Several years ago, I encountered the website for the Universal Life Church. The site advocated a simple message – you have the right to believe in anything you want, so long as you do not infringe that similar right for others. That simple message appealed to me, and I examined the ULC in more detail. I quickly discovered the feature that makes the ULC most notable – they will ordain any person as legal clergy, for no cost. This ordination is open to all people of all faiths, and is considered valid upon the completion of a distinctly non-rigorous test in which the applicant is required to submit a legal name, current address, and valid e-mail address. In less than a minute I was an ordained minister, and was legally able to officiate marriages in the State of Missouri.
Most churches or religious organizations have extensive training programs for their clergy. With the click of a mouse, I was able to forgo all of that hassle and earn instant credibility. I even have the option of paying extra for a more impressive sounding title, a Doctorate of Divinity, or even sainthood. With this new title I had a new legal status and was able to perform legally binding marriages. I also found that I had a new level of responsibility, for as a minister people took what I had to say on religious matters a little more seriously, and even came to me for advice more often. But I had to wonder, on what basis was my new authority actually founded upon? What really qualified me to perform in such a role?
Now don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against the ULC. Being an ordained minister through the ULC has allowed countless neopagans to perform legally binding marriages, including myself. Affiliation through the Universal Life Church has given many solitary neopagans a legitimacy that they may have been unable to assert otherwise. But such an open process for ordination can also allow some to present a legitimate claim to authority when they otherwise may not have such a claim.
Authority is a commodity, and it can be bought, sold, and marketed. As a commodity, authority acts as a tool that allows the possessor to present him or herself as having a certain skill or expertise that others should acknowledge and defer to. Often, this authority is associated with a specific area of expertise – advice on a medical problem from a person holding a doctorate of medicine would carry more weight than advice on the same problem from a person with a doctorate in political science. Authority can also come according to a hierarchy – an economist with a doctorate is taken more seriously than an economist with a master’s degree.
Subjects such as medicine, economics, and political science, however, have a systematic method for attaining credible authority, which metaphysical, magical, and religious subjects may not have. While there are some neopagan, metaphysical, and occult groups that require a certain amount of training in particular skills or theory, other groups may not recognize those credits, and some groups may have no such requirements. Individuals in the metaphysical community may “collect” credits from different groups and organizations, and use the accompanying trail of letters and titles after their names to establish themselves as Important People, allowing them to influence others. Even people who have undergone extensive training and accreditation may use their authority to intimidate others and assert the certainty of their beliefs and opinions over others. Those with authority in one area may also attempt to expand the influence of that authority into other areas, something that is especially easy to do when metaphysics and spirituality can inform politics or lifestyle.
So should we distrust anyone claiming authority over any subject mystical or metaphysical? Obviously not. It would be a waste to discount the experience and wisdom of others, and it would be hubris to assume that we know it all and don’t need expert opinions. But consideration should be given to the limitations of authority, how authority is granted or recognized, how authority can be verified, the matter of questioning authority, and how to deal with someone who is overstepping his or her authority.
Authority can be vested upon someone in e few different ways. An individual may have authority conferred upon him via an external organization, which generally has some manner of authority of its own that it shares with the individual. Often this transfer of authority takes place upon the completion of some manner of study program, workshop, or other training period. In such cases, the credibility of that authority depends greatly on the credibility given the parent organization: a person who achieves a certain grade in a local chapter of the OTO will probably have that achievement taken more seriously than a person who is initiated into a high level of a local group which worships aliens from Zeta Reticula. Groups with more intense and long-term training programs are probably going to be regarded as more authoritative. Some groups may instead offer “certifications” after a short workshop, or may even be a metaphysical diploma mill, granting credentials to anyone willing to pay. Bottom line: if the credential is from a group you know and respect, respect it; if it is from a group you know and don’t respect, treat it cautiously; of it is from a group you’ve never heard of, check it out.
