A Defense of Priest/ess


Some members of the Thelemic and occult community are fast becoming aware of a small privately issued book called Priest/ess, written by my dear friend Michael Effertz, which advocates that the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica  or “EGC” –  the religious branch of the OTO, allow public “queer” performances of the Gnostic Mass.   

For those not in the know, the EGC presently does not allow ordained same sex couples the same rights and privileges as opposite sex couples.  While they may perform the central religious ceremony of the OTO without official censure, they are prohibited from doing so publically.  This prohibition also applies to “reverse” masses, where a woman serves as the “Priest” and a man serves as the “Priestess”.   This might seem shocking for a group which is supposedly dedicated to the promotion of individual freedom from superstition and tyranny, explicitly including sexual freedom.  The group also includes many gay members, and the vast majority of members, both straight and gay, support legal recognition of gay marriage.  It is doubly bizarre when one discovers that the prophet of Thelema, Aleister Crowley, was not only queer himself, but experimented with cross dressing and the adoption of a female identity under the assumed name of “Alys Cusack”.

Michael’s book was privately issued to friends, OTO officials, and OTO lodges with the intention of starting a productive dialogue on this topic.  After weeks and weeks of relative silence, the OTO bishop Tau Polyphilus has published a short response to the book on the Hermetic Library Blog, located here:  http://library.hrmtc.com/2013/02/20/priest-ess/.

Sadly, Bishop Polyphilus’ review is shallow, dismissive, lacks real engagement with the text, and frequently misstates Michael Effertz’s arguments.  Whether these misunderstandings are intentional or accidental I cannot say, but they are pervasive throughout the review.   I have no doubts that T Polyphilus believes in sexual freedom.  He probably supports gay marriage and most likely sees this as an issue of defending himself and his superiors from criticism, not as an issue of repression and apartheid.  Maintaining this position, however, demands a level of cognitive dissonance that I suspect is to blame for the frequent “misunderstandings” that plague the review.   Immediately after his introductory paragraph T Polyfilus opens with the following.

Contentious issues of gender and sexuality aside, it neither is the case nor should it be the case that “it is the sovereign right of every man and every woman and every intermediately sexed individual” to serve as ritual officers of the church according to their own lights and initiative… There is no generic “right” to serve as a priest or priestess any more than there is to serve as a lodgemaster or to preside at the conferral of degrees.”

This gives the impression that Priest/ess is essentially an argument for egalitarianism within the degree structure of the OTO and EGC, and that Michael is arguing that anyone has the “sovereign right” to officiate public OTO masses.  This is simply not the case.   The sentence is question is preceded by no fewer than seven premises, six of which explicitly address OTO and EGC policy.   It is quite clear to this reader, and I believe to any reader of moderate intelligence not already burdened with the task of finding reasons to dismiss the book, that Michael is speaking within the context of already vetted and approved EGC clergy.   He is addressing the issue of gender and gender preference only.  This is further proven by the fact that the book was, as explicitly stated in the foreword, written for and disseminated to a specific audience, O.T.O./E.G.C. members, for a specific reason: motivating change to E.G.C. policy as it pertains to ordained clergy. It is not, therefore, merely the context of the introduction which denies the validity of T Polyphilus’ interpretation, it is the context of the entire text.

After framing the fundamental argument of Priest/ess incorrectly, he moves on to discuss the question of authority.

Priests and priestesses do not have the authority to impose their own interpretations on the Mass.

Again we find T Polyfilus making counter-arguments against positions that his opponent has not put forward.  Nowhere, that I can detect, does Michael make the argument that he, or any member below the rank of EGC Bishop, is authorized to “impose” on EGC policy.  I do not believe that T Polyfilus is so simple as to mistake what is clearly intended as an offering for discourse with an attempt at self-publishing official doctrine; therefore I am forced to conclude that what T Polyfilus is really saying is that no one but credentialed parties (i.e.: himself and his friends) have the right to hold any opinion on the topic of the Mass.   The sentiment is heavily implied through the review, including the conclusion where the reviewer states

And since those who know don’t talk…

The suggestion here is quite clearly that Michael, and by extension the rest of us, are not privy to an “initiated understanding” of the Mass, which would somehow explain why ordained same-sex couples must be treated as second class citizens in a magical order founded by a gay man.  Naturally T Polyfilus cannot explain this “initiated understanding” to us since “those who know, don’t talk.”

