I’ve watched Paganism in America change considerably in the last thirty years and I sometimes wonder what the next thirty will be like. As the New Year begins, it is often the case that we look both to the past and the future with wonder.
When I first became interested in Paganism, most of us called ourselves witches. If you wanted in on the fun, you had to really dig and show interest in just the right places and to the right people. Not much was written about us that wasn’t 99% junk. And even the stuff that was real was full of weird explanations that you sort of had to work around in your mind before they made much sense. And if you were lucky enough to find anybody who actually knew what they were talking about it was like pulling teeth to get them to open up and tell it to you straight.
Then you had to wait about a thousand years before you were offered initiation. Well, maybe not quite that long, but it seemed like it. There weren’t enough people who could or would initiate folks and you didn’t get ‘IN’ unless you were initiated. At the time, when a high priest and/or priestess initiated someone, the initiate’s magical behavior was the responsibility of the initiators. The etiquette was that if you had a dispute with someone, you either dealt with them directly to resolve it or you brought it before your elders. In most cases, the ‘elders’ were the priestess and priest that governed the coven. If the problem involved people of different covens, it would probably involve both covens’ leaders.
By the mid to late eighties, the coven system of government and isolation was breaking down. This was due to several reasons but the most important one was because the definition of initiation was changing. The concept of self-initiation was gaining legitimacy and without a lineage of initiators, the authority of each coven to self-discipline was on the way out. This also eroded the confidentiality and secrecy that had been a cornerstone of the coven system.
Covens had been much like the French WW II underground. Each group was a closed unit and only its leaders knew of the other covens, where they were, who led them, and what they did. There weren’t any large festivals or celebrations as there are now. For the most part, coordination and communication between covens was limited to the leaders of the covens, a so-called ‘gathering of Elders.’ Occasionally, two or more covens would celebrate a sabbat or esbat with a related coven.
Eventually, books began to become available that gave just enough information to non-initiates that they began to practice magic and conduct their own celebrations. Before that time, every person initiated to the Craft was told that they were a priest or priestess. That is, they were considered to be responsible for the preservation an interpretation of their own spirituality. With self-initiation, a much larger group of people began to emerge who wanted to follow a path of magic and spirit but not lead it. The initiates of the coven system tried to respond and develop liturgy that didn’t require the entire circle to be of the priesthood. But many of these chafed at the demands of clergy or simply didn’t have the skills. Those who did step up made a big difference to the face of Paganism.
Covens still exist that maintain the initiate/priesthood format but they are few and far between, probably no even as numerous as in times past. Most covens today consist of a loose body of people following one or two leaders who have gained sufficient knowledge and skill to hold the group together. The differences, when compared to the old system, are significant. Most importantly, today’s covens usually aren’t very exclusive or secret. Certainly that’s not universally true, but it is for the majority. The general social culture in America today is nominally tolerant of most of Paganism’s various forms of expression and most Pagans are not secretive about their spirituality.
There are now many open celebrations held throughout the year all over the USA and Canada as well as open circles for full and new moon services. Pagans of all stripes are now adopting forms very much like the Judeo-Christian religious organizations that dominate North America. They are forming churches that interact with the greater society in nearly exactly the same way as their much larger spiritual cousins.
It’s almost inevitable once an organization begins to seek legitimacy and legal protection within the social order that they adopt the form and appearance that makes it easiest to receive those benefits. Ironically, the harassment of many Pagan groups during the eighties helped to cause those same groups to come out of the broom closet and demand the legal rights guarantied to them by the laws of the society that sought to persecute them. The institutions developed in this more open setting are often held back by two problems: There aren’t a great many qualified leaders, people who have the skills necessary to run an organized religious group. And there is not, as yet, the acceptance of the people who would use such an organization sufficient to support it.
No religious movement, and that is what modern Paganism is, ever starts out as an organized religion. It always develops as small groups and then grows. That growth is always beset with problems and disagreements among the groups but eventually some sort of common ground is reached and then the growth continues on a sporadic and somewhat confused basis for some time. Paganism has pretty much gotten over the ‘witch wars’ that seemed to dominate the nineties and now must face the challenges of the more conservative assimilation processes of becoming legitimate in the eyes of society.
I well remember the hue and cry set up by the secretive covens over the concept of self-initiation. The issue was not only the controversy of the idea but the impact it would have on the authenticity of lineage. It was feared, and rightly so, that the uncontrolled growth it would foster would destroy the coven system altogether. While it hasn’t destroyed it, it has made a change in the direction and focus of our religious practices. Modern institutionalized Paganism has created a whole new demand for qualified leadership and a material commitment from those who are to be its members.
It’s impossible to know where Paganism will be and what it will look like in another thirty years, but it’s probable that the next ten years will either drive it back underground or make it an important social voice in western society. It is up to everyone who seeks a balance within themselves between the dynamics of being human and the need for greater personal involvement with Spirit to determine what it will be like. Remember that gods are within each of us and how we worship them will be the deciding factor in how our world will survive.