Rev. John Belham-Payne
The Centre for Pagan Studies:
TWPT: Tell me about how you came to find Witchcraft 25 years ago and chose to follow this path.
JBP: Actually it is almost 30 years since I was initiated but my interest went back years before then. From somewhere, deep inside me I realised, as a teenager, that there was a spiritual side to me. I assumed that I must be a Christian so I went to the local Church. After a few weeks of listening to the priest telling us that we were all sinners, I felt a distance and that the concept of original sin was irrelevant to me. I hadn't done anything wrong. However, I was sure that I felt most at ease when I was half-way up a mountain with the wind in my face, or in a forest heavy with leaves or just simply sitting on a river-bank listening to the sound of the birds with my feet in the water. It seemed so simple, so special, and so real. It was ages before I met someone else who felt the same as I did. I was lucky enough to meet by chance my first witch. She was an elderly lady that worked alone. She fired my interest but it was a few years later before I found a working coven that accepted me, near my home in Birmingham Still it was many years later that I really felt I had met a true teacher, by the name of Ralph Harvey from the Coven of Artemis. Moreover, this was many miles away in Sussex. Ralph turned out to be a friend of Doreen Valiente although it would be years before I actually came to meet her.
TWPT: What kind of acceptance was there for Witchcraft in the UK at the time? And did this present any problems to you as you began practicing?
JBP: There was a degree of hostility; either that or I was seen as just a bit odd. I had a few Christian ministers that were not very nice and I was condemned in one Church as the 'Seed of Satan' and the congregation was told not to even speak to me. I found it amusing when some of my neighbours crossed the road when they saw me. I grew up in the North of England and the attitude was very Victorian. I had no intention of submitting and the more there was a problem the more I stood up to be counted. I never tried to hide my beliefs and I have never used an assumed name. I am who I am and very proud to follow this natural path. Actually the most difficult thing I had to face was where to work. I lived in a very industrial area and finding a place that was green let alone quiet enough to start forming a circle was difficult.
TWPT: Tell me about the first coven that you were involved with? Was it everything that you expected it to be?
JBP: Far from it. Like many new to the studies of the Old Ways I was desperate to be initiated and when I was, it soon became obvious that these people knew a lot less than I did. For me casting a circle seemed a natural extension to my arm. They seemed to be more concerned with getting the words right. They had a lineage but I felt there was little in the way of content. I did go through a full traditional year and a day before initiation but I now believe that I should have waited until the right teacher came along. So I left to work solo for a number of years before I met Ralph Harvey. There is a wonderful old saying ‘When the student is ready the teacher will appear’.
TWPT: Was it difficult finding this coven since Witchcraft was still pretty much underground at the time?
JBP: In those days there were no contact points such as the internet or magazines or moots. It was purely my drive to find like-minded people that set me talking about my interests with friends and acquaintances. Eventually this led me to a working coven. To get to my first initiation I went through a long process of; first, finding myself and secondly, the right path, the group with which I was involved was not quite right for me. It seemed ages before I met someone else who felt the same as I did. I eventually asked Ralph Harvey and his High Priestess to re-initiate me, as this time I knew it was right. This is certainly not a unique experience I hear the same story often.
TWPT: How is it that you eventually came to meet Doreen Valiente?
JBP: I have been a great admirer of Doreen Valiente for as far back as I can remember and though I lived very close to her for nearly 20 years I did not actually meet her until the last few years of her life. In 1995 I set up an organisation called the Centre for Pagan Studies, and I met Doreen for the first time when she came to our first Halloween Party, which was complete with a huge firework display
TWPT: Did you have any preconceptions of Doreen before you met her? Did any of them turn out to be true?
JBP: I had many preconceptions about Doreen. Before I met her she had kept herself pretty much out of the public eye for many years. A lot of that time was spent nursing her partner Ron who had a long illness. I saw her several times during probably 15 years walking along Brighton seafront or collecting shells or something on the beach and a couple of times carrying her groceries home from town but I never approached her. When I eventually did meet her I regretted not approaching her and at least paying my respects. When one day I told her this, she said how she wished that I had spoken. We both missed about 15 years of our lives. Still when Doreen came with friends to the Centre for Pagan Studies Halloween Party I was finally introduced and I rather made a fool of myself by being a bit overprotective. I was a little star struck I guess. She was nothing like I had pictured. As a person Doreen was full of fun and had a dry, sharp sense of humour but she did not suffer fools gladly. Her knowledge of the history of Witchcraft and a great many other religions was amazing. She never really had a bad word to say about anyone and she replied to every letter which she received. She lived in the tiniest apartment that only had one room. So her bed, her living space, her altar, her word processor, her library and all the boxes containing all the artefacts and research she had carried out over the years were all in piled up in one room 15 feet X 12 feet. There was a tiny kitchen and a small bathroom. Most of our conversations were about anything but Witchcraft and I am sure that’s why she took to me as a friend. She was very close to my wife Julie. She would phone Julie and they would talk for hours on the phone as a couple of pals. She really was a personal inspiration to me. Julie and I miss her dearly.
