Why Pagans Don’t Respect Their Elders: Sincerity, Competence and Integrity

July 6th Update: This post has inspired some really wonderful feedback and conversation in the community! (Thank you, everyone who has shared their thoughts here!) I’ve highlighted some of the best observations and insights in a follow-up post, including Phaedra’s clarification in response. Please check it out here.


It began when Phaedra Bonewits (@PhaedraBonewits) shared a quote on Twitter from her late husband, the renowned Druid and founder of ADF, Isaac Bonewits:

“Sincerity does not equal competence.”

So much food for thought captured in such a simple statement. So much hinted at about the struggles of a contemporary fledgling religious movement trying to find its feet, learning to count its fingers and toes, testing its limits and working to cultivate a sense of excellence and integrity worth passing on to the next generation.

When I read that quote, I’d just returned from my first time attending an OBOD ritual (a solstice celebration in my new home of Seattle), and my head and heart were full of impressions and vague notions about how different it had been from the ADF rituals I’d attended in Pittsburgh. The ADF rituals had been elaborate, long, beautiful and moving, but the priests who led them had been…. how to put it politely? Somewhat haughty. (When I told them that, though I wasn’t a member of ADF, I’d been practicing Druidry for several years and I celebrated the seasonal holidays regularly with my husband and four step-kids, the chilly response practically dripped with tight-lipped “ur doing it wrong” as the priestess kindly explained that ADF rituals weren’t usually very “kid-friendly.”) Not a big deal. I tend to be an introvert and even a little anti-social sometimes. I didn’t feel the need to be best friends with the members of the local grove in order to appreciate and support their dedication and hard work, or to attend their public rituals (though I never did bring the kids along).

But what a contrast to the OBOD solstice celebration! To be honest, I’d never really been all that moved by the OBOD approach to ritual when I’d read the outlines and scripts in the past. They tended to be very “Wiccanesque,” and these days that’s enough to earn quite a bit of scorn from certain corners of the Pagan community. But I was at least as familiar with the simple, rather straightforward approach of OBOD ritual as I’d been with the ADF liturgical structure, and I was itching to connect with some local Druids in my new city. I was surprised when I found myself reveling in the very simplicity that I’d worried might make the experience boring or leave me feeling unmoved. One of the ritual leaders held an infant in a sling around his neck, bouncing her occasionally to quiet her gurgles. A woman nestled a tiny dog in the crook of her arm. A few young people in somewhat elaborate and gorgeously-designed robes could hardly hold onto their seriousness as an officiant walked around the circle, smearing wet fingers across everyone’s foreheads in blessing, messing up even the most carefully applied make-up. And through it all, the sun filtered down through the oak trees and filled the circle with warmth and presence. Despite moments of clumsiness (and the resulting giggles and guffaws), the ritual shone with deep sincerity. I found myself eagerly looking forward to the next time the group got together, and wondering if maybe it would be worth it after all to return to the Bardic lessons I’d lost interest in years ago.

Despite my qualms with how OBOD might be organized on a national and international level, the experience I had at the OBOD ritual was one of loving, supportive spiritual community, perhaps the closest I’ve come to experiencing that kind of connection since leaving the church of my childhood. It served as a reminder to me that, even as we stumble forward crafting new rituals and traditions for ourselves, sharing a deep commitment and sincerity with each other can open us up to grace: the grace of discovering intimacy even in the midst of imperfection.

It was with that in mind that I replied to Phaedra’s tweet with:

OTOH, sincerity can at least redeem incompetence. I’m not sure competence can make up for insincerity. Your thoughts?

And the Twitter conversation began. Phaedra responded:

Actually, if someone is doing a rite, I’d rather see competence. Sincerity alone can make for a tedious experience.

And I replied (in four consecutive tweets):

I have to admit — that sends shivers down my spine. In a society so riddled with marketing and manipulation… // …the thought of someone insincere leading a rite makes it difficult for me to establish trust/openness to the experience. // For me, competency might be necessary, but NOT sufficient. // Sincerity is absolutely necessary, and can even be sufficient depending on the circumstances.

While I was offline traveling for a few days, the conversation unfolded still further. Phaedra noted:

Context is important. I’ve seen actors give great “technical” performances when their hearts weren’t in it. Competence wins. // Perhaps important, too, to consider that while competence & sincerity can comfortably co-exist, they are not interchangeable.

Freeman (@LilithsPriest) chimed in with:

if you can DETECT insincerity in a ritualist, that’s due to… Incompetence!

