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Morgan Ravenwood

The Pagan Aversion to Organization: Benefit or Detriment?

 by Moragan Ravenwood

Recently in a Pagan-themed message board I belong to, the issue of organization as it pertains to the Pagan community arose and very quickly developed into a hotly debated topic that I've since encountered in other online groups.  It seems that there are two very definite schools of thought on organization in Paganism: you're either for it or against it.  And while the majority were opposed (some vehemently so) to any hint of Paganism becoming an "organized" religion, I don't think a lot of those folks have really stopped to consider the issue thoroughly.

In her book "Book of Shadows," Phyllis Curott bemoaned the fact that the public hall her first coven met in was shared with other groups who often left it less than tidy.  However, I think her group was lucky to even obtain a public meeting room in the first place; it's often difficult to do, especially if and when you indicate to the property owners that you'll be holding Pagan meetings.  In my aforementioned message board, one Wiccan High Priestess bravely declared that she would be very happy if her coven actually owned their own building.  Yet another person voiced an aversion to holding meetings in a closed building (not surprising given the Pagan fondness for conducting outdoor rituals and meetings whenever possible), but instead suggested an indoor/outdoor temple-style building (with four walls and a covered space in case of inclement weather, but with an open courtyard).  Other ideas and concerns sprang forth, but I felt that the mere fact that at least some people were willing to consider such options was a step in the right direction.

Believe me, I do NOT want to see Paganism become another "big business" religion.  What I DO want is for it to be given serious, equal consideration by our government as well as by the members of other faiths.  Never has this been more important than now, when the slightest suggestion that members of Wicca should be entitled to funds distributed by George W. Bush's Faith-Based funding initiative has often been greeted with howls of protest-and laughter.  Many Pagans are familiar by now with the occurrence on the CNN show "Spin Room," in which Bill Press and Tucker Carlson cracked jokes about the fact that there are no Wiccan hospitals because "you'd have to sacrifice a chicken to get in" (gee, I happen to think that a Wiccan hospital would be a great idea---there certainly are enough gifted Wiccan healers!) 

Another instance of prejudice against Paganism is Indiana Representative Souder's statement on the House floor in April of 2000 that "it is unlikely under President Bush that the witches would get funding," under Bush's faith-based program, which of course is no surprise since the president himself has stated that HE doesn't believe Wicca is a religion and furthermore made it very clear that he doesn't think anyone else should believe it either. Stephen Goldsmith, the Domestic Policy Advisor to the President, denigrated Wicca during an interview on "McLaughlin's One on One," saying that he did not think that "Wiccans would meet the standard of being humane providers of domestic violence shelters" (I guess he took that chicken joke a little too seriously!)

With attitudes like this abounding, it is obvious that Pagans still have a long, hard row to hoe in attaining religious equality.  However, if we really want to achieve it, we must begin by demanding it, which, by necessity, requires some mutual collaboration and cooperation.  THEN we have to present some semblance of a united front (and yes, at least a little bit of that dreaded "organization!").  Solidarity must be the order of the day, or we'll be forever going around in circles, and not just in a ritual setting!  If some of us wish to apply for that faith-based program funding (and in view of all the opposition, I don't see how we could afford NOT to), we cannot give an address of "the nearest grove" as our headquarters.  This leads to the very important issue of establishing a permanent base of operations. 

In my city a couple of years ago a small synagogue was built across the street from a massive Southern Baptist church, which drew my admiration for the pluck of the Jewish folks in daring to build it there  (until then, they had been meeting at various Christian churches around town).  I half expected the place to be firebombed or something equally dramatic, but it remains unmolested to this day.  Though this wouldn't be the case in some areas, I think that it's an indicator that the human race is slowly adopting a more tolerant attitude towards those whose beliefs and practices deviate from the "norm."

Naturally, there are two sides to everything, and I'm trying my best to try to understand why some Pagans are so doggedly against incorporating even a slight degree of organization into their belief structure.  Perhaps the nomadic streak we're famous for is inbred to a certain extent; many of us had ancestors who traveled frequently, living in portable camps which could be moved at a moment's notice.  And given the Pagan preference for meeting outdoors in serene, natural settings such as a forest or beach, the aversion to conducting rituals and meetings in closed buildings is understandable.  But I think I speak for many others who live in densely populated areas when I say that as much as I would like to conduct all my rituals outdoors, it isn't often easy to find a secure spot for such things, and especially if any ritual nudity is involved.  This is evidenced by the recent flak resulting from a Beltane ritual that was conducted in what the participants thought was a secluded yard in Toledo, Ohio but was nonetheless intruded upon by a curious neighbor who then called the police.   Now the "May King" has a misdemeanor charge of public indecency brewing against him that could net him 30 days in the hoosegow and a $250 fine in addition to the sanctimonious public condemnation of his "good Christian" neighbors splattered all over the pages of the local newspaper. 

Nobody, but nobody, deserves THAT kind of publicity or notoriety for the "crime" of simply practicing their religion.  This is what turns a lot of us into "living room Wiccans" to quote Scott Cunningham, and as one myself, I can attest to the fact that you can still perform very effective rituals in such a setting.  However, there are often space constraints, especially in the case of apartment dwellers.

The other half of the "organization" pie is the one that concerns how we as Pagans present ourselves to the world at large, and just who among us is considered to qualify as enough of a Pagan "leader" to officially represent the Pagan community.  The Covenant of the Goddess has done some great work in this direction, but a lot of Pagans I've spoken with complain about the difficulty in becoming a member of that group as well as the fact that their own beliefs differ from those of some of the COG leaders (and those from CUUPS as well).  Sometimes it seems to me as if we need a "United Nations" of and for Pagans, just to help them iron out their differences with each other!  All the too-frequent infighting is nothing but a detriment to the Pagan community, and the sooner some are able to see this, the sooner we can begin to work on bigger issues like gaining recognition and acceptance among the mainstream faiths through education (or, as I call it, "fear abatement and prevention").  This is vital to our being able to continue practicing our religion openly and without the real or perceived threat of persecution. 

Organization need not be viewed as being derogatory or harmful to Paganism.  There are many varying degrees of it, and I think that the Pagan community has matured enough to be able to integrate just the right amount of it so as to make Paganism a stronger force to be reckoned with.  I believe that the groundwork we lay now will have far-reaching benefits for many Pagan generations to come.