TWPT: When was it that you became her acting High Priest?
JBP: I was never her acting High Priest. I became her last High Priest at her request in the last few months of her life. Doreen knew that she was ill and said nothing to anyone for a long time. She had worked as a solo practitioner without a working partner for a long time and one day she asked me to come and see her. At this stage she was suffering with stomach pains and she was obviously worried. She asked that, if I would, she would like me to become her High Priest. She told me of a magical inheritance that she would need to pass on and she said she had decided that it would be me.
TWPT: Tell me about the formation of The Centre for Pagan Studies and what kinds of goals you had set for the organization in the beginning?
We never taught magic, we never taught witchcraft and we didn’t charge high prices. We just needed to cover our costs. We then invited teachers on various topics to talk about the history of their chosen subject, but not teach the subject itself to those who may not be ready. By doing this we could then point genuine students in the right direction and to a suitable teacher not connected to the Centre. We were also able to provide suitable and safe working space in our temple set up for any group that needed it. Our private, heated swimming pool was made available too. Learning should be fun and sociable. We also had several very successful Handfastings there. The last time it was used for Doreen’s wake. She was laid there for a few days before her funeral surrounded by a circle of candles and woodland flowers.
TWPT: What was Doreen's role as the Patron of the Centre?
JBP: Doreen liked what we were doing and a few days after the first Halloween party she phoned to ask if she could become more involved with our work. Her involvement gave us increased credibility and she became our Patron, though when she first asked me if 'I would mind if she got more involved'. I was obviously very flattered and when I asked very cautiously what she would like to do to help, she said ‘Well I could help to wash the dirty dishes after lunch’. Her involvement was all too short I am sorry to say. It was also at the Centre that she gave her last ever talk entitled ‘Sussex Witchcraft’. At that talk the writer and teacher Marian Green did the washing up after lunch for us. I think this is a lesson to us all especially those that believe they are something special. For me it is one of the greatest lessons in true craft and to misquote President Kennedy 'Ask not what the Craft can do for you, but what you can do for the Craft'.
TWPT: What kind of impact has the Centre had on the community since its formation?
JBP: I think the greatest impact we had was on the local community rather than on the pagan community. The centre was the first building ever to be given planning permission with the word ‘Pagan’ in it. This involved us having to apply for permission to convert an historic building for public assembly and the plans and the outline of our intentions were put before the local council. We had to display public notices with an explanation of our purpose on the roadside outside our house. There were a couple of objections but after due debate we obtained permission. We held several open events to celebrate the seasonal changes, when anyone could attend and because we were on the outskirts of an old English village, we actively encouraged the local population to join in and they had a great time dancing around our Maypole, especially as they were now aware of it’s real purpose.
We never evangelised our beliefs and by being so open we helped a great many other people who felt that they had to keep their beliefs a secret. In a very short period of time anyone trying to find us would be given directions to us by; the village pub, post office, shop and village policeman. I think our impact on the pagan community was a positive one and we helped a couple of other groups apply for planning permission in other areas of the country, though so far they have not actually opened. We obviously did something right there because we had people attend from the USA, Canada, Australia and from all over Europe.
TWPT: Tell me about the impact that Doreen's death had on the Centre, you personally and the community at large.
JBP: For me personally I had to absorb a great deal very quickly. As far as the craft was concerned I grew up. Not long after that she was taken into hospital with stomach pains and it was confirmed that she had cancer of the upper pancreas and it was inoperable. Her life was coming to an end. The transferring of the magical inheritance became an immediate need for Doreen and the Dagda took several evenings to pass on to me. The process seemed to drain the life from her and this was terrible to watch, especially as I became full of energy. At the end I felt I could achieve anything but the reality was that the thing I wished I could do the most, I was powerless to achieve This was to extend the life of Doreen Valiente. As her life became closer to ending, she needed to put everything in place as soon as possible. She asked me if I would be with her at the end and take her to the Summerlands. Where is it? How do we get there? Were my first two concerns but Doreen knew the way. She taught me how to find it and what we should do when we got there.
