A Progressive Christian Priest / member of The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids discusses his experiences of walking the uncomfortable path between two great spiritual traditions.
Eclectic Pilgrim: the Pagan Adventures of a Christian Priest
Before I begin this, which will be my very first blogpost for Pagan Square, I wish to thank Anne Newkirk Niven for inviting me to be part of this wonderful online community. I count it as a great honour and privilege to be able to share my thoughts and experiences here and hopefully have many fruitful dialogues and discussions with those who log on. I do not see myself as a teacher, but a fellow traveller on the spiritual path who has much to learn from other pilgrims. I spent almost two decades of my life as an Anglican (Episcopal) seminarian/ priest and, through it all, never considered Christianity as ‘the’ way, but merely one spiritual path among the many thousands on offer around our enchanted globe. However, this open and eclectic attitude made me as many enemies as friends, and I did not last. I will thus begin my new monthly Blog with an introductory piece so you can see where I’m coming from.
Many blessings, Mark Townsend
Eclectic Pilgrim / Disgruntled Priest
I never thought there’d be a time when I’d cease being an Anglican priest, but none of us can predict the future with pin point accuracy. I’d been serving as parish minister of a huge English priory church for about eight years when it all came to an abrupt end. Here’s not the place to go into it with much detail, suffice to say that I’m a foolish guy and, though I always taught that grace and forgiveness were available for all, I never found them easy concepts to accept for myself. I guess it’s all a matter of projection learned during childhood and confirmed in adulthood.
The trouble was that I’d become someone not myself, and being a priest was not helping me to be authentic. The Church of England had become a toxic environment for me. When I look back I can see that we do indeed create our own stories, and that sometimes we subconsciously manufacture the exact set of circumstances necessary for our growth and transformation. I once had a
conversation with Druid Chief Philip Carr-Gomm where he told me about how when a mother is about to give birth, it is the baby itself that triggers the event. The baby apparently secretes something which makes the environment toxic, so what was (for nine months) a place of security, safety, warmth and home, becomes a place of toxicity. What a powerful metaphor. The environment where we are nurtured, supported, held, fed and made secure sometimes needs to let us go, in order to not let us stagnate or be poisoned. And so sometimes we ourselves trigger a reaction; we do something that makes the very place of security toxic! And we have no option but to get the hell out! It’s not that the environment becomes bad, evil or wrong, and neither do we. It’s simply that, in order to grow, we must leave.
I had no idea what I was doing when I took a risk back in June 2007 and placed my life in someone else’s hands, but now I can see clearly the process outlined above at work. I sat in front of my superior and offloaded all my inner turmoil, mess and muddle. The result was drastic – I must resign and have at least three years off full time ministry. I’d created my own exile.
(Note: the full story of this exile is told in my book Path of the Blue Raven).
At first it was utter terror. What do I do? How I live? Where do I live? How do I support my family? But I soon began to realise how far I’d travelled from my own Mark-ness, and that authenticity was far more important than earning a living within a system that was stunting my growth. By the autumn of that year I’d set myself up as a ‘Soulful Magician’ (illusionist with a spiritual message) and had been invited to perform to various groups, many of whom I’d never have had the privilege of meeting were I still Mark the Vicar. In December I’d received an invitation to present something at the annual Gathering of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) in Glastonbury. Though still battered and bruised by the Kansas-like Hurricane I was now on the Yellow Brick Road, and what enchanting fellow travellers was I about to meet.
I’d become immersed within a world far from my “respectable” Anglican stable. Sure, I’d always been ultra-open minded and had nursed a fascination with Paganism for well over a decade. But now I was hooked. My time with the Druids in Glastonbury triggered an enormous change. It was a transitional moment for me; a life changing experience. Within weeks I was a signed up member of OBOD and studying their Bardic training course. I also began attending Druidic ceremonies held by two local Groves (Druid groups).
For the next two years I immersed myself in various forms of modern Paganism and met and made, along the way, some wonderful friends. Meanwhile I drifted further and further from the world of (what I then called) Churchianity. I suppose you could say that, by the beginning of 2009, I’d pretty much become a Pagan, though one who still had a love for the C of E and a respect for Jesus as a person / a man not a god. Paganism had given me a language and a means of expression for some of my own natural and deeply held beliefs, but which had little or no place in the mainstream Christian world: Concepts like the balance between the two polarities of male and female within Deity, the notion of the earth and her creatures as sacred, the power and relevance of gutsy and gritty ritual, the belief of the Spirit (or spirits) of nature, rivers, streams, trees and forests, the feeling that spirituality comes from below, not above, and that each person’s experience of the Divine is equally valid and is not dependent on being validly by a “revealed” doctrine that comes from a Priestly and hierarchical class.
It was exciting, and it was making sense, and in a way I felt like I was coming home. Yet, there was inner confusion too. While modern Paganism had saved me from giving up religious practise, and while it seemed so much fresher and truer (Pagans seemed to walk their talk far more than the Christians I knew) there were questions. For example, I found great wisdom in the notion of many gods and goddesses as different anthropomorphizations of divine experience, but I still intrinsically believed in a universal God/dess of Love. I also continued to have occasional and out of the blue “Christ experiences.” To me Jesus had become far more a human and far less a god, and yet there was still something about him that tugged at my mind and heart in a Mystical Christ sense. So, while exciting, it was also an unsettling period. I was caught by a fresh new experience of faith, and yet not feeling like I could completely divorce myself from my previous existence as a Christian priest.
It’s now six years since this massive transformation began and I can stay that at last I’ve found a way to stay connected to both the beauty of my Christian experience as well as to my Druidic and Pagan explorations. I do not wish to confuse issues by using terms like “Christo-Pagan” to describe myself. I do not wish to attempt an inelegant intermingling of two deep traditions. Rather I wish to remain a progressive and somewhat iconoclastic Christian priest as well as a very grateful member of a worldwide Druid Order. I see no reason to choose one over the other and I see no reason to muddle them up.
I look forward very much to sharing my experiences here on the hope that they might rings bells with at least some readers.
With brightest blessings, and warmest wishes.
Mark Townsend, March 2013
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