Friday, October 04, 2013

Boundaries & Permeability, Inclusivity & Exclusivity

From a cursory scan of several Pagan blogs, it appears to me that lots of Pagans have been devoting their thinking to the notion of inclusivity.  Who is welcome in whose circles?  How Pagans can demonstrate their love for all humankind by rolling out the welcome mat to one and all?  In principle I agree that our groups should be welcoming to all who are called to a Pagan path, although we all know that there are many Pagan paths and not every one is suitable for every seeker.


There are men’s circles and groups,[1] gay men’s circles, circles of men with mixed forms of sexual expression.  There are women’s circles, teen circles, children’s circles, crones’ circles, as well as groups especially created for LGBTs. 

When I first came to Craft via Second Wave Feminism, it was important not only for me to have found a feminine image of the divine, but equally important at that time when I was learning to worship and work magic that I do so with my sisters only, in a group priestesshood.  I think many people seek to explore their spirituality with others with whom they identify.  Just as there is a Dianic Wicca, there is also Faggot Tradition Witchcraft.  There is, or at least has been, a Minoan Brotherhood, a Minoan Sisterhood, and a mixed-gender Minoan Fellowship, all kin under the overall aegis of Minoan Witchcraft.  At PantheaCon in past years, my gay male friends have left my company for a while in order to attend a gay men’s ritual.

There are circles organized around ethnic affinities, such as Celtic or Norse or Italian.  Some practitioners of Norse traditions believe that their spiritual path is suitable only for those with a Scandinavian ancestry.  There are also groups that have a particular cultural focus, like Kemetic or Hellenic, Welsh or Polish.  And while most of these paths look toward European ancestors, and Wicca itself originates in Britain, the fact that we now live in a rich multicultural, multiethnic country populated by people from the world over means that our Pagan religions are exposed to, and often informed by, other spiritual thinking and praxis.  Further, since contemporary Paganism, in the U.S. and elsewhere, is a new religious movement (“NRM”), having existed for fewer than 250 years, it remains for the most part free of orthodoxy and hard-line dogma.  Our Paganisms are alive and growing and changing, hopefully in meaningful ways that practitioners find satisfying.

There are circles with a political focus, such as eliminating domestic violence, opposition to nuclear power proliferation, or saving old-growth forests.  There are circles formed for a particular project, such as ritual theater, mask work, dance, a community garden or painting a neighborhood mural.  These groups may or may not be open to non-Pagans.[2]

I know there are some circles comprised of deaf people.  In those circles, invocations and all conversation are, as I understand it, done in Amislan.  I would imagine that there are other groups who use a language other than English[3]  Tara Miller maintains Staff of Asclepius, a blog about Pagans with disabilities. Perhaps there are Pagan groups for blind people or others who have different parameters than most.  We would also be wise to consider that many disabled folks have special abilities that are absent or uncommon among much of humanity.

In real life, though, most of us Pagans meet in smaller groups that foster intimacy and depth.  We come together around shared interests and sympatico as well as geographical proximity.  A group may include a blind person or perhaps someone with diabetes (a condition not visible to others).  However, the choice of whom to include is determined by the group itself and any egregore[4] it may have engendered.  The choice is not made in order to confirm the relative political correctness of the circle and its members.  (Or maybe with some groups it is. ??)  You circle with those you wish to worship and work magic with rather than according to any kind of PC quota.

Personal as Distinct from Civic

Then there is the matter of secrecy and mystery[5] as opposed to open public rites.  Many of us take to heart the words of the Star Goddess when she says,

Whenever you have need of anything, once a month, and better it be when the moon is full, you shall assemble in some secret place and adore the spirit of me who is Queen of all the Wise.

Is Craft a “mystery religion” as it has been described?  If so, then why offer rituals to the public at all?  Unlike mainstream religions that seek to convert everyone they encounter to their ways, Witchcraft has always been a religion of the few.  It is not the path for everyone, and that’s just fine.  Unfortunately, there are some among us who seem to feel the need to grow in numbers.  Expanding Craft and Paganism has never been my goal.  However, free access to sun and rain and nutrients to grow in society at large is important to me.  I don’t want us to feel we need to hide or to feel threatened by the more evangelical of the mainstream sects.  That is why I work in the interfaith arena.

