Pagan Culture - Opinion
Toe-to-Toe — A Forum for Controversy and Opinion
Should Pagans Build Churches?
by Moira Rose Raistlin (no), Tree (maybe),
Ruby Sara (yes), and Emiti (yes)
Hierarchy, Visibility, and Paperwork —
Who Needs the Aggravation?
The very first question one must address is, what do we mean by “building churches”…? Are we restricting ourselves to the physical construction of an edifice, or are we including dedicating specific sites to spiritual activity? Or are we discussing the organization of a group of Pagans within modern legal parameters necessary to accomplish a structure-building project?
Several months ago, my coven talked about trying to establish a community center for Pagans in our area. Many public sites suitable for celebrations close at dusk, our homes and backyards are often too small for activities, and all-too-frequently public facilities are just not available. We were still bouncing ideas around when we provoked very hostile reactions from some of our Pagan friends. For them, the issue was visibility. They opposed the community center project because its creation would reveal our presence to the larger community. All of these folks were still hiding in broom closets afraid the world will discover they are Pagans and kill them. The mere “possibility” of our opening a Pagan community center threatened them. Undoubtedly, visibility is a factor in some Pagans’ problem with publicly-known and dedicated gathering sites.
The observation here is that we Pagans cannot have both secrecy and churches. If you desire secrecy within and without your group, you cannot have a building that declares your identity.
An entirely different issue revolves around the sacredness of Earth. Pagans understand the Earth, the whole planet, to be sacred … every spot, every lake, every rock. For some, to designate a specific portion as sacred would deny the sanctity of the whole; building a church, then, forces a separation between sacred and profane, a division which, we believe, does not really exist. Since every place is sacred, any place is suitable for communion with the Divine.
The real negative issue for me about church-building lies in what might happen within any group trying to build a church. When my coven was discussing the community center, someone suggested incorporating our effort as a church in order to obtain tax-exempt status. This proposal made me uncomfortable. To legally qualify, our coven would have to have a board of trustees and would have to conform to a list of regulations. For instance, under “church” status, we could not endorse any political candidate or platform. We quickly realized we would be forced to establish a hierarchy of permanent leadership positions. But in our coven everyone has equal status and roles rotate with every event. So, we discarded the idea of organizing as a “church.” It would have destroyed our coven.
I know that some groups have strict hierarchies already, so this would probably not be any problem for them. Other egalitarian groups, though, like us, might dissolve under that stress into bitterness and hostility. Besides, isn’t hierarchy with its attendant authority and dogma one of the worst features of Christian churches? Why would Pagans want to imitate them? Pagans don’t need “churches” as such. We should leave such projects to the groups (like Christians) whose religious structures and theology are more suitable to them.
— MOIRA ROSE RAISTLIN is an eclectric Crone Pagan with four college degrees and a job in Medical administration. She is a member of the Dragon Moon coven and lives in Kentucky.
Temples are expensive:
should we make the sacrifice?
Many of us have imagined the perfect temple or ritual space for our worship. We may have created it on the astral plane, or even built a small version of it in our homes. We might have an altar in each of the directions, with candles of the appropriate elemental colors. There might be murals on the wall, depicting symbols of the elements. We might even visualize grand buildings with life sized god and goddess statues, and domed ceilings of glass, so that worshipers can always see the sky. But only a few of us entertain ideas that such structures will actually be built in our lifetime, and some of us believe that it would be better if they were not.
One reason we Pagans shy away from building temples is that construction costs money, and money can corrupt. How many of us have entered a Church, only to be left with a bad taste in our mouth when the collection basket is passed around? We can feel alienated because we can’t afford to donate or angered at the sense of feeling obligated. After all, the source of our spirituality is within us and all around us. It’s free. Why should we have to pay for it?
The problem is that we already do pay for it. This is uncomfortable to admit but it’s even worse for those of us who have been turned away from a workshop, or even a ritual, because we could not afford the entrance fee. To hold a large-scale ritual or workshop, a space must be rented; a teacher must be paid for his or her time. Many Pagan workshops cost as much as $500 for a week. How many of us can actually afford that? Consider this: No Christian is turned away from a Bible Study group because he or she cannot afford to pay for it. Why, then, are low-income Pagans deprived of teaching and ritual? Why are they left as self-taught solitaries, not out of choice, but because they lack other options?
Followers of many mainstream religious traditions have ways of working around this. When those who have the financial resources to do so make free-will donations, those without those resources have a chance at a whole new world of opportunities. When people who have extra time on their hands volunteer, they are amazed at the amount of work that can get done.
