A long and heated debate exists over the validity and purpose of Clergy in the religion of Asatru/Germanic Heathenism. Primarily the arguments fall into two categories, For and Against. Those who are against the role of Clergy claim that since the concept of Clergy itself is questionable among our evidence of the original practitioners, that it is an alien practice stemming from Judeo-Christian ethos. Those who are for the role of Clergy often do so for the perceived benefit of legitimizing their faith to the great Judeo-Christian majority. In both cases, the role of Clergy is not defined in a way that makes sense to the faith - but is there a definition that could?
What are Clergy?
The roles Clergy play in other religions may not necessarily be the model that fits best modern Asatru. Those roles include Spiritual Intermediary, Social/Cultural Leader and Spiritual Counselor.
The concept of Spiritual Intermediary is one that nearly every modern Asatru practitioner will scoff at. The Catholic Church, for instance, promotes that an individual may only achieve spiritual connection, revelation and absolution through the Church and Clergy as the mechanism. Even then, however, they have versions of Clergy-lawyers arguing over the fine-lines between saint and heretic. Asatru has no history of individuals who are deemed the conduit of Spiritual or Religious connectivity, ergo this role is not needed and usually not wanted by modern Asatru. Those individuals who call themselves this kind of Clergy are quickly chastised for being so. Any individual may host a blot (religious ceremony bestowing the blessing of the gods) or perform a community ritual.
The concept of Social/Cultural Leader is one that Asatru does have a history of, yet does it mean anything in modern times? In Heathen times, before the conversion, blots and rituals were hosted by the landlords. Those landlords were wealthy enough to host the feasts on their land and to pay for the protection of those attending (hire the 'Driht') , so they performed the community rituals they hosted. In this, they were not seen as much as a spiritual leader, but as a community leader, to whom the community wished to bond further with the local power-player by attending their ritual feasts. There were few laws or ordinances mandating attendance and no tithes were collected (officially). Many households had their own ritual spaces and alters, yet obviously the most recorded were the glorious ones built with lots of money from raiding and taxation. In modern times, Landlords are not usually seen as part of the community, especially part of the Asatru community, so community leaders (and the Driht) come from another facet of sociology. Even so, the only accreditation originally involved was the ability to host and manage a community ritual, holiday or festival. Additionally, while records in the sagas suggest that the hosts paid for everything and gave gifts to the attendees, this was only socially practical since all the food was paid for by rents and taxes (this kept the tenants friendly). Nowadays, communities share the burden of the costs through work or financial contribution. Thusly, the role of Social/Cultural Leader is much less associated with Clergy than it ever was. One remaining aspect of the Social/Cultural Leader is the ability to legally perform certain rites of passage and life-events among the community, such as Marriage and Funerals. The United States government has made provisions for this by allowing any individual to register with their local (county) offices for the purpose of performing those rites. Most local (county) ordinances do not require any accreditation or experience to perform those rites. Again, modern Asatru will generally agree that this role is not exclusively the realm of Clergy and that since anyone may legally perform those duties, then this role for Clergy is not relevant.
Spiritual Counseling, though, is a critical role that is so misunderstood by anti-clergy factions. The fact is, every individual has different paths in life with different degrees of ability to navigate it. While there are individuals who are driven to learn for themselves without communication from anyone else, most people require interaction with those who know more lore, know more techniques to interact with the gods and are dedicated to being helpful to those who are less knowledgeable. One who is Clergy purports themselves to be a figure for the those in the community to turn to, should they require information or assistance in learning how to improve their personal relationship with the gods. Certainly, there are individuals who can take advantage of those people by claiming rights to the other roles stated above. However, a properly helpful Clergy-person who is dedicated to helping others can and will make the distinction between teaching lore and techniques, versus indoctrinating symbols and beliefs.
This is especially important since the religion is 99% converts from other religions who might automatically seek out Clergy as counselors to advise them on who the gods are and how worship. To those converts, the title of Clergy goes far. A program like The Troth's is specifically designed so that individuals who call themselves Clergy have been deemed knowledgeable, respectable and responsible and will not abuse those who come to them.