This topic leads into determining distinctions between personal religion, that of the individual and/or family, and civic religion, that sanctioned by the state.[6]  During the Roman Empire, the state forbade the practice of a little mystery religion being formulated by followers of Jesus and now known as Christianity (in all its myriad iterations).  Our ancestors came here in order to practice their religions, nearly all of which were varieties of Christianity, free from interference.  When they joined to form a nation, they valued this freedom so much that they enshrined it in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, to wit:  “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” 

So we know we can practice any religion or no religion, but so far I don’t see that we’ve paid much attention to the distinctions between personal and civic.

Public Ritual/Private Ritual

I happen to believe that there is a place for public Pagan rituals.  It would be hypocritical of me to claim otherwise, since I have created, co-created, and participated in public rituals for my entire Witchen life.

However, that’s not to say I think every event should accommodate every single person in society.  Private rituals are just that – private.  Would you invite everyone in the neighborhood or in your town to share your evening meal with your family in your dining room at home?  I doubt it.  Would you wish to share you bedroom with anyone in search of a sleeping place?  Not likely.  So why should you feel obligated to share every circle experience, every worship service, every rite of passage, every seasonal celebration, every meditative experience with all comers?  Like everyone else, we love to share some family events, like a wedding, an Ostara egg hunt, or a Yule feast.


Boundaries have their place in this world.  They serve a useful purpose.  One of the powers of Air is discernment.  The blade is the tool with which, with precision and clarity, we can separate this from that.  Just as it’s not appropriate to share details of your personal sex life with the pubic, so, too, is it inappropriate to share every spiritual experience.  Aside from the intimate personal nature of spiritual phenomena, it’s also likely that others might have no understanding of what you’re attempting to share.

At this point in my life, generally speaking, I enjoy circling with women and men, as well as with people who have both conventional and unconventional sexual expressions.  This applies to both private and public rituals.  I welcome everyone except antagonists into public circles.  If an individual arrives and is unable to participate other than in a disruptive way, that person can be asked to leave.  She can be excluded from the meeting, be it public or private.

This is not to say there are circumstances when I believe a “sameness” circle might be appropriate.  An example is a menarche ritual for a young woman, the purpose of which is best served by limiting the “women’s mysteries” circle (assuming there may be a larger extended gathering for all those who are important in a girl’s life).  It’s not appropriate for everyone to attend an initiation ritual; that event would be limited to other initiates of that tradition.  Not open to students.  Not open to friends and family who aren’t also initiates of that trad.

Perhaps we might view each Pagan circle as a pebble in the pond, radiating out from its center and sending waves to the banks.  Each successive circle covers more water, and other circles meet and overlap with these primary circles.  Then, does the work get watered down?


I was reared in a Christian environment of propriety and piety, preaching and rules, shoulds and shouldn’ts.  All those standards of behavior were considered to be the right and proper conduct for everyone.  Christianity, whether Catholic or Protestant, was considered the one, true, right and only way.  In order to gather converts and bring others to a right way of thinking, i.e., to salvation in Jesus Christ, members of these churches need to evangelize.  This practice has always pissed me off.  I don’t want or need anyone else to tell me what to believe.  I resent anyone else telling me how to live.  Further, I have seen efforts to recruit being exploitative of people who may be damaged, weak, or in crisis or in some other ways compromised.  These are times when coercion is easier.  Quarry may be shamed in front of others in order to foster conversion, obedience, and conformity.

My activities in interfaith arenas have shown me that certainly all Christians are not like that.  But that was the pervading atmosphere of my childhood. 

