Our Foundations Won't Support Traditional Structures
Article ID: 8979
Age Group: Adult
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Posted: February 6th. 2005
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The validity of a religion is not measured by the number of campuses it constructs. We haven't needed any of that kind of validation to become the fastest growing religion in the US.
In fact, not having church buildings, tithing, centralized authority, official seminaries and the bureaucratic trappings of mainstream churches is exactly what makes us an attractive option. We have been free to build communities wherever we want because we are free of the need to build special buildings or get the permission of some headquarters office to open a branch. Covens and other Pagan groups have been springing up in every city, suburb and town in this country wherever people have a desire to start one, creating a movement so large and diverse that there are no authoritative figures on it. We must be doing something right.
Why build buildings to impress others? We don't need them. We didn't choose Pagan paths just because we celebrate Goddesses as well as Gods or because we have eight major holidays. No, our choice was also about what we didn't want. We didn't want any bureaucratic baggage. We can continue to focus on just doing our rituals, not running fundraising campaigns.
Why is Wicca the fastest growing religion in the US? Because our lack of organization permits maximum freedom. People can be solitary or join a group. There are a wealth of choices available, representing every imaginable style of operation, special interest or perspective. Independent-minded people like us like having the freedom to choose.
It does not make sense to now decide that we need to have structures similar to those we decided to leave. We will find ourselves moving toward having a central authority, which will hound members for ever-increasing amounts of money to maintain these institutions. Central authority and seminaries create homogenization of belief and practice. These are realities that will have to be embraced by those who choose to build structures.
Our structural foundation is one comprised of lots of independent, home-based groups. I don't know of many that would change the way they operate to conform to some national standard. I have been directly involved in Wicca for more than twelve years now, first as an apprentice and student, then as a coven leader. The number of options is far greater now than when I started.
The person starting out on a Pagan, Shamanic or Wiccan path today has many choices of groups and teachers available to them. Those who are extremely shy or geographically isolated can purchase books to learn from, look up information on websites, and network through e-groups. When Pagans are ready to meet and mingle with lots of other Pagans, there are regional gatherings where hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people get together for exactly these purposes. These fluid, flexible constructs are our structures: websites, e-groups, home-based groups, regional gatherings and special events.
Important spiritual and philosophical reasons underlie why people change religions, and these are reflected in our structures, or lack of them. We found in Wicca and Paganism a very decentralized structure, with no one person or organization designated to speak for all of us. We chose to join religions where the groups were small enough and personal enough to meet in someone's living room or backyard, learn to work together, performing our rituals together. There is a warmth and sense of connection in small groups that is frequently lost in larger group settings.
Some Pagans have expressed the opinion that we should get into the business of soup kitchens and homeless shelters like some of the churches do. Why? To prove that we are good people too? We can do good by actively supporting secular and civic organizations that are already involved in such work, like community food banks, disaster relief organizations, environmental organizations and various other charities. Innovative networking organizations like Freecycle are already up and running and open to everyone. It's not necessary for an organization to be labeled Pagan in order for me to support a cause I believe in.
Keep in mind that many times the free meals, shelter and other services dispensed by churches are a method for those churches to proselytize and recruit new members. It is not our way to go out and convert others. We believe that those people who want to join us will find their way to us. It is my opinion that the business of covens is the training and fellowship of those people who are our members. All concerns about charity or politics are in the realm of individual choice and individual responsibility.
As a strong believer in the separation of church and state, I regard the whole existence of the Faith Based Initiatives Program to be a big mistake, because a vehicle has been created to give taxpayers' money to churches and religious organizations. So when I read about Pagan groups that are trying to get organized so that they can get some of that money, I wonder why they don't see their participation in the program as validating a badly flawed concept.
An important cautionary tale should be recalled here regarding government funding. Not so long ago, many arts organizations allowed themselves to become dependent on government funding. When some art became controversial, arts funding was cut, and many arts organizations suddenly found themselves without enough money to complete works in progress. Some had to close their doors.
Creating structures and imitating the things that churches do will not suddenly earn us their respect and acceptance as a legitimate religion. Those who believe that we are sinners needing to be saved will not change their minds about us because we have some spiffy new buildings. All we really need for a pleasant, civil environment among all of us is a "live and let live" attitude.
