The following article appeared in issue #8 of Web of Wyrd magazine.
It has always bothered me that there seems to be an abnormally large lunatic fringe in Wicca; people who threaten others with curses from a "Council of Witches"; people who claim qualifications they haven't got; people who are so fundamentalist in outlook they put Fred Nile to shame. For despite the comments of Hawkeye (WOW #6) and Khaled's letter (WOW #5), there is, I believe, a strongly fundamentalist element within Wicca. It seems to be found mainly amongst those who, in Hawkeye's words, "believe in the objective reality of faery", and those who see the Gardnerian Book of Shadows as Holy Writ. Now I have no objection to people believing in anything they want to, but if they try to tell me that my more psychological approach (to say nothing of my cynicism regarding the aforementioned Holy Writ) is wrong, I naturally question whether I want to be classed under the same banner.
Whilst I wholeheartedly concur with the premise that worship is a private matter between the practitioner and his/her deity, in actual practice it just ain't so, even in Wicca. "You have to do it our way, or you aren't one of us", seems to be a common attitude. The argument that formal teaching or a recognized clergy would destroy the right of each individual to approach the divine in her/his own way therefore, just doesn't hold water, since as things stand at present, a practitioner who doesn't agree with the mainstream viewpoint will very quickly find him/herself on the outer anyway. The "free form eclecticism" touted by Peregrin (WOW #6) just doesn't happen outside the books, as far as I can tell.
I'm certainly not suggesting that we ought to rush out and set up seminaries and parish councils, but I do think we have to accept the fact that we do already have a de facto clergy, largely self-appointed, most of whom have no training in counseling or teaching. Like it or not, if you are leading a group of any kind, no matter how informal or unstructured, you are going to need both those skills. It's all very well for Michelin (WOW #6) to compare coven leaders to parents who "receive little or no training beyond that which they received in the family in which they grew up". It's actually a sad fact of life that we were all fucked up by our natural parents, thus creating the need for us to clear away the shit through spiritual practice. I don't want to be stuffed around by any more amateurs, thank you very much - my family of origin did a pretty good job already!
It's obvious that hierarchic structures don't work, but what do we do instead? What we've got at present isn't really working either, and in many cases it is, in fact, very hierarchic anyway! It's a really hard one, and I don't think there are any easy answers. But, sadly, we have a situation where unsuspecting neophytes run the risk of being conned, robbed, threatened or subjected to various power trips, and even those of us who condemn such behavior run the risk of being tarred with the same brush in the eyes of the public.
Whilst Pagan organizations (such as the Pagan Federation, Pagan Alliance or Church of All Worlds) could be an excellent clearing house for people seeking groups, and groups seeking members, who is to decide which groups are "kosher"? Supposing a bright-eyed bushy-tailed tyro from Upper Woop Woop approaches an organization, and asks to be put in touch with the nearest Wiccan coven. The organization knows damned well that the only coven within coo-ee of Upper Woop Woop is run by a couple of dickheads who shouldn't be in charge of a street stall, let alone the vulnerable psyches of others. What do they do? If this particular pair of dickheads are paid up members of said organization, how can inquiries not be passed on to them? It really isn't possible without some sort of formal screening system, to keep the lunatic fringe out of an umbrella organization, especially when some of them are already well established in the Craft.
Of course many people don't see teaching as a relevant function of the coven. But new members are going to look to the leaders for guidance, even if only at an unconscious level. Everyone who starts a spiritual practice does so because they see life to be a mess, and they need to know how to get out of that mess. Personally, I think teaching is very important, and I will seek teaching on Love and Trust wherever it is offered. Over the last couple of years, I have found it mainly within Tibetan Buddhism. Similar to the Craft in many ways, the practice is more structured and the teachers have all been practitioners for twenty years or more. None of the teachers attempts to dominate the students; in fact they go to a lot of trouble to discourage guru-tripping. Teaching is offered by a variety of visiting teachers, so students get a range of opinions and practices, and they can ask for specific teaching as they need it. I've seen less power-tripping and ego-flaunting in this movement than in any other; they really do go along with the premise, "an it harm none do what you will". Their methods, having been tested for over a thousand years of unbroken lineage, really do work: I learnt more about magic from those guys in a month than I learnt in five years with the Rosicrucians and some twenty-odd years of private and group Craft-style practice. It isn't surprising that Tibetan Buddhism is currently said to be the fastest growing "new" religion in the west. Incidentally, I thought Hawkeye's comments on Eastern religions a bit sweeping: I know little of Taoism, but the Hindu and Buddhist faiths don't claim to be based on Absolute Truth. Rather, they are based on the belief that there is an Absolute Truth and that it is possible for the individual, without mediation from Priest or Guru, to find it. Quite a different proposition.
All any teacher or group leader can do is point out ways and means; it's up to the individual to find her/his own way to the Divine, call it Goddess, Christ, Krishna, Bliss-Void or whatever. But finding suitable friends is the first step along the path - you really can't do it all by yourself. Whether you go in for counseling, therapy or spiritual training, the idea is the same - find someone who's been there already, and who knows how to give you a hand over the rocky bits. It is this which lies at the basis of the guru/disciple relationship, not, as some would have it, a need to dominate or be dominated. The system is, like any other, open to abuse, but we only have to look around and see the same abuses and worse within the Craft, despite its supposed "free form eclecticism". (Good phrase that, thanks Peregrin!)
I still believe that the Craft is a beautiful path in theory, and could be so in practice, were it not for the large numbers of nearsighted people presuming to lead the blind. However, perhaps I'm expecting too much - maybe the Craft really is just a celebratory religion which offers a U-beaut party eight times a year and a chance to run around starkers once a month. Perhaps I am expecting too much in asking that it provide tools, teaching and example for personal growth as well? Nevertheless, this is what many people, including me, seek in a spiritual discipline. I would like to think that somewhere, somehow, sometime, I might find it in Wicca.
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