Today I saw posts from friends talking about the yearly salary of pastors and my brother announcing the finding of his church home, and it is striking to me, yet again, how very different this is from polytheistic religions, whether you are talking about Vedic, Hellenic, Germanic etc. It is this concept that worship and service to the gods is something external that is done on your behalf by another, and that those who serve the gods have these positions to minister, council and be an overall support system for the masses. In reality, when we look at religions such as Christianity, we find that their clergy has a different focus than that of polytheistic religions. Namely, that the clergy person is acknowledged as a leader and moral compass. They are chiefly responsible for their “flock” and spiritual guidance of those in attendance.
I have said before that there is a distinction that should be made between ” a leader” and a “priest”. Christianity melds these two concepts and so many polytheists try to follow along this model as being what they are accustomed to. We are used to have authoritative religious supervision over every facet where it has really never existed before. We have had leaders who lead in rituals as a kind of civic head of the family kind of way, but generally their service to the gods is fairly on par with that of other worshipers. With the combination of clergy and leadership roles in Christian (and similar) clergy it makes the worshiper as nothing more than an observer witnessing the rites being undertaken on their part. This necessitates for them having a “church-home”, because the spiritual religious life is dependent on this religious witnessing rather than performance, whereas for their polytheistic counterparts their church-home is quite literally the home with the head of the household performing leading the rituals with their families in attendance and taking part in the worship activities.
So then what is the purpose of the priest? Unlike the leader whose duty it is to serve the people, the priest merely serves the god. This doesn’t necessarily put them in positions of leading rituals (although they often took leading parts in processions) but rather an observation of certain taboos, and a rigorous depth of religious observances and prescribed Work on done behalf of their deity to please the deity in question. This can take the form of education, many servants of the gods take to writing informational material, or by offering very specific services and skills. Regardless, the focus is continually on the god that said person serves, and each action is performed in devotion to the deity. A priest may choose to lecture or answer specific questions, but overall their focus is not on the activity of the worshiper, nor is it in acquiring converts or expansion. The service to their god is the whole of their experience and dedication. We can look to Rome to actually very well illustrate this for the priests were elected into the position and were expected to observe the protocols due to their position, which rarely had anything to do interacting or serving people or even their personal inclinations. It was all about their service to the gods, even if this served to earn them other forms of prestige.
This is parallel in Hellas, wherein at temples priests who served there were often selected by officials to conduct certain sacrifices and observances for the temple, but that this did not negate unofficial priests and sibyls who did their part in their service. But none of these took on the responsibilities that you find in Christian clergy…and for very good reason. When you get right down to it…it is a conflict of interest. Whether you are on behalf of the people or working on behalf of the gods. This is not to say that leaders can’t be highly devoted individuals. It is just different specializations and foci. By combining and merging the clergy and leadership roles creates the kind of relationship between priest and worship that you find in Christianity and decreases the influence and value of home worship in which the family would lead its own worship. In polytheistic religions where the home is by tradition the center of the religious life this model is then highly incompatible and one we should not be trying to mimic.
In short, we need both gifted community leaders AND devoted priests, but in recognition that these are very different kinds of service roles that preserve the integrity of the worship community rather than stripping from it. We also need to acknowledge the benefit of the lay worshiper. Not everyone has the time, energy, or desire or perhaps even devotion to devote so much of their life to either of these. When we realize that our religion is not a theocratic body and that the real value of worship rests within the individual and home with priests and a support system and community leaders for guidance, then we may find that more people will find this far more rewarding spiritually in their own responsibility for the spiritual welfare of themselves and their households. A division of responsibility empowers the individual householder and preserves their autonomy when the priests do not desire to take charge of the lives of the worshipers and the leaders do not desire to meddle in the worshiping activity of their community.