I think of how enlivening it is knowing that on Sabbats or full moons there are circles going on in tens of thousands of homes, and each one is welcome to tailor the circle to the tastes of their own group. That is exciting and liberating! When we step out into our yard on a full moon night to pour a libation, we know that countless others are doing something similar in their yards, even though we don't know all of them personally, and through this ritual act, we feel our connection not only to the moon and the Goddess, but also to all those others.
In our coven, and in most other covens that I am familiar with, members get together for Sabbats, Esbats, handfastings, and group rituals, but any other personal rituals members are expected to do on their own, in their own residence, or find a place outdoors that will work. They do not expect that our house will be open all the time so that they can just drop in and use it whenever they like. It's understood that the founder of a coven is always the one who decides what tradition will be followed, and in their group, they set the ground rules for customs and appropriate behavior. Should there be a difference of opinion, members are always free to leave and join a different group or start their own group. It is also part of the way of Wicca that those who have apprenticed and learned their lessons from their teachers eventually leave to start their own group. Each one of us who does this also adds some of our own personality to it, contributing to Wicca's continuing evolution. The vast array of Wiccan and Pagan websites seems to testify to the existence of a very robust and active community. Witchvox's page for my state, Georgia, lists nearly 100 groups, and this is not a complete list of all that exist. Our foundation as a grassroots movement is not well suited to the type of structures people are proposing building on them.
We have a very fluid method of growth and activity. The building of structures requires a solid foundation that stays in place for long periods of time. People whose Pagan lifestyles center around the activities of their home-based covens and going to regional festivals are not suddenly going to become enamored of kicking in large sums of money to support a temple downtown.
I have some experience with organizing public rituals. A few years ago, my coven held its meetings in a meeting room in a bookstore and all Sabbats were open to the community. However, we did have to modify our activities in accord with the wishes of the bookstore. One of the bookstore's rules was that we could not burn any kind of incense or smudge because they were afraid that someone might have an allergic reaction to the smoke or the scent. Nor could we share the traditional meal after the ritual because we needed to be out by closing time. When we were there, we followed the rules set by the property owner, but now that we are home-based, we always have incense in our rituals and share a meal afterward. No one is advocating moving back to the bookstore. Why? During the years we hosted all of the eight Sabbats as open events, we provided an opportunity for solitaries to share Sabbats with others as well as people who were just curious to come in and see what a ritual is really like. More than once, we had members of the media attend, and more than a few times college students who were taking comparative religion classes. However, when you have 60 or 70 people in circle, most of whom you do not know, you could call this good public relations for Wicca, but this was not a close-knit working group as our coven is. Our smaller home-based group has a strong level of dedication and commitment, with people who know and care about each other.
This public type of option is still available if someone else wants to organize the activity. The bookstore was happy to host us because the circles brought in customers for them. Another independent bookstore also hosts a Wiccan group on a regular basis and one of the bookstore chains has Pagan groups that meet regularly in a few of their locations. Unitarians and Quakers have rented out their space to Pagans. Various stores and public parks have been the site of drumming circles and open ritual circles. There are two Pagan landowners in this metro area who host regional festivals and rent their properties to individuals and groups for special rituals. These are simply rental facilities, not churches that require any conformity of belief or practice. It is an option our group has used on occasion, both individually and collectively. The owners have only a few common sense rules and once we pay to rent the facility, how we conduct rituals is our own business. Working with other people in the community, you can find options. Big open circles have their place in the community, and there are places to have them. We do not have to own and construct our own buildings.
Is it necessary to own and maintain a large public facility so that curiosity seekers can just drop in and chat or experience a Sabbat? Would large numbers of home-based covens move their operations to a central facility and pool their resources to make it financially viable? What would be their incentive to do so?
Our foundation and growth has a different pattern from other religions, and we simply need to recognize it. We don't have our own buildings all over the place, but we do have Internet structures like Witchvox to facilitate the flow of information. We don't have a seminary that bestows official status on its clergy, but we do have clergy and covens everywhere, and we just have to accept that there are huge differences among them. We are a grassroots movement. We do not have centuries of accumulated wealth and real estate to draw on, but we do have the Internet and the various flexible options mentioned above.
Our ability to circulate information rapidly to mobilize support for various needs within the Pagan community, specifically for Pagans to help other Pagans, is our real asset, and that flows from our fluid nature. We can help each other out and keep in touch through the flow of information. Buildings and bureaucracies do not fit with the nature of the paths we have already chosen.
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