The gang’s all here in this great group photo. Well, almost, actually a couple of people are missing. One is Bruce Stanley, because he was taking the picture, the other is Phil Ryder of the Druid Network, who mysteriously vanished. Phil’s partner, Lynda, commented about being in the presence of so much Pagan royalty. This confused nearby Christian delegates who had, of course, never heard of any of us! This gathering, which took place at the Ammerdown Centre in Somerset, was so densely packed that I’m going to have to spread it over three or four blogs. Here’s the first…
Day One, January 31st 2014
This gathering was a great opportunity to catch up with old friends in the Druid, Pagan and Christian communities and, hopefully, make some new ones. What remains to be seen is whether it will prove to be more than that. From the discussions that took place, both formally and informally, the possibilities are certainly there. What was it all about? Well, the letter of invitation from Ammerdown’s director, Benedicte Scholefield, explains it as follows:
“Our ambition is to bring together a select group of Pagans and Christians who share a concern for the future of the planet and an interest in dialogue. Our feeling is that there are many misunderstandings and fears on both sides that divide us and prevent us from working together on common environmental concerns. Our planned conversation aims to encourage a fresh dialogue that would tackle these misunderstandings and fears, and hopefully open up avenues for continuing dialogue and for joint actions.”
As one of the aforementioned friends, Philip Carr-Gomm, Chief of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), pointed out during his presentation, dialogue between Christians and Druids is by no means new, having been going on for at least 300 years. The ‘Celebrating Planet Earth’ event is, then, an extension of a long-standing tradition within Druidry. It certainly proved a rewarding way to spend a Gwyl Forwyn weekend. Gwyl Forwyn, ‘The Feast of the Maiden,’ is the Welsh name for the festival known in Ireland as Imbolc and in England as Candlemas, but more of that later.
Our moderator for the talks and the discussions that followed them was Denise Cush (left), Professor of Religion and Education at Bath Spa University. She was also our first speaker, her topic being, ‘Setting the Scene: What are the Issues and Challenges that We Face?‘
Denise began by saying that she has engaged both practically and academically with Christianity, Paganism and a range of other spiritual paths. As a member of the Religious Education Council of England and Wales, she has advocated the inclusion of Paganism in Religious Studies Curricula in schools. She spoke of the use of unhelpful terminology and stereotyping that has often created barriers between Pagans and Christians. The very use of the term, Witch, being an obvious example since its traditional connotations are those of people who use magic to harm others. She then spoke of the often unfortunate history of engagements between the two paths, with Pagan Roman emperors instituting measures to reduce the spread of Christianity, up to and including killing Christians in a variety of unpleasant ways, while, when Christianity became the dominant Roman religion, it then acted in much the same way against Pagans.
She then addressed the issue of mythical histories, such as the widely-held but entirely false belief that 9 million mainly female adherents of a genuinely ancient Witch cult were put to death in Europe during what has become known among modern Pagans as ‘The Burning Times,’ largely due to an oft-repeated pagan song of that name, which has led to images like the one here being downloadable from Pagan websites. In fact, the numbers put to death during Witch trials across the whole of Europe was somewhere between 13 and 40 thousand, and they were not descendants of an ancient religion with origins in the Neolithic era but mainly people whose neighbours condemned them as Witches in order to get back at or dispose of people they didn’t like. We were, incidentally, offered a rendition of ‘The Burning Times,’ and Christians and Pagans united in declining the offer. Meanwhile, from the Christian side comes the equally prevalent misunderstanding that Paganism is equal to Satanism, missing the point that Satan is an aspect of Christian myth that doesn’t really exist in the Bible but is largely a creation of medieval Christianity.
