I’ve been re-reading a review of this year’s PentheaCon at Pagan+Politics. There are a couple things of interest that Cara mentions regarding the the pagan subculture (and how it is changing), but for now I was caught by some thoughts regarding “infrastructure and families.”
I mentioned above that those two topics kept coming up. Pagans are trying to find ways to have their group survive and thrive after the passing of a charismatic leader. Some already know that having some sort of organization and infrastructure is a needed while others are just coming to that conclusion. I spoke with coven leaders who worry that Wicca is in danger of dying out, even while numbers of Wiccans continue to grow. They said that the early leaders of Wicca set it up to be anti-establishment, which they like, but that built weaknesses into the religion. They worry the coven model is not sustainable and cannot support the initiatives that many in the community wish to have such as temples, charitable organizations, and groups that survive a leader’s death or retirement.
… [an] area of concern for some Wiccans I spoke to [was] becoming more family friendly. They feel only attracting adult converts is not a paradigm desirable to continue. However, they didn’t have many ideas of how to bring families into the coven system successfully.
In my mind, this “problem” is closely related to another problem that Cara mentioned at the con:
One thing I’m losing patience with, though, is Wicca-centric language at supposedly Pagan events. If it is a Wiccan event or topic I don’t begrudge using language and terminology that is exclusively Wiccan. But when the workshop is for Pagans of all types it would be better to keep the language more neutral. There is sometimes an assumption that we all use some type of coven system, believe in the God and the Goddess, and use magic. That we work with deities and aren’t religious, but spiritual. Looking around the audience at some of the workshops, I could tell I wasn’t the only one feeling like I was an outsider because of the language used and the assumptions made. In a panel discussion a woman asked a question about how they see Pagan leadership changing, especially as leaders emerge in non-religious roles. The panel, for the most part, couldn’t break free of their coven model mindset to understand the question. They gave suggestions about how people could help the HP or the HPS in tasks, but that wasn’t what the question was about. The question was about leaders who emerge in areas outside of religious authority … I talked to a few people in the audience about the question and the answer and generally Wiccans felt the question was answered well while the non-Wiccans were frustrated that the question was ignored or misunderstood.
It is my opinion that for paganism to become sustainable as a religion, and even to continue its growth, it has to “mainstream” to a certain extend. That means, in part, some kind of organization, and preferably one that establishes a working pagan community and integrates it with the community at large. I have my own ideas on the matter — other ideas may vary.
Wicca with its coven model of organization does not facilitate this integration
I’m a big fan of Frank Herbert’s novel Dune. For those not familiar with the story, Dune is a harsh desert planet, and its rugged Fremen natives live in cave communities known as sietches. According to the novel’s mythos, “sietch” translates as “a place of assembly in a time of danger.”
Covens are pagan sietches.
The coven model was embraced by Gardener as part of his mythology of hidden practitioners of an religion that needed to maintain secrecy, lest they be punished by the dominant Christian culture. And a coven is ideal for this: it has a relatively small membership, is independent of other covens, with only very loose ties, and requires a secretive initiation that generally involved a drawn out period of training and vetting of the neophyte. This model works great if you’re trying to remain separate from the community at large and keep your group a secret.
This is why the coven model was unable to even address, let alone answer, Cara’s question about community leadership: by its very nature, such a model cannot facilitate a community outside of the religious/magical leadership of the group. That is the whole point of the coven in the first place – to provide for an enclave for hidden religious/magical action separate and hidden from the community at large.
Which brings us to the first issue: families. The coven model is one of initiation. When a young witch comes of age, he or she is initiated into the mystery and eventually accepted in the circle. What of before that? Well, presumably, the youngster is brought up in the larger culture, and doesn’t know what goes on in the coven (if he knows about it at all).
Doesn’t sound like a great place to bring your kids to, does it?
Cara ironically hints at this, but doesn’t seem to give it full attention. Because Heathen and Bardic groups, that don’t use a coven model, aren’t having the problems that Wiccan are in including families:
Other groups, like ADF, are not only surviving the death of a beloved leader – they are thriving and planning for growth. They have enough structure and organization to accomplish what they wish, but not so much that they stifle their members. They, like the Heathen groups, are focusing on being family friendly while not scaring off the the solitaries. Families are welcome at rituals and groves plan fun purely social events to build community ties. They are seeing more members of the same family become active in ADF and that creates a stable membership base.
The Heathens are organizing a community. And integrating that community into the larger community. And Wiccans don’t want to. But sooner or later, raising your family as part of a community instead of a member of a coven becomes more important than the specialness that being a pagan outsider, and the Wiccans sense they’re missing something. But they don’t seem to be sure how to find it.
Many covens that I know of have a inner/outer circle system, in which newer/more casual members are included in the outer circle, and more dedicated members are initiated into the inner circle. One local group holds open Sabbats for the outer circle, but reserves more intimate Esbats for the inner circle. Ironically, this seems a fine solution to the coven problem: have an outer groups that functions as a social, community group, and reserve the inner circle for the initiates. In other words, the real “coven” is the inner circle, while the larger circle is the community support network of those who want to affiliate and participate in the community without the trouble of initiating into the coven. I’ve seen a few covens operate this way, and it seems to work very well not only to accommodate family membership, but also to integrate the members into the larger community. (The group I mention before holds a number of fundraisers and is happily accepted by the local community – even by some Christian groups that join them in charity activities.)