. A similar office in Shi’a Islam is the Ayatullah or Ayatollah.

Below the Muftis are the Qadis or judges of Shari’a Law. They do the initial hearings in hybrid Sharia-Civil courts, or operate the lower courts in Shari’a lands. They are expected to judge based on Ulema. Their rulings in severe cases must be reviewed and ratified by a Mufti. They are usually a member of the Fiqh, the class of people expert in Islamic Law, those who know the rulings and meaning of the Law. Fiqh translates as Jurist.

Below or equal in status are the Muhaddith, folks who have memorized the Haddith (tradition), who gave the Haddith, and can tell which Haddith are real and which are fake. They do not necessarily know the meanings of the Haddith, for if they did, they would be Fiqh. Many are also Hafith/Hafiz, those who have memorized the Qu’ran.

In Persian lands, and lands influenced by Persia, such as Urdu speaking Pakistan, and Pashto speaking areas, those who have received training in the Qu’ran, Haddith and Fiqh are called Mullahs. This applies to both Sunni and Shi’a. However, in Arabic speaking lands, Mullah is not used, they prefer Shaykh (for those with formal training, as well as Tribal Elders), Imam (prayer leader), or Alim (scholar). The term Mullah can be considered equivalent to Cleric or Clergy (though these terms are not too useful in Sunni, as its extremely decentralized).

Mullahs tache in the madrasahs or religious schools, lead prayers, deliver sermons, and perform religious ceremonies such as birth and death ceremonies. They are usually lower level “clerics” with out a complete and extensive study of the Qu’ran or Shari’a Law. In some villages, the illiterate villagers will consider any literate Muslim, even with incomplete study, to be their Mullah.

A similar title is Maulvi, also concentrated in the eastern part of the Islamic world. It is a title put before one’s name for a scholar or member of the Ulema. Similar to Maulana, Mullah or Shaykh (any cleric or teacher), after completing some study in a madrassah or seminary. In some culture it is a lower degree or rank (below Maulana or Shaykh, who are more qualified).

Maulana or Lord/Master, means formal qualification, and in some areas of South Asia is preferrable to Mullah, which often has a connotation of a rabble-rouser. Maulvi is a more general term if this term is used as well.

In these traditions, decision making is usually very decentralized. In Judaism or Islam, anyone can lead prayers, or even, usually religious rituals. In this, the decentralization is similar to that found in old European Pagan religions (and due to their origins, probably Near Eastern religions as well), where anyone who knew the rituals could perform them. I.e., anyone could be a priest if a priest was not present (normally, except in Gaul and India where the Druids and Brahmanas had a monopoly). A community selects its leaders, much as people usually chose their Priest, either by election to a magistracy with an attached Priesthood, or in hiring the Priest of their local temple if there was no hereditary Priesthood at that sanctuary.

The leaders in these traditions know the Laws, and Traditions, and the community acknowledges their leadership and knowledge, and grants them authority to make judgments, whether we speak of a Protestant Minister (though the people usually rely on a seminary certificate proving years of study and mastery), a Rabbi (either via a seminary, or by local consensus about his knowledge), or a Shaykh/Maulana with his years of study.

This would correspond to various old priesthoods and clergy. The Bards/Rhapsodes/Exegetes/Brehons/Skalds were knowledgeable of the law. So were the Druids and Gothi (which is why the Gothi were magistrates and judges in Iceland). The scholars would make judgements on Law and Tradition, and would presumably be known to their community as being knowledgeable or have some formal training.

In the Classical World, this class would be further divided. There were Exegetes who expounded on what the sacred law was based on the myths and epics, the Rhapsodes knew these by heart (much like the Muhaddith and Hafith in Islam), and most people studied Homer and the Poets and memorized them much as Protestants study the Bible, Jews study the Torah, and Muslims study the Qu’ran. Most likely one was elected to the post of Exegete, or was otherwise accepted as knowing these laws well. You could choose which Exegete to go to, and you were not forced to abide by their rulings (unlike a Rabbi or a Fiqh). Secular Judges and Jurists handled the secular law, and you chose your own lawyer, especially after the laws were written down. Philosophers expounded on hidden meanings, and on the good life. You could take them or leave them, by choice. But since they gave guidance on The Good Life or how to attain happiness (eudaimonia), you’d join their School, take classes, and maybe even, if rich enough, hired one as a tutor and chaplain and listened to their sermons. (Pretty much the only sermonizers in Classical Paganism).

