How To Keep Paganism From Dying

Paganism isn't dying, but covens are the key to thriving.

I read a short piece today called Why Contemporary Paganism Deserves to Die. While I don’t disparage the author for his opinion (because it is just that), we have to note that opinions can be … well, wrong. And from where I sit as a Coven Leader, the ideas in this article are … well, wrong.

First, the idea that Paganism is dying at all. It isn’t. Mr. Halstead lives in “the southern Laurentian bioregion,” which apparently centers on the Great Lakes. Perhaps his regional area is the bigger concern – maybe Paganism is dying there, but from where I stand as a Coven Leader in one of the larger cities in Kentucky, this is far from a true statement.

Mystic Star Coven was born back in 2005. I teach the path that my Initiator taught me – Feycraft. The first go-round of MSC lasted for three years. We took a “hiatus,” because there were some health problems among the membership, as well as schedule concerns, and various life issues taking over what little time each of us had to gather together. So we half-ass disbanded in 2008.

In 2014, I was poked and prodded by my Gods to get off my ass. So after practicing Solitary for so long, I revved it up again. In this second incarnation, Mystic Star has been going strong for another 3 years. We’ve cycled through 3 rounds of Dedicants. The majority of them have stayed on as Coveners.

Why? Family. Leadership. A real experience of being in a community that doesn’t just pay lip-service, but lives its values.

My Coven doesn’t proselytize. It’s not just “unacceptable,” it’s outright wrong. We don’t have an aversion – we just don’t think everyone needs to hear our “Truth,” or that we need to “save” all the souls of the world. We have a vision – but it’s ours, not for the entire Pagan community. And I think therein lies the key.

All too often, we fall into this trap where we think we need numbers. We don’t. The numbers are out there, with or without us. We don’t need to quantify Paganism. It is what it is, all of its own accord. There is no need for us to make it grow as a religion. It’s doing that well enough on its own, without interference from human-controlled organizational charts and 501(c)3’s.

Contemporary Paganism isn’t an institution, but we do have institutions, and many of them are  struggling to survive.

For the rest of this post, I want you to understand what “institution” means. The term institution is defined as, “an organization, establishment, foundation, society, or the like, devoted to the promotion of a particular cause or program, especially one of a public, educational, or charitable character.” Example: “The college is the best institution of it’s kind.”[modern_footnote]institution. Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. http://www.dictionary.com/browse/institution (accessed: June 23, 2017).[/modern_footnote]

My issue with this statement is: why do we even need institutions? Why should we be an institution at all? We don’t need organizations, establishments, or foundations, or the like, to promote Paganism as a religion. We already are a religion. Christianity was a religion long before it’s followers dedicated money (which would’ve been better used to feed the hungry or house the homeless) to the building of large, ornate buildings.

In the Paganism of yesteryear, the religion was not how we think of it today. There was no Pagan Church, with Popes, and Bishops, and Cardinals, and Priests. It did just fine on its own. There were small groups of people – families – who did their thing. And on a larger level, there were Tribes who did their thing. As groups. And no one believed exactly the same thing, but they thrived in their “religion,” because it was part of their cultural DNA.

We don’t really have that today. More often than not, the people involved in Paganism have come from a different religion that was part of their cultural DNA. And so the real struggle isn’t with institutions – it’s with the true meaning of “conversion” – the need to deprogram the bullshit and get on with an actual life centered in animism. We’re not as dependent on the Land as we should be. Plain and simple. And that’s where the true revolution should start.

We’ve had teaching and training institutions for a very long time – they’re called “Covens” (or whatever your particular word is for small groups). We don’t need the Big Institution. We don’t need Seminaries. We need to get back to the root of Paganism – the small Tribe.

The problem comes in when people who are hell-bent on rugged individualism decide they’re too high and mighty for anyone to teach them anything. They don’t want to be in a Coven because, well, who the fuck are you to say what my worldview/cosmology should be? That’s 75%-85% of the problem. Stop being a narcissistic shitbag, humble up, and learn from your Elders.

We’ve already seen Mr. Halstead’s “institution” solution – it’s called Christianity. Grand High Poobahs get put into place, and then the People start wanting standards as to who is part of their Tribe. And so when GHP gives it to them, they fight and bitch and argue over who is a real Shitbag, and who is just playing dress-up shitbag. And then the church splits off because no one believes exactly the same thing and then the denominational wars begin.