Which got an appreciative laugh from Phaedra:

Hah! Good point :-) An ex of mine used to say, “Once you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made!”

Catching up on this conversation, I quickly found myself with that old familiar sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I can’t speak for other Pagans, but I’ve heard enough conversion stories in our community to know that many of us left the Abrahamic traditions we’d been raised in precisely because we were fed up with insincerity and hypocrisy, and with religious leaders “going through the motions” with adept professionalism but without embodying the values they preached from the pulpit. And here were Pagan leaders not only admitting to the very same, but actually encouraging it.

Now don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty of room for “fake it until you make it” in a diverse and growing religious movement still trying to find its sea legs and having to come face to face with the really tough questions about life, the universe and everything. An essential part of such spiritual work is “deep play,” in which we experiment with self-identity and community boundaries, exploring our relationships with each other, with ourselves and with the gods.

But deep play is only “deep” if it is sincere. Sincerity is, when you get right down to it, perhaps the most important part of such spiritual work. It’s the opposite of cynicism or calculated self-possession. It’s in the rich soil of sincerity that true meaningfulness can be nurtured and cultivated. It’s from this rich soil, too, that competency can find nourishment and encouragement — when our work is rooted in passionate care and a sense of integrity, its true transformative power can come to fruition. Competency is all well and good, but if its roots are shallow, it rarely rises above the level of passable entertainment.

And that’s where I differ from Phaedra in how I view the purpose of ritual. I don’t expect it to entertain me. I don’t worry too much if the ritual experience is tedious. Some of the most challenging spiritual exercises — from sitting in silent meditation to studying theological texts to practicing simple mindfulness on a daily basis — can be excruciatingly tedious, mind-bogglingly boring, at least on the surface. They take discipline and patience as well as competency. This is no less true of community rituals, where fostering authentic connection with others can be a painstaking process of negotiation and exploration that makes pulling teeth seem like a day at the amusement park. But simply because something might be tedious doesn’t mean it can’t bear fruit.

An emphasis on competency over sincerity is antithetical to my spiritual path as one of sacred embodiment and immanence. To say that insincerity can be effectively masked, that ritual participants can be convincingly and ethically fooled so long as the priest or ritual leader is competent enough — is to draw a hard and fast line between inner experience and outer appearance, and to say that the one has no real affect on the other. It takes the sometimes useful “fake it until you make it” and shrugs off the second half, leaving us only with the advice to get better at “faking it.” But to what end?

The process of cultivating real integrity is sometimes messy and sometimes ugly. Fostering community is not about learning to be a good actor or an appreciative audience, but about learning how to take the messiness and clumsiness and ugliness in stride and discover the beauty within all the chaos. It’s about learning to recognize the grace of intimacy and the power of integrity, when inner experience and outer appearance are brought into more authentic communication with each other.

I can’t help but wonder if this is why elders and leaders in our community are sometimes not very well respected, and why those who are sometimes choose to step down out of the spotlight.

Have our leaders become so focused on the outer appearance of competence, professionalism and legitimacy that they’ve foregone the difficult, messy work of authenticity and integrity? Are they overly concerned with putting on a good show, capturing the attention of the media and the mainstream? Are they too afraid of seeming tedious, irrelevant or — gods forbid! — “fluffy”?

In general, I don’t think so. I think there are still many, many leaders and elders in our community who are deeply committed and deeply grounded in a sense of sincerity which lends meaningfulness and power to their work. But I do think we run the risk of allowing these devoted people to go undervalued and unappreciated if we’re not careful. So we also have to ask ourselves: are we willing to speak up and speak out in praise of the messiness and clumsiness of real community? Are we willing to set aside our need to be entertained and embrace the tediousness of fruitful spiritual work?

How do you value sincerity, integrity and competence in your own spiritual path? When was the last time you let yourself be messy and human in front of a fellow Pagan?


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Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

1 Comment

  1. Joanna
    Oct 9, 2013

    Yikes – to value competency over sincerity is truly frightening for me personally. I wonder if it has something to do with our current culture, of wanted to be entertained, of living our lives based on what we see happening on make-believe television shows that wrap everything up neatly in 30 minutes or less. That have the gloss of make-up and lighting, that employ actors – this is not what I want in ritual, private or public. I do not want to see actors putting on a show – I want deep connection. I do not go to ritual to be entertained. That very thought makes me shudder… x

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