In the Northern Traditions, the Skalds and Gothi, the Bards, Brehons and Druids knew the oral law and histories, and you knew that, either because the Druid down the road finished his 20 year training period, or whatnot. You knew the Gothi’s knowledge from watching him at the Thing every year, and you probably knewsome of the law yourself.

So the evils of hierarchy can be avoided. We already saw how priestly duties were subdivided into a number of specialists, but also those knowledgeable of the laws or philosophy or whatnot were chosen by consensus by their communities, or chosen by individuals.

Such a decentralized structure should serve us well too. For ritual matters we can go to a priest, or rely on a scholar for advice (while still doing as much studying as we’d like). If not, we can use our own judgment or lead our own rituals. In our modern Civil Society, there’d be no legal ramifications to ignore the scholar or philosopher, they’re not judges any more. If a Jew or Muslim ignores his Rabbi, he may be cast out as impure or a heretic, but unlike Old Judaea/Israel, or Sharia countries today, they can’t punish you by other than ostracism or excommunication. Our versions would have even less power, and the extent they have authority would be granted by consensus. Who do we know who knows the most about our traditions? Our religion?

Whether we want to go whole hog and tied prayer leader, pastoral councilor, teacher, and religious judge together like a Pulpit Rabbi, a Mullah or a Minister is another question. I don’t see why these functions could not be split up, though, as the Jews have found, having one person who qualifies as all parts of the Clergy spectrum who can speak for the religious community to the larger community can be helpful.

It is also pretty much the social norm most of us have grown up in. (Even Holy Order Churches that do not use the Title of Priest, have an expectation that the Priest be the speaker and representative, and provides pastoral care). One could have, for each congregation a Teacher/Sermonizer, and a ritual Priest, plus as in several places, a Choirmaster or Cantor for the music, chorus, choir and so forth. It could be that the teacher/sermonizer (the equivalent of an exegete, Rabbi or Shaykh), is the one doing the pastoral care.

Formal ordination is not necessary, and usually only indicates extensive study and knowledge of the rituals, traditions, history, and religous law. It is necessary in the Holy Orders groups of Christianity due to the importance, to them, of Apostolic Succession and the Sacrament of Ordination. Whether these concepts are applicable to us, is at best, debatable.

In short, the modern Asatru statement, if you call yourself a Priest and no one laughs, then you are a Priest, with its assumption of consensus and acknowledgement by others, is consistent with this broader tradition in the modern world. If someone called themselves a Minister, Rabbi or Fiqh/Imam/Mullah, without the knowledge backing it up, he’d be laughed at. The most one may wish to require is as in Pulpit Rabbis and many Ministers that a group call you to be their Rabbi, Minister, Teacher, or whatnot. The reason we feel uncomfortable with self-proclaimed Priests/Priestesses, is that normally these are titles granted by the consensus of the community and of the other scholars/clergy in your denomination. Its not normally something one claims for oneself. If people act as if you’re the priest/minister, then you are, especially if they vote on it. Already several of us are in the situation of being something like Hellenic Rabbis or Exegetes. There are those of us, whom others turn to for their knowledge and advice about Hellenismos. The people seem to know who they are, and they know who they are.

Another concept I find interesting and useful is something like the Ulema of Islam, a consensus among the scholars about some things. While recons can’t always agree on everything, I notice we do tend to agree on many things.

Since we lack, at the moment, sanctuaries and temples, having specialist ritual priests is not that useful, we all can be our own priests, and I’d presume that at a gathering, someone would emerge from consensus as the person to lead the ceremony. But we could use teachers, something like a Shaykh or a Rabbi. If there are those of us who fit, I say, we should acknowledge them as such, as teachers and religious leaders of sorts, and by the extension and analogy which has spread the term Cleric and Clergy to Rabbis and Shaykhs/Fiqhs/Mullahs, we could perhaps consider them as part of our clergy.


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