I’d like to note that the Primate of the EGC and head of OTO US Grand Lodge, Sabazius, published an extensive commentary upon the Gnostic Mass called Mystery of Mystery: A Primer of Thelemic Ecclesiastical Gnosticism.  This text is still listed as official EGC “Commentary on Liber XV [The Gnostic Mass]” on his website (http://hermetic.com/sabazius/books_pps.htm) , along with other written works, almost all of which either are, or were at one time, publicly available.   It was published for the first time in 1995, and Sabazius was not ordained to high office in either the OTO or the EGC until 1996.  Furthermore, many of the sections of the book were written before 1995. Even ignoring the fallacious nature of T Polyfilus’ implied argument, that a position can be safely dismissed if the person offering it lacks the right credentials, he still must account for why the text written by his own Primate escapes this same censure.*

The policy of the church on the matter of officer gender hinges on the distinction between private and public Gnostic Masses.

This is the main counterargument offered by the EGC leadership on the question of “queer” Gnostic Masses.  The rational given is that since the OTO allows private celebrations of the Gnostic Mass, with any possible gender arrangement of officers, members like Michael have no grounds to complain.  T Polyphilus also informs us that Michael “at first obscures, and then misrepresents” EGC doctrine on this point, although the only evidence he seems to offer in support of this accusation is that Priest/ess doesn’t address this topic “in the first third”.  Since Priest/ess is only eighty-three pages long, including a rather lengthy insert by another author, and an extensive appendix of supporting quotes, I can’t imagine any perceptive reader will find it too difficult to find the appropriate section.  I will not restate Michael Effertz’s arguments against the present EGC position, since doing so would amount to retyping much of the book on my blog.  I will, however, urge interested parties to go down to their local OTO body, open the text to page twenty-four, and start reading.  They should also attend to pages fifty-one through fifty-three, where the arguments against public queer masses are compared to arguments against gay marriage.   Under no circumstances can Michael be legitimately accused of obscuring this, or any other issue on the topic of queer Gnostic Mass, as Priest/ess is the most thorough intellectual exploration of the subject that anyone in the OTO has produced to date.  That is, itself, part of the problem.

Regardless of the legitimacy of the distinction between “public” and “private” mass, T Polyfilus seems totally oblivious to the fact that he, and his compatriots, have created an apartheid system where ordained straight couples are able to perform the Mass with their preferred partners in situations where their gay counterparts may not, including weddings.  This means that while the EGC will support the right of an ordained gay couple to receive the sacrament of marriage within the EGC, they cannot do so through the celebration of the Gnostic Mass, as is customary, before their friends and family; unless, of course, they are willing to have a straight couple officiate.  The argument that this is somehow okay because of “private masses” does not change the fact that this is an inherently apartheid system.  How does T Polyfilus account for this?  He does offer a very brief and cryptic explanation… of sorts.

I have called the doctrinal purpose of the Mass, is that public Masses have priests who are socially masculine in their life outside the temple, and priestesses who are similarly feminine.

This explanation is deeply problematic. Firstly, the EGC presently allows transgendered Priests and Priestesses to perform the Mass publically, so long as they fill the role of their self-appointed gender identity, not their biological sex. This policy, as Michael explains in length throughout his book, thoroughly undermines any claim to biological essentialism within the formula of the mass.   This is a problem for supporters of the current policy like T Polyfilus, as it throws them back upon an entirely social understanding of gender.   This is why he must use terms like masculine and feminine, rather than male or female.   I suspect he thinks this gives him the necessary wiggle room to pretend that the present policy is based on some valid interpretation of magical formula, but masculinity and femininity are subjective, not objective terms.  Would an effeminate cross dressing male be allowed to perform the Mass in the role of the Priest under present EGC policy?  Yes.  Would a “butch” lesbian be allowed to perform the role of Priestess publically?  Yes, without incident or censure of any kind, provided, of course, that she performed it opposite a “man”.  Even if that “man” were a pre-op female to male transvestite, “he” would still be able to perform a public Gnostic Mass in the role of the Priest.   How pre-op is too pre-op?  This is another question that the present policy raises, but T Polyfilus is unable to address.