I’m visualizing a temple where donations would be optional but volunteer work, even if it was just one shift per month, would be mandatory. Even the actual building of a temple could be accomplished by volunteers if the community included architects and carpenters. The large, cathedral-like temples of our fantasies may be unrealistic; still, a small cabin or refurbished old farm house would be better than forcing everyone to do rituals outside (regardless of weather), inside cramped apartments or in rented spaces that have to be planned for in advance. (What happened to spontaneous ritual?) I believe that outdoor worship is ideal, but it is not always realistic, or even desirable. Consider frail elders and small children in the community — why expose them to the elements; especially in the cold of winter or stifling heat of summer.? Better to offer the option of an indoor space where everyone can worship without risking either hypothermia or heatstroke.
Another benefit of a dedicated indoor worship space is privacy. Worshipers can go skyclad, or conduct powerful, emotionally intense rituals without fear of being seen by those who would not understand. Imagine if all of this could be done in a space large enough to conduct a Spiral Dance. Many (including me) would gladly donate to have such a space.
Consider this: the cultures we often idealize built glorious places of worship. The Greeks designed their temples to celebrate the beauty and harmony of nature; the Egyptians created temples, not only as homes to their gods, but as architectural metaphors for the universe and the process of creation.
Even our earliest ancestors made offerings to their gods in huts, tents or caves. Their spiritual leaders were supported by the collective efforts of the community. They hunted and gathered for their shamans, so that their spiritual leaders could focus all of their time and energy on teaching, healing, and communing with the spirits that watched over the tribe.
Our spiritual leaders and teachers often struggle financially and have difficulty paying the bills. Imagine having the option of being a full-time Priest or Priestess. Many ministers and Rabbis make enough to support a family; if they can do it, why can’t we?
Think about how much money you spend each year on Pagan workshops, festivals, altar tools, and occult books. Add it up. Go on, get your calculator. Now, imagine if you gave that money to pay your priestess’ salary, so they could teach all year. Imagine if you bought those books and donated them to your temple’s library. If you can afford these things, you can afford to start building a temple. So tell me — what’s stopping you?
— TREE is an artist and writer in Boulder, Colorado where she lives with her roommate and two cats. She likes to make her own stuff, including candles, incense, and ridiculous costumes for Burning Man.
It’s About Time
Should Pagans build churches? In a word — Yes.
For many years now I have attended rituals, Witches Balls, Sabbat festivals, and Full Moon ceremonies in Unitarian Universalist church basements, Masonic lodges, conference centers, hotels, living rooms, and the crowded backrooms of bookstores and coffeehouses. While I guess a person might derive a faint measure of wicked glee at the idea of Pagans taking over any number of these venues for their Pagan-y purposes, I have thought more than once that it would be awful nice if we had a place of our own. A place where pews didn’t have to be moved. A place where folks were used to sweeping up enormous amounts of silver glitter on November 1st. A place where ... “everybody knows my name. And they’re always glad I came.” You get the idea.
It is true that the Land is central to my faith, and therefore everywhere I walk is my church. My breath is my church. The grass is my church. I am not proposing that we establish buildings that will then become our only places of worship. We worship everywhere and anyhow. On hill and on dale, in the wood and on the rainy plain, on mesas and even heaths (when we can find one).
We are incredibly diverse — by the time any community could establish a group large enough to make the idea of a community center practical, they’d have a group of fifty different religions and a thousand and one thea/ological opinions. It may be conceivable to establish small temples within our traditions for our worship, and those in existence (such as the Sekhmet Temple in Nevada or the Kemetic Orthodox temple in Illinois) are certainly inspirations, but it is rare for the members of one tradition to have the ability to erect or purchase space. Within the greater community, there are times that call for a center, a hub, in which we can gather as a people — to meet, to hold councils, to debate, to learn, to worship when occasion calls for it, and to provide the opportunity for small groups to meet in a space that is friendly to their purposes. As always, there will be groups of us who will continue to practice in private on the twilight moors, offering their analysis of the negative consequences of owning public spaces, and their voices are critical as well.
Of course the acquisition and maintenance of buildings will require organization, time, money, resources, and planning. If we are to walk our talk, it is vital that we build these temples, churches and community centers to be ecologically sustainable and consider electricity sources, water sources, plumbing and waste needs just as we address these issues when we purchase land for Pagan sanctuaries. We must weigh the costs of establishing new buildings versus purchasing and renovating old ones.