So what happens when one finds a spiritual path that is on the fringes rather than of the mainstream of society?  What happens when one finds Craft or the Goddess or Coyote or Thoth?  Well, if we experience a genuine affinity to our new and freely chosen path, then we get excited.  How many times have you heard Pagans say, “I’m home.”  “I’ve found my people.”  We have a primal desire for tribe.  We are hardwired to need to belong.  For many that kind of excitement means that we want to share.  We want to tell our friends about our new understandings.  We express what I call “the zeal of the newly converted.”  As exciting as that is, it goes against the direction to “assemble in some secret place and adore me, who is queen of all the wise.”

There are reasons for discretion.  Not only in terms of threat from narrow-minded neighbors or employers, but for other reasons as well.  Because mystery is just that, mysterious, and cannot be adequately expressed but only approximated through the arts.  Because one’s relationship with the divine is an intimate one, not a public one.  Because others with set/ossified ideas cannot understand, nor do they desire to understand.  I’m sure you could cite reasons of your own.

But besides the desire to share our new understandings and enlightenment (or perhaps “endarkenment”), we are all products of the overculture.  We arose from within the social matrix that is America[7].  Our society is overwhelmingly Abrahamic, not Pagan or polytheistic or pantheistic or any other kind of theism than monotheism.  And that monotheism, in particular the latest iterations of Christianity and Islam, does seek to recruit others to their ways.  So here we are, in the midst of an evangelical culture, accustomed to people making declarations about their religion, and moved to tell others about our religion(s), and yet we find this at the very least imprudent to do.  Before we stop to ponder, we think, “Of course I want to proclaim my joy.”  Then we reconsider.

I think it’s perfectly understandable that one might want to share one’s excitement with others, because of our common incubation in a conversion-oriented overculture.  Add to that the “bigger is better” values fostered by consumerism.  So what do we do?  Well, each of us does what she is called to do.  May you find counsel, as I do, in Paula Walowitz’s words[8]:

Blessed be and blessed are the ones who stand together.
Blessed be and blessed are the ones who stand alone.
Blessed be and blessed are the ones who work in silence.
Blessed be and blessed are the ones who shout and scream.
Blessed be and blessed are the movers and the shakers.
Blessed be and blessed are the dreamers and the dream.

© Aline O’Brien

[1]   For convenience in this essay I’ll be using the word “circle” for all kinds of Pagan groups, whether worship and magic-working circles or not.
[2]   People newer to Pagan paths, particularly to Wicca and Witchcraft, there is a word for those who do not practice Craft.  The word is “cowan,” from the Masonic term for a non-initiate.  The word cowan is parallel with gentile, in that a gentile is someone who is not Jewish and a cowan is someone who is not Craft.  Having said that, I have encountered people whose family name is Cowan, yet who themselves are Pagan, who dislike this term.  If someone knows, or can come up with, a better term, I’m ready to use it.  I find the word “non-Pagan” awkward and imprecise.  Then again, cowan refers to non-Witches (specifically, uninitiated Witches, but not to non-Druids or non-any other form of Paganism.
[3]   I write primarily for English-speaking American readers, since I have no facility with any other language.
[4]   “Psychologically speaking, an Egregore is that ‘atmosphere’ or ‘personality’ that develops among groups independent of any of its members. … In an occult or magical context, an Egregore is the general imprint that encircles a group entity.  It is the summary of the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual energies generated by two or more people vibrating together towards the same goal; being a sub-product of our personal and collective creative process as co-creators of our reality.”  From “The Real Meaning of Egregore.” 
[5]   Check back for my thoughts on secrecy, mystery, confidentiality and privacy.
[6]   My thoughts about personal versus civic religions await expression at a later date.
[7]   Or other presumably privileged modern society.
[8]   From the song “She’s Been Waiting” as interpreted by Lunacy.


Pagan In Paradise said...

Well written and thought out post. While reading it aand internally agreeing with it's point, I became uncomfortable with the potential for the arguments to be used in support of positions that are more extreem. By stating the acceptability of exclusivity one engages the risk of supporting those who woulf exclude based on race, sexual identity, gender identity, etc

There is a fine lne between "birds of a feather flocking together" and expressions of repressive "othering. While I think you personally have done a fine job of dealing with the subject, I hope what otherd ttake away is not an endorcment of discrimination.

