Saturday, November 04, 2006

Priest paves a pagan path

Priest paves a pagan path



ROSS MACKAE spent years studying - and sampling - various religions, from Buddhism and the Church of Latter-day Saints to Unitarianism and Catholicism, but didn't find what he wanted in any of them.

So he started his own church.

"Now my goal," he said this week, "is for people to see it as just another church."

That's probably easier said than done. He's the high priest of the American Pagan Church, founded two years ago in East Hampton, L.I., with a handful of believers who currently meet in his home.

"We still live in the dark ages - many of our members are discriminated against," said MacKae, a paralegal by profession who was ordained eight years ago after completing a course taught by pagan priests. "One lost her job when she said she was a pagan."

Nevertheless, there are dozens of pagan and witchcraft groups in and around New York, and this was a big week for them. While everybody else celebrated Halloween, they observed Samhein, the new year for most pagans (and witches), and one of the eight most important holidays on the metaphysical calendar.

For privacy reasons, and because it is hard to keep track of all the various groups or define their membership, nobody knows the number of New Yorkers who are pagans, witches or followers of other old religions based on goddess worship, the sacredness of nature and rituals rooted in ancient Celtic, Nordic and other religions.

"There are more than people think," said MacKae, who is called "pastor" by church outsiders and "high priest" on formal occasions but prefers just plain "Ross" at church. "Every year, we lead the opening ceremonies at the Pagan Pride Day celebrations (in Battery Park, on the southernmost tip of Manhattan) and last year, after 10,000 people, we stopped counting."

That's a pretty impressive number, even if many participants were at the park out of curiosity. There also is an annual Pagan Spirituality Expo, held in Greenwich Village, sponsored by various metaphysical groups and businesses that sell herbs, oils, candles, books, wands, astrological charts and other paraphernalia to witches and wizards.

And this is not counting people like Deborah Roth, an interfaith minister who was ordained eight years ago by the Reunification Church in the Order of Malchizedek, an organization that renounces paganism and is named for an Old Testament priest. Roth leads groups - circles, she calls them - devoted to women's spirituality at among other places the Fourth Universalist Society, a Unitarian church on the upper West Side.

"There are some elements of wicca in what I do," she said, "but I don't call myself a wiccan."

In fact, Roth typifies the risks of overly simple labels - she has a master's degree in psychology and is a member of the advisory board of Modern Bride magazine, two facts not necessarily associated with witches.

There is no such confusion in MacKae's case. He founded his church, he said, on the principles of witchcraft, Native American spirituality and asatru (old Norse and German paganism). But members are not limited to those basics.

"All knowledge is our liturgy," he said, "and spiritual search is our dogma."

Services are held on the last Thursday of each month, featuring songs, dances and readings. There is a sermon of sorts - "I ask questions in the kitchen while everyone prepares our shared meal, and then I do a little commentary based on their answers."

Despite its name, MacKae describes the American Pagan Church as an interfaith ministry. "All paths are divine," he said, "and every person has an individual path to follow, but we all travel it together."

The attendance ranges from a half dozen to 20 or so, he said, and some members attend only one or two services a year. "There is no mandatory anything," he said, "and we do not keep an official membership roll."

Networking is important. One popular gathering spot is the Whoville Bar and Grill in Bethpage, L.I., which for years has sponsored a monthly "Pagans in the Park" open house. "That's where a lot of us meet up," MacKae said.

Generally speaking, he said, witches and pagans are not missionaries aggressively seeking converts. But MacKae has a different philosophy.

"We proselytize, every chance we get," he said. "It's not to say, 'You're wrong,' but to say, 'You're right, let us show you how.'"

Originally published on November 4, 2006

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