The first time she took me there I have to admit I was confused and worried I would falter. She knew this would happen and took me back a couple of times. Each time I became aware of the route and began to feel more confident. We basically rehearsed the journey. Eventually I was able to go back there on my own and understood what I had to do. She became less and less capable as time went on and when she eventually was admitted, at her request, into a Nursing Home for the last few days of her life. I moved into her room with her and we were supported by Julie, Lynda and Ray Lindfield. The Nursing Home was very good to us though they had never come across this situation before. Doreen was on very heavy painkillers, and slept for long periods at a time. On the morning of her passing I awoke suddenly at around 6am. Doreen slowly came to and was very calm. She hadn't spoken in days. I went over to her bed and held her hand. She had what I believe is referred to as a 'bright moment' when life seemed to pour back into her. She smiled at me and I said that I believed the time had come. She nodded and was very calm. She gently squeezed my hand and closed her eyes again. I started the long journey with her and at 6.55am she was at the gates of the Summerlands smiling and ready to go inside. For me the most difficult thing I have ever done was let go of that hand and not to follow her inside. Doreen had passed on, I was certain of that.
Since Doreen's passing I have been back there a couple of times with other people who needed to know the way when their time had come. Performing her funeral rite was a great honour and was obviously a very sad moment in all our lives but at the same time we were all pleased that she was ready for her next incarnation. Her ashes are scattered in a favourite place of hers, the location of which is to remain private, this is at her bequest. Recently I discussed the path to the Summerlands with Janet Farrar who had gone through the same experience with her late husband-Stewart. Janet and Stewart were very close to Doreen.
Janet told me that when she and Stewart arrived at the gate Doreen was waiting there for him. She had sorted the whole place out and I am sure that by now she has those gates opening to one of her poems. We received hundreds of phone calls e-mails and letters. For over 2 days after the news of her passing became public I never had a moment without a phone in my hand. Many of those calls were very tearful and I had to comfort a great many people. I have to thank Janet Farrar for all the help and support that she gave me especially as she was nursing Stewart who was also very ill. As far as the impact on the Centre is concerned it has been dramatic. Actually it became obvious we had a new job to do. We keep being asked for access to her library and so many people are asking to see the collection of artefacts. Doreen did say that she felt it had all been shut away too long. The centre is no longer located at our home, Julie and I have now moved from there. The Centre will now become a museum and study centre one will support the other. Negotiations are now taking place for a new location and funding.
TWPT: Why did Doreen want her ritual poetry published?
Many of Doreen’s artefact collection can be seen on the pages and I believe the selection of poems we used will show a humorous side to her as well as the ritual side. Anyone that buys the book will at Doreen’s bequest help the Centre for Pagan Studies as all the profits go into it and eventually into the study facility and museum.
TWPT: What kind of museum are you contemplating in Sussex to house the materials that were bequeathed to you by Doreen? What other materials besides Doreen's will be housed there?
JBP: The museum plans will serve 2 purposes. First it will be a place where the general public will be able to enter perhaps expecting a cheap thrill and see something scary. What they will see is a very modern approach to a section of our history that has never been seen in a true light. Remember, history is written by the conquerors. We will be using audio-visual and interactive facilities in order to tell our story along with a number of scenes to depict an aspect we need to show. We have been promised several other items from other well-known witches. The second part of the museum will be the CFPS, which will become a study centre with access to her research.
TWPT: What kind of role do you see yourself playing in the continuation of the Gardnerian tradition both in the UK and abroad in the years to come?
JBP: Help! Comes to mind. I keep getting letters from around the world telling me that I am now the head of the Gardnerian tradition. Do people really think of me in that way? It seems such a responsibility somehow that I have to admit I haven't really taken on board. I truly believe that the craft is served best in a coven set-up, with a High Priestess and a High Priest being responsible for the group and their training, by sticking to the laws in both practical and spiritual terms. They are responsible for running structured 'open meetings' for those seeking the craft. If these ‘open meetings’ are run properly then in that ‘year and a day’ they will know from the questions the newcomer asks whether the craft is right for them and whether the person is right for that group. These hard working priests and priestesses are our real leaders. To run an extended family in this way is such a responsibility. Doreen Valiente always stuck to the rules, she never waivered. Neither has Patricia Crowther.