Paganism has done it, also, to some degree, but not nearly as severely as Christianity. I have yet to see modern Pagans kill each other because Pan is a goat and Cernunnos is a stag and no one can agree on which style of horns would be prettier in a stained-glass window.

Why do people immediately jump to churches with popes, as representative definition of “institution?” Because that’s what it is. We don’t need Witch colleges or universities to demand that we follow their prescribed course of study in order to be recognized as a “Wiccan Minister.” Fuck all that. I’m a High Priest of my Tradition – and I don’t care whether any institution wants to give me a piece of paper that acknowledges that or not. I don’t need it. The minute someone tells me that I have to have a piece of paper to prove that I’m “Certified in Wiccan Training,” or that I have to have a “Masters in Ritual Architecture” or a “Certificate in Modern Traditional Craft Aesthetics,” I’ll tell them to fuck all the way off with that bullshit.

We don’t need central authorities on “The Wiccan Faith.” We don’t need another group of people who request that we “pay dues” or “send them our tithes and offerings” in order to keep an organization going that no one needs.

You’re a Pagan? You’re a Witch? Then be that. Just because we don’t have a large representative organization doesn’t mean that we aren’t savvy enough to curse the fuck out of assholes that come for us. Do not harm, but take no shit. We don’t need large, overbearing, nearly-militarized “pagan” organizations to our dirty work. We can do it ourselves.

You say that, even while people are coming to Paganism (and they are coming in droves, from where I sit, clamoring to get into the door), we have no leaders? Yes. You know why? Because people think they don’t need to be Initiated. They want to take the lazy way out and say things like, “It is what you want it to be,” rather than do a prescribed set of exercises to build the ritual, magical, and spiritual self-growth skills to be good leaders. It’s work – and people have an aversion to work. Social media popularity and how many places you’ve been published or had a column or done a talk or a workshop – none of that shit matters.

Fame is not leadership.

Mr. Halstead quoted an article by Jonathan Woolley. The quote is this:

In these trying times, active engagers need healing and well-being as much as they need initiations. Now is the time for us to reflect more than ever upon our responsibilities as magicians, rather than our rights as religionists. We must care for the Earth and its peoples.

And that, dear friends, is exactly my point. That healing and well-being comes from being part of a group, a thriving community. And that often comes with a Coven, and Initiations. Which, incidentally, is also where good leaders are trained.

I say it to my Coven all the time, and it bears repeating:

If service is beneath you, Leadership is beyond you.

You know who can train good leaders? Other good leaders. You know where those current good leaders are? Leading thriving Covens. The Coven – the small-group Tribe – is how Paganism thrives.

Modern Paganism isn’t dying. It isn’t even middle-aged yet. The only thing it suffers from is people who think they know it all, who are too full of pride in their individualism to be teachable, and who think that fame makes a leader.

The Big Institutions have been, and will continue to be, unnecessary. What we need is people who will, not just care for the Earth and it’s people, but serve the Earth and it’s people.

Robin Artisson said it best in a post on Facebook – we need to create microcultures, and I wholeheartedly concur. The thing is, again, we’ve had them all along. They’re called Covens, Groves, Grottos, or whatever else your particular word is for small groups of people practicing the same stuff.

3 Comments

  • Alan

    April 24, 2017

    Hi John. Thanks for your input.

    You are right that I don’t define a Coven as an institution. Coming from a church background, I see small groups as part of a larger institution, which usually tries to define everything for the smaller group. And that, of course, means “central authority,” which we know few Pagans really want.

    I view small groups as small groups, which is why I started using the words “Big Institution” in the post.

    Thanks for taking notice and having a friendly conversation!

  • John Halstead

    April 24, 2017

    I think you and I may have different ideas about what constitutes an “institution”. When Pagans hear the word institution, for some reason they always jump to churches with pews and the Pope.

    I see covens as institutions. I see the Wild Hunt online news journal as an institution. I see PantheaCon as an institution. I see any group of Pagans working together as an institution.

    I’m working off this definition:

    in·sti·tu·tion
    ˌinstəˈt(y)o͞oSH(ə)n/
    noun
    1. a society or organization founded for a religious, educational, social, or similar purpose.

    It’s not just a community. It’s a community with a purpose. And we Pagans need them because we are more powerful together than separate.