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What it Means to be a Church

I realize the word “chuch” in a Pagan context gives folks an almost knee-jerk nauseated reaction. The vast majority of Pagan and Wiccan practitioners are converts from monotheistic religions, mainly Christian denominations (I think I’ll leave the discussion of conversion for another day). When we trade in the previous religion for the Old Religion, we naturally expect to leave certain ideas behind, and are eager to embrace and try out the ideas that are new to us. Some people have experienced a kind of spiritual abuse from their former institution, and will require some healing as they make their spiritual escape.

But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater! It is one thing to reject an idea because it doesn’t work for you, and another to shut down and never give the idea a chance.  The first time I heard of the ATC, a Wiccan church, I too had a knee-jerk reaction. As a newbie know-it-all, I’d never read about Wicca having churches, and wasn’t about to investigate a horrible institution like the ones my friends and I “escaped” from. I met a priest there, who I hit it off with, and we’ve had a wonderful friendship that began almost ten years ago. He told me about his experiences with the church, and what the church was about. I invited myself along to the next ritual, and the rest is history. I’m really glad I gave the idea of a church a chance.

The Parthenon was a Pagan church. Should we tear it down because Pagans don't go to church?

Typically, Wiccans practice in small covens, as solitary practitioners, or at public festivals and rituals. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. For many finding a coven is difficult, and finding one that you want to learn from and dedicate yourself to is even harder. As a solitary practitioner, you have the mobility to learn and practice whatever you please, yet you don’t get the opportunity to bounce ideas around and ones practice can get stale. Public festivals are big and fun, but they are also rather expensive, and the price of admission doesn’t guarantee the quality of the ritual experience, or that you’ll agree with the ideas presented, or that you can learn with 1,000 other people present. Networking is obviously a big concern for Pagans as demonstrated by the large amount of networking sites for different areas. I know whenever I go to a new place, I want to know what groups are there and what activities are going on!

A Wiccan or Pagan church is a place to do that networking. It provides a different kind of group experience. Psychologists generally define two types of group cohesion: intimacy and integrity.

Intimacy is more like what you would experience in a coven setting–the group bonds emotionally, and creates group-mind through a common feeling of belonging and friendship. Decisions are made democratically or, most often, through consensus. Groups that follow Dianic Wiccan and Fairy paths tend to prefer this kind of arrangement. It seems to me a very feminine form of leadership and group cohesion.

Integrity is what you are likely to experience if you come to the ATC–the group bonds over a common purpose. Who “belongs” is based on rank, with higher ranking members expected to contribute more time and energy to the group. Hierarchy is valued, and decisions are made by members of sufficient rank with the group’s best interest in mind. Gardnerian and Alexandrian derived traditions, as well as those with Masonic roots, arrange themselves this way. This group cohesion style suggests masculine virtues.

Academically, I don’t see how one could be better than the other, although individuals may place greater value on one style at certain parts of their life. Both are perfectly valid ways to run a community, and both have their downsides too: intimacy could violate confidentiality for a group member or never achieve anything because of personal problems, and integrity might be run by power-hungry dictators.

At the church I go to, both are present, but integrity is the most obvious to visitors. Rank is given to those who have demonstrated hard work and dedication, and who choose to become a part of the tradition. Intimacy comes only through time, and is based in personal relationships, which no amount of rank can force to blossom.

Why a Wiccan Church is Valuable

  • Rituals are open to anyone. No one has to vouch for you. You can show up as a complete stranger and be perfectly welcome.
  • You do not have to believe the same thing to attend ritual. Many who come faithfully practice other religions and are educating themselves about Wicca.
  • There is no commitment, unless you want to. Even tithing (another dirty word!) is of your own free will, although we do bless it for Threefold return, so tithing is in your best interest.
  • The church supports the community through programs, festivals, education, and counseling.
  • The church can be a political force, representing lots of people for a single cause, such as getting the Military to provide headstones for fallen Pagan soldiers.
  • The church is a place to meet like-minded people, network, and form intimate bonds. Many tradition members work with covens that are not affiliated with the church.
  • Donations are tax-deductible. If you’re going to give your money to a charity, give it to one that supports your people!
  • The church provides clergy, often ordained, who can offer spiritual counsel and perform ritual services for the community–in no way are they attempting to force dogma, but rather help individuals who ask.

A Pagan church isn’t about belief or dogma, it is about praxis (that is, what one does). We gather at church to support the same causes, to worship the Gods, to participate in self-changing magic, and to learn from each other. The church is a tool for those who are sincerely growing into better human beings, and offers a kind of community unique in the world of religion in general and Paganism in particular.

Pft! I had WAY more badges than this lady did!

While coven work is focused personal growth, a church is focused on service to the community, an element I believe is crucial to personal growth and often overlooked. Working on projects with others and holding positions of responsibility gives you a chance to grow into it in a safe place, where people will support you and encourage you to succeed. The rank system is a way of easily identifying those with certain skills, which is important in a big organization, and is a tangible visual for personal growth. If you want to know what it is like to display your personal growth, ask a Girl Scout to show you her badge sash–it is the same general principal.

I occasionally will hear snippy comments about the validity of churches in Paganism and Wicca, but I honestly recognize it as that newbie know-it-all knee-jerk–very different from constructive criticism, which has actually interacted with the ideas. As a new religious movement, we are in the process of creating our religion, so the discussion of what is and isn’t Paganism is not a closed subject, but one that is evolving as we explore different ideas.

Here are a few Pagan churches:

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