Finally, in response to the argument that Pagan structures are a sign of the mainstreaming of Pagan culture, consider the fact that if we are conducting hundred-person Full Moon ceremonies in the basement of another religion’s church, we are already mainstream. Buildings of our own will afford us the room to enact our religious choices on our own terms and in the presence of our own symbols, gods, spirits, and communities.
— RUBY SARA is the author of the “Pagan Godspell” blog (www.gospelpagan.wordpress.com). She lives in Iowa with her partner Stephen and their evil monkey-cat Pinky.
We need churches and are already building them. Join us!
To provide physical sanctuary to our tribe members is a natural outcropping of this growth for any given number of good reasons including shelter from adverse weather, sanctuary for children and the elderly, bathroom facilities, cooking facilities, libraries, dormitories, or administrative offices as well as the very real creation of sacred space.
Whether our endeavors come in the form of so-called “churches” or remain as simple structures that blend more with the natural environment of the surrounding areas, emerging Pagan “temples” are already happening. One such transformation is occurring at already-established structures throughout North America within Unitarian Universalist congregations. “In 1997, a survey was taken of more than 8,000 active members of the UUA: 55% regarded themselves as earth or nature-centered (pantheists), Buddhists, Hindu, undefined theists, mystics (New Agers) or other (Pagan).”1 Recent data shows that this number has steadily increased.
At our local Unitarian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, the structure serves as host to South Florida’s CUUPS, Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. Its main auditorium holds a capacity of up to three hundred, and its adjoining rooms serve a variety of functions including nursery, offices, kitchen, and classes. Each of the rooms can also be used for events such as the annual Witch’s Ball or other Sabbat Festivals. The Miami Unitarian Universalist church provides similar haven to the Circle of Isis Rising. It takes no stretch of imagination to understand the functionality of having such a structure.
To compliment and perhaps provide an alternative to the recent topic on proselytization (in PanGaia #45,) more established Temples will offer a haven to individuals seeking a coherent understanding of alternative philosophies which delve into the Earth-centered and symbolically polytheistic approaches to the Divine (such as Pantheism or Panentheism). This will diminish the need some have expressed to seek out like-minded folks to add to our numbers.
Curious people will undoubtedly come to experience their local Pagan Temple for themselves. This will assist in demystifying the prejudices built up against us. These physical congregations also provide real-time relationship-oriented and hands-on experience to Pagans and seekers alike. Pagan Churches provide a platform which we can express our voices, creativity and ideas more eloquently as well as broaden our own understanding.
With whatever structures might emerge, it is important to remember the orientation of our focus toward Divinity, which is primarily untouched Nature and only secondarily a human-construct. Focusing entirely on an enclosed structure would be counterproductive to our professed spiritualities. Some human expression within the natural areas surrounding our structures, such as stone circles, mandalas, or labyrinths, are certainly complementary and can enhance the energy vortex-foci of a chosen area.
Xeriscaping or wildscaping with native plants will perhaps be among of the most powerful enhancements to the creation of sacred space and an education to the authenticity of Pagans who walk a path of reverence toward Nature.2 Such practices stimulate the health of all native plant and animal species in the region. Wildscaping the property of our Temples would be an intimately spiritual act.
In short, the question truly is not whether groups should or should not build churches, temples, or groves; it’s already happening. The question should be about how we go about building them.
The endeavor of building our own permanent space brings us the opportunity to share and elaborate upon creative ideas about worship, nature, and spirituality. In all, the benefits of such structures will prove to outweigh the fear that may result from this natural evolution of our communities. Elation comes to the soul as we witness our unique expressions of spirituality mature. We live in inspiring times when the inner Temple of our selves is given the option to find the outer Temples of our expressions — or not. Our Temples can be seen as holonic3 expansions of what we already are as solitaries or as covens. This entire process is an unfolding of history, as the reemergence of physical Temples which venerate the powerful and essential archetype of the Goddess Herself becomes reality once again.
This is a beautiful thing.
1 “Unitarian Universalists” by Tal Davis, North American Mission Board Website, 2005.
2 For more about xeriscaping and wildscaping, explore NatureScape Bro-ward, based out of Broward County, Florida: www.broward.org/NaturalResources/NatureScape/Pages/Default.aspx
3 Holon — “a complete system within another complete system; for example, a cell within a body.”
— EMITI is a Florida State Ranger at Hugh Taylor Birch State Park in Fort Lauderdale. He has been writing about spiritual and holistic topics for a number of years and is deeply involved with earth-based consciousness and environmentalism.
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