Authority in the magical arts is not always conferred by an external source, however. In some cases, an individual may claim mystical or magical authority from a powerful personal experience. Individuals following Shamanic paths often attain authority through such experiences, although charismatic individuals from other religious traditions claim them as well. Personally, I am cautious of such claims, as they tend to be a tool of people seeking guruship, but I certainly acknowledge that such experiences can and often are legitimate. One general rule is to confirm any insights from such experiences with what you already know to be true, especially regarding the tradition the individual making the claim comes from – and even that rule often doesn’t apply. Personal judgment is the strongest tool in one’s arsenal when evaluating such authority claims. With some claims of power or expertise, however, demonstrations are possible. A person who brags of his in-depth knowledge of all things tarot whom consistently performs poor readings may be claiming an un-earned authority, whereas a person who consistently demonstrates high competence in such an activity will most likely be due respect in the community
When dealing with someone in a position of authority, be it claimed explicitly or implicitly, questioning that claim or seeking to verify it is not unreasonable. Questioning the authority of one who claims accreditation should not prove overly cumbersome, as that person should be able to demonstrate credentials and the issuing organization can be investigated easily in our online age. Some claims depend largely upon reputation and vouching among the neopagan community at large – especially in the case of lineage traditions and apprenticeship arrangements – and may be difficult without suitable connections in the community. Other claims may be verified by competent demonstration of skills and abilities, ranging from magical and divination techniques to organizational and management abilities. In any case, questioning the validity of claimed authority need not be a hostile gesture, with polite questions such as “Who did you say you were accredited with?” “Who trained you, again?” or “What experience did you say you had in this field?” being perfectly acceptable and reasonable. Indeed, someone who reacts overly harshly to such queries invites more skepticism as to their claims.
Even if claims to authority check out and are trusted, individuals who are in positions of authority are still human and are therefore subject to humanity’s baser impulses at times. All of the religious training and asceticism in the world cannot excuse a Catholic priest who engages in inappropriate conduct with one of his parishioners, and the same should be said for a pagan priest, coven leader, teacher, author, or workshop instructor. This is not to say that everyone in a position of authority is a vicious predator, but it can happen, and one should be aware if certain boundaries are crossed.
Teachers or instructors who become too informal and even establish relationships with students are probably fairly common, and as long as that relationship doesn’t depend upon the authority of one person over the other or involve some manner of manipulation, it can generally be chalked up to poor teaching style than outright maliciousness. Some individuals, however, have been known to use their authority to impress members of the other sex, or possibly even influence potential sexual partners into submitting to them based upon their authority. In extreme cases, charismatic individuals running close-knit groups may even demand sexual favors for themselves (and others!) in exchange for favored status of the student. Great care should be taken when working with any group in which the leader requests or demands sexual contact for initiation.
Other means of exploitation are possible when dealing with group leaders. Constant (and increasing) monetary donations may be solicited or demanded, for less and less return. Other lifestyle changes may be demanded of the student, be them dietary, behavioral, sexual, or otherwise – in many traditions these changes may be legitimate, but it is up to the student to decide if he or she wishes to submit to such changes. And there is always the risk of falling into the guru trap, in which a small group of students surrounds and adores a guru figure that sucks up their adulation and limits their free thinking capabilities. The line between a close-knit magical group and a group of adorers hanging on every word of their all-wise guru can be a very thin one in practice, so care should be taken in watching how dissent, differing opinions, and especially criticism of the leader and his or her favorites are handled.
In any community as diverse and wide-spread as neopaganism – and especially one with such a wide variety of specialty knowledge and special skills – there is bound to be some expression of authority of some people over others, even if that authority is fluid and overlaps different fields. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but as with all aspects of establishing a magical mindset and lifestyle, are should be taken with regard to whose authority one wishes to submit to, and whom one wishes to hold in high regard. Authority figures are not necessarily to be feared or inherently distrusted, but neopagans should be careful who they grant authority to, so as to avoid the bloated egos of guru wannabes with lists of empty credentials, as well as the rare but genuine threat of predacious personalities out there. Without a more formal structure for granting and verifying authority claims, it is up to the individual to decide who is worth trusting, and as with all things magical, caution is advised.
 Missouri law may have changed over the years. I do not know if there are registration requirements now in place.
 The ULC now offers a Jedi Knight Certificate. No, I’m not kidding. < http://www.themonastery.org/catalog/-c-28.html>
 Well, I suppose that depends on your own take on things, doesn’t it?
 I understand that some legitimate traditions employ these techniques, and that many of those that do have certain safeguards in place to monitor for this kind of behavior. I am not a member of those traditions myself, and as a rule do not trust anyone who wants me to sleep with them for my own magical or religious benefit. But that is my take on the matter, and I do not mean to demean or impugn upon traditions that do employ such techniques. Just think they’re creepy.
© 2011 Chirotus Infinitum
No reproduction without permission from the author.
First published July 2011 at The Witches’ Voice.