Lots of love and light to you my friend

Broomstick Chronicles said...

Thanks for your comments, Peter

Yes, there is a fine line, and it's called discernment, not discrimination. And choice. (Perhaps I need to ponder the meanings of those two words in another blog.)

I know I'm risking attack from people who either don't read carefully, who have a different agenda, or who disagree with my stance. They are free to do that.

In other words, I think it's fine to exclude people for any reason a small group wants to.

One of my wonders is why anyone would want to circle with people who remain aloof from one because they really don't want to be there doing whatever it is they're doing with that person. I prefer my circles to be of the warm, fuzzy variety. I don't want to feel I have to have my guard up. I want to feel safe, loved and respected, which does not necessarily mean entirely in agreement with everyone there.

I want to work with friends, although we may not have been friends initially because we didn't know each other well enough. In my life, ideally public rituals would be open to all. Private working circles are another matter.

Private circles experience strife at times, and they work it out however they work it out. Sometimes it means someone might leave.

OTOH, some disagreement, even heated disagreement, can refine our theology and praxis. It can inject new energy into a group, jostle it out of complacency. It can bring strength, nuance, and increased solidarity.

Ash McSidhe said...

Excellent piece! I especially like these two questions, which provide much food for thought: "Is Craft a “mystery religion” as it has been described? If so, then why offer rituals to the public at all?"

This quandary is a part of why our coven withdrew from public rituals and the larger community several years ago, as we try to answer them for ourselves.

Yes, the lines between discernment, discrimination and choice are extremely fine and often blurred, and it takes all of one's discernment to ensure which side of the line(s) one happens to be on at any given moment. I have rarely attended public rituals in part because there are people present in them I do not feel comfortable being in circle with (choice) and there are some with whom I WILL NOT Circle - I hope that that is my discernment and not an unconscious discrimination, as it generally involves specific individuals, rather than an entire class or grouping of people.

As one who belongs to a group that is frequently marginalized and:/or excluded (transgender), I know what a difficult decision and process that can be.

And thank you also for that brief excerpt from "She's Been Waiting", I never knew from whom those words came until now, although I have the two Lunacy cassette tapes.

Anonymous said...

Fine writing, Macha. I don't believe Paganism needs to be open to all, only to those who are called to it.

I also believe any particular circle has the right to limit its membership. Hopefully those decisions will be made on an individual basis, and not by discrimination against any particular race, age, gender, creed, or any other group.

Todd Berntson said...

You touched on a lot of points in your post, most of which I wholeheartedly agree. There were two points that I am not quite sure where I stand.

The first is the idea that making rites public and including large numbers of people may be inconsistent with experiencing spiritual mystery. While I have often experienced a general lack of spiritual intensity in most public rituals, I have to wonder how much of that is due to context and lack of experience. We are situated in a culture that does not generally support Pagan ritual. Hence, there is a necessary guardedness that most Pagans experience when doing identifiable ritual work in public.

The consequence of this is that most public Pagan rituals, that I have attended anyway, seem to lack power and are little more than rattle and stomp in witchy garb. Although I was not there, I am sure that many participants in the Kumbh Mela in India had a very moving and powerful experience even though it was in public with millions of people.

The second is on the evangelizing point. I think there is a difference between evangelizing and creating awareness. Alcoholics Anonymous is a good example. They don't go into bars telling everyone to stop drinking and come to an AA meeting. However, they do a lot of public awareness work to promote the idea that there is an alternative to living with addiction.

Most people are aware of the desperate situation of our planet. If we don't change the way in which we relate to the world in which we live, humanity and many other species may not survive much longer. Modern Paganism offers an alternative way to understand this relationship that, in my opinion, is more sustainable. With the stakes so high, does it make sense to remain secretive? I don't have the answer to that, but it's a question that I often ponder.

Great stuff! Talk to you soon.