There are some anti-clergy factions who go so far as to say that anyone who is in spiritual crisis is doubting the gods and therefore no longer practicing the faith and are both failures as human beings and oath-breakers to be reviled and spurned. These claims are clearly attempts to validate the superiority of their own unwavering spirituality. This is in direct violation of the claim that no individual is more spiritual or closer to the gods than any other.
Do we need Clergy?
Does the individual who worships the gods need Clergy? I think that everyone will agree that "No. Individual worshippers do not need Clergy in their lives." But the word "Need" here is critical. At some point in time, either earlier or later, any individual may suddenly decide that they want someone to fulfill the role of 'Spiritual Counselor. in their lives and do not trust or approve of just any figure in the community. In that, they may choose to seek out a person who has dedicated themselves to being helpful to those in that situation. Those persons may be called Clergy, for wont of a better term. Whether the individual in crisis NEEDS help or just wants it does not affect their status within the religion.
Does the community who worships the gods needs Clergy? This is a more complicated question. As one individual in a community may not want or need clergy, another may. Communities are built upon the foundation of "only as great as it's weakest link" and therefore a community may legitimately claim that a person who dedicates themselves to helping other in crisis is needed. Those persons may be called Clergy, for wont of a better term.
Does the faith need Clergy? On a grand scale, the faithful in total is liken to that of a community, however, at this level the term Clergy exudes a preexisting definition from other cultures and religions. By legal definition of the "Penitent-Clergy" statutes, the primary role of Clergy is to perform as personal spiritual counselors for his/her community. While there are cases on the books whereby individuals were accepted as Clergy by the law who held no accreditation other than a petition to the courts, the general public at large likes to see Clergy as symbols of the ideals of the religion. Those Clergy will be recognized not only as public servants within their communities, but also as knowledgeable representatives of their communities, regardless of social or political status. Whether one wishes Clergy to have that role or not, the role does and will continue to exist. Since the reality of our world will recognize individuals claiming the roles of Clergy, it may be prudent to get behind programs which promote those wishing the title to actually be knowledgeable., helpful and eloquent representatives of their respective communities.
Does the faith need Heathen 'Social/Cultural Leaders'? This is a weighty question with dedicated opponents on both sides. One such group that prefers this structure are the Theods, which try to draw hard lines between their 'inner sphere' and the outside world - along with specific gradiations between. At it's best, the process is a system of checks and balances testing the level of responsibility of new members to the wellfare of the community. At it's worst, it is a true cult, against which many morals and laws abhore. Whether or not one wants a social leader can only be determined by the spirituality of the individual. Some folk need direction, while others do not. Conflicts arise when a leaders (and sometimes their followers) may mistakenly expect that everyone else requires leading. Those conflicts can be quite... vehement. The good leaders lead by example and judge every individual on merit. The bad one judge individuals by their status. The REALLY bad ones can't tell the difference. Because most Asatruar/Heathens are so spread out away from each other, groups are desired but rarely held with any formality. Individual practitioners are the norm, not the exception. Clearly, fauthful do not NEED Leadership, but certainly there is a desire to be part of a community and communities most often lead to the advent of leadership. Surely Leadership will develop, but what manner in which it will evolve and what manner it SHOULD evolve may only be determined by time.
Myself as Clergy
I own property and lead rituals for my family and, occasionally, friends. I graduated the Troth Clergy program as a means of learning everything there was to know about the faith and to join a community of knowledgeable and helpful individuals to attain my ultimate goals. I happily serve the general community to assist those in spiritual crisis, educate new worshippers and represent my faith to the public in as eloquent and faithful a manner as possible. One may claim that I needn't have the title of Clergy for that, but I see it as a useful tool, with which I may gain introduction to those most interested in the knowledge I have to offer, and no other title will do as well in this time and place.
If you have no need of my knowledge or skills, then feel free to ignore me completely. I do not ask for your fealty in any form. I do, however, think that my efforts to contribute positively to the community warrant some modicum of respect, but I shan't expect it.
I may be reached at godhi@FreyjaFirst.com.