Secondly, in order to determine whether or not a given initiate is “feminine” or “masculine in their life outside the temple”, the EGC would have to investigate, track, and weigh in upon the private social and sexual lives of its members.  I’m certain such an abhorrent invasion of privacy, on par with the worst abuses of Scientology, was the furthest thing from T Polyfilus’ mind when he wrote the sentence I’ve quoted above.  Nevertheless, his interpretation of the “doctrinal purpose” of public masses demands such a policy if it is to be taken seriously.   This shows how, yet again, the leaders of the EGC have not thought through the implications of their own positions.  This is essentially the core thesis that Michael presents in Priest/ess, and T Polyfilus insists on misunderstanding.  They have created policies that sound reasonable, but fall apart on close scrutiny, and rather than admit they were wrong, they fall back on appeals to authority and willful ignorance.

I suspect T Polyfilus feels that the main problem with Priest/ess is that it threatens his authority.  It is to this threat, therefore, that he is mainly addressing his critique.  While I’m certain Michael did not intent Priest/ess as such a threat, it has in fact become one.  This is not because of anything Michael or his supporters have done, but because of the reaction of his detractors, like T Polyfilus.   The leaders of the OTO and EGC have declared themselves to be the official Thelemic authorities.  With the recent attempt by James Wasserman and others to establish themselves as the only legitimate AA lineage, they are seeking a total hegemony on Thelema.  If they want to pretend they are qualified to hold such an office, they must be able to answer challenges and criticisms openly, honestly, and satisfactorily; without resorting to name calling, hand waiving, or appeals to authority.  Until now much of the criticism in the Thelemic community has been limited to electronic media, easily consumed and easily forgotten.  I suspect many of the EGC / OTO leaders have grown complacent because of this, and expect that if they only ignore a criticism for a few weeks it will go away.  Priest/ess, as recent events have shown, isn’t going anywhere.

He should heed the words of the Primate that he likes to quote, and continue to question his own assumptions about what is represented in the drama of our central ceremony.

Tau Polyphilus should do the same.

*Addendum:  A friend just informed me that while Sabazius was not yet elevated to head of US Grand Lodge until 96, according to the time-line he gave on his old LiveJournal he was at least the equivalent in OTO degrees of an EGC bishop 1991, which would have been four years before the publication of Mystery of Mystery.  However, the OTO degrees were not explicitly linked to the EGC ordinations until 1997.  Mystery of Mystery was also, I’m given to understand, written piecemeal over a significant period of time.  Therefore, without a full accounting by Sabazius, it is somewhat uncertain whether or not he was a Bishop when all his commentary on the Mass was written or not.   If he wasn’t then my original point stands.  If he was then T Polyfilus is at least consistent in his demand that only appropriately credentialed individuals comment on the Gnostic Mass.

Is this demand correct, or even reasonable?  No, it is not.   First, it is simply fallacious.  The truth or falsehood of an argument depends on its own merit.  Michael’s research and reasoning in Priest/ess is either correct or incorrect.  Second, it is counter to Thelemic tradition.  Crowley would never have supported taking this kind of position, hostile as he was to all forms of mystery mongering.  Third, many of the other books Sabazius recommends on his EGC reading list (http://hermetic.com/sabazius/books_pps.htm), specifically in reference to the Mass, are by non-OTO members.  This means that, regardless of official Bishop recognition in the EGC’s lineage, intelligent, perceptive individuals can offer insight into the nature of the Mass, and the proper performance of Thelemic liturgy.   One cannot, on the one hand, recommend non-EGC authors on the subject of the Mass and then, on the other hand, claim that only EGC bishops have the right to proffer an opinion.   To do so is intellectually dishonest.

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