I will follow their example. I have been asked to set up and run a coven for years, but I think those upstairs have other plans for me. I certainly promise to honour that magical lineage that has been passed on to me until it is my turn to find a lady to pass the magical flame onto at my death. I also admire those that decide to work solo and self initiate. This is a difficult path to follow and I am always happy to help where I can though I still believe that structured coven training works best. I work alone a lot of my time and like Doreen I am always honoured when I am invited by a coven to help celebrate the turning of the year with them. By not working with a particular group I think I can be more helpful to any that seek my help.
TWPT: Do you see the Gardnerian tradition growing stronger with the passing of each generation or is there work to be done to solidify the foundation and protect it from being eroded away?
JBP: I see all the traditions growing larger almost day by day but I do not see them growing stronger. The pace that the craft is growing is not healthy. Witchcraft is all too often described as the fastest growing religion in the world. While I am exited by this fact, I would much prefer to hear than we are growing steadily but it is most ethical religion in the world. The numbers count for nothing. The way we grow is far more important. Again I say that the way a coven prepares and grows is the most important thing we can pass on from one generation to the next. In the days when it was a real problem, if caught, to be a witch, the only way the tradition was kept alive was in the method it was taught and those chosen to follow the old ways. Selection was everything so whoever was chosen had to be the right person. They needed the strength of character and the ability to learn. It was not a debate between teacher and pupil as to how things were done. This debating is something that I see all too often and each time I see it, I see the watering down of the craft. Gerald set out a series of thoughts and teachings that we should see as sacred. Doreen Valiente put them to poetry and made the rituals work Patricia Crowther has carried on that tradition and I wish to uphold that.
There is strength in the way we conduct ourselves and if someone comes to the open meetings and disagrees then they are not right for us. Let them go. It will make us stronger Our Priestesses and priests should be strong in the way they run their covens. They should be honourable; they must have gone through the degree system properly. I do not see that the upgrading should happen each year. For me I waited for almost 28 years before I was finally given my 3rd degree. In my case the teacher was Doreen Valiente and worth the wait. It was offered many times but something inside me said ‘one day I will be ready but not yet’. When the student is ready the teacher will appear. I was still a very confident and hard working priest and I knew I was right. I am much stronger for it and my reward is far beyond my dreams. I would like to see a worldwide council of elders that can help keep the vitality and the traditions pure and true.
TWPT: Tell me about your involvement with the Occulture festival this year?
JBP: The Occulture Festival has been described as the greatest meeting of occult minds for a century. We also had the worlds first Occult film festival as part of the programme. My part in the whole event was very small really. I was compere for the week, a job I really enjoy. I have done this several times. My next ‘gig’ is compeering the Pagan Federations annual national conference in London in November. This year will be my 5th year of doing this job.
TWPT: Why is it important to be involved with festivals such as this one When all is said and done what is accomplished and what do people take away with them from festivals such as this?
JBP: Occulture is like no other event I have been to. It gives the opportunity to a number of very different lifestyles and beliefs to have a forum. I learned so much during the week and all the people I met were sincere good people and the speakers were excellent. We had full houses every night except the Satanist’s night but I did learn that the Devil definitely has all the best music, but didn’t we already know that? As to what people got out of it then that is always hard to say. It is so individual. There was some lively debate and we all made new friends.
TWPT: Hexagon is currently planning to bring Occulture to the States. Where are you looking for venues, sponsors and contributors for Occulture in the USA?
JBP: I do hope so. The organisers are looking into the possibility of doing this. I certainly hope they ask me to be involved if they do so. I will give them all the help I can but you will have to ask them for a more accurate picture on location and speakers.
TWPT: Do you have any final comments for our readers about the work that you are continuing in the UK?
JBP: What I am trying to do if anything is bring all the traditions closer together. There are not enough of us all to fall out. We need to support each other. I was recently on a panel of religious representatives. After the show one of the Christian ministers said to me that he was not too worried about the sudden rise of Paganism. He said that the internal squabbles would see an end to us quicker than the Church’s condemnations. If we are not careful ‘Bitchcraft’ will prove him right. Stay strong, be good citizens and look after one another please.
This article has been written for The Wiccan Pagan Times, by Reverend John Belham-Payne and as such intended for that sole purpose. No reproduction otherwise is authorized, and the article remains the property of John Belham-Payne, who may at a later date use the contents therein.
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