My niece Sabrina gave me a marvellous gift yesterday. It was an invitation to visit a Wiccan coven in the outskirts of Decatur, Georgia, as they were preparing to celebrate the Full Moon. Wicca is a branch of modern Paganism, but as someone who studies one of the ‘new religions’ of the Roman Empire – Early Christianity – I suspected that their community might be in many ways very similar to that of the early Christians – an informal group that is growing and evolving through ties of friendship and shared spiritual values, not always knowing where the path will lead.
I often envy scholars of modern religions for their opportunity to talk to the people whose faiths they study – to have a chance to try out ideas and to ask for explanations. I also love the way practitioners of different religions tend to be willing to speak quite openly to scholars about their beliefs and values – there is always a sort of unspoken treaty that no one has to worry about which path is better – and yet there is often a fascinating sense of connection, of different ways of reaching toward the same light. So I felt it was a great stroke of good fortune to speak with modern Pagans about the problems that might have been encountered by ‘my’ early Christians.
It was early evening when the High Priest, Lord Bear, welcomed us to the Coven Stead, a disarmingly simple house in a lovely woodland area. We walked together back into the woods to find his High Priestess, Lady Arsinoe. Lord Bear is a thoughtful, quiet and deeply intelligent person, someone who seems as if in another life he might be a college professor – though as I come to think of it he may actually be a college professor as his ‘day job’. (It wasn’t a conversation where that kind of thing seemed to matter.) Lady Arsinoe, by contrast, is just the kind of person whom you might expect if you imagined a pagan priestess. There is a radiant quality about her. She is not at all pretentious, but there is something magical about her warm manner and silvery laugh, as well as her evident desire to find a connection to the person she is speaking with. It seems to be a wonderful partnership – they are a long-married couple with a grown-up daughter, and yet you can see that they still feel lucky to be in each other’s company after all these years.
The two were kind enough to show us the clearing in the wood where they have drawn the Circle for their ritual and set their altar. The soft air of what had been a rainy afternoon was becoming luminous with the approach of twilight, and it seemed to make perfect sense that this was a place you would come to in order to learn from the book of Nature.
It seemed that within seconds, we were talking as old friends. We quickly discovered that as children we had had a shared love for the D’Aulaires, the Italian-Norwegian authors of the lovely picture-books Greek Myths and Norse Gods and Giants. As a displaced Southerner who has spent my adulthood in the North of England, I found it fascinating, as I listened to Lady Arsinoe, how the shared cadences of southern story-telling created a feeling of ‘homeliness’ in the what was actually a wonderfully cross-cultural conversation.
I admired the expansive feeling that my hosts seemed to have, that their religion was a framework that allowed them to find connections between old and new cultures. The idea seemed to be to draw on a variety of ancient cultures to create new rituals of their own – to search, quite simply, for what speaks to the heart. I am fairly sure that if I had spoken to a different priest and priestess, I might have come away with a different sense of how it all fits together. But creativity – and respect for the differing visions of others – seems to be part of the idea.
And yet I know from history that movements based on small and independent affinity groups often have difficulty reconciling the differing practices that arise from this freedom and creativity. This is especially true when groups have to discover where boundaries lie – what ideas are belong to ‘us’ and where do you draw the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’?
This is a question that caused enormous problems for the Christians of the early centuries, so I was very interested to learn from Lady Arsinoe and Lord Bear how they handle it. Intriguingly, their thinking on the subject was not so far from what the apostle Paul has to say in his first letter to the Corinthians. (The core idea seems to be about not letting egos get in the way.)
I was also deeply interested to hear how the coven handles the problem of being a misunderstood minority within their locality. They are often seen as an ‘outsider community’ by people who know nothing about them. This question prompted some laughter – i was clearly not the first person to ask this question. In fact, a scholar who works on new religious movements has written a fascinating article about their surprisingly positive relationship with the Baptist Church next to the Coven Stead. The title tells it all: ‘You’ve Always Been Wonderful Neighbors‘. But on a more serious note, I came away with the feeling that there might be a spiritual silver lining to the difficulties of the ‘outsider’ role at times. It is much harder to fall into complacency when you are constantly reminded that others view you with suspicion.
Night was falling when we got to this point in the conversation, so my hosts had other responsibilities to attend to. We left them to prepare for their ritual in the moonlight. And we made our way home feeling that Lady Fortune might have smiled on us during our time together, and on the idea of modern Pagans discovering that they had something in common with ancient Christians.