Denise raised the common habit amongst Pagans of defining themselves in relation to the prevailing Christian culture, often doing so from an understanding of Christianity that is unaware of changes that have happened within it over recent decades. A specific result of this is the oft-repeated Pagan statement that “Western, patriarchal religions do not consider Nature or the environment” (Sally Griffyn, Wiccan Wisdomkeepers: Modern-Day Witches Speak on Environmentalism, Feminism, Motherhood, Wiccan Lore and More, 2002). While Paganism has been referred to as “the Green Party at prayer,” Christianity remains identified by Pagans with the scriptural notion of man being given dominion over the Earth and all its (her) creatures. The Pagan Federation website describes Paganism as “polytheistic or pantheistic, Nature-worshipping religion.” Against which is the archaeological evidence that ancient pagans were just as capable of damaging the Earth as we are, albeit on a more localised scale, being fewer in number and lacking technology. Meanwhile, many modern Christians have embraced the concept of ‘Creation spirituality‘ as a foundation for their own engagement in environmental activism. Her conclusion here was that both Christians and Pagans engage with the environment both theologically and practically, or, of course, don’t.
She then raised the contentious question of whether perhaps there are elements in both Paganism and Christianity that actually quite like the idea of being persecuted. Equally controversially, she raised the question of whether the Earth might be better served by humanists.
On the subject of selective or elective identities, Denise pointed to the adoption of the romantic myth of the spiritual, ecological Celt by both Pagans, especially Druids, and Christians, leading both groups to identify themselves as, in some sense, ‘Celtic,’ even when they have no obvious, direct blood-lines amongst existing Celtic nations and when the concept of the Celt employed by both groups is often based more on imagination that actuality. This reminded me of another old friend, Marion Bowman, senior lecturer at the Open University, who came up with the tag, ‘Cardiac Celt,’ to characterise such folk, I myself arguably falling into this category. Similarly romantic notions of other indigenous peoples are also prevalent amongst both Pagans and Christians.
Denise then turned to the commonalities between us, which she characterised as the shared values of love and compassion, a dislike for rules, the immanence of the sacred, the value of ritual or ceremony, the celebration of festival times (often the same festival times), and activism on a range of social and environmental issues inspired by our spiritualities.
She also addressed borrowings between our paths, suggesting that the kind of ‘deep Green’ ecology that emerged as a part of Paganism during the second half of the 20th century was a source of inspiration behind the Greening of Christianity that led to ‘Creation spirituality.’ In the other direction, she suggested that there are aspects of Pagan practice and theology that draw on Christian ideas and practices, acknowledging that some of those may have been ‘borrowed’ from earlier pagans.
Denise concluded by offering as shared values that could inform our discussions those of generosity, humility and wisdom and by asking, when this weekend together reached its end, where do we go next and how do we build on what’s been shared?
The Evening Ceremony:
At 9.30pm, our colourful group of Christians, Druids and Pagans trooped out of the main building to celebrate Gwyl Forwyn, Imbolc, Candlemas, or whatever your preferred name is. In Ireland and Scotland, and amongst many Pagans throughout Britain, this seasonal festival is associated with the Gaelic Brighid, widely accepted as a Pagan goddess whose veneration was partially or wholly displaced by reverence for an Irish saint of the same name. In Gaelic regions, she is known as the foster-mother of Christ, traditionally treated with a reverence reserved in other areas for the Virgin Mary, Jesus’s mother. As a bridge between Pagan and Christian traditions, and as it was her festival time, Brighid was to be a focus of our ceremony, music and meditation over the weekend, including this one in the chapel at Ammerdown (left), its high, pyramid-shaped timber roof offering excellent acoustics. Druids, Pagans and Christians all tend to celebrate this festival in similar ways, lighting candles, bringing in snowdrops if they’re out in time, invoking the spirit of Brighid, all as a way of welcoming the first stirrings of new life emerging from the earth as light begins to return to the land and the days lengthen following Midwinter’s long night.
The ceremony was compiled and led by Alison Eve (right) and Paul Cudby, co-founders of the recently-established Forest Church, a concept derived from Bruce Stanley‘s observation that almost every fellow Christian he asked said that their first connections with spirit had occurred in response to some aspect of the natural world, most often woodland. Bruce was also present for the weekend. The ceremony included the lighting of a central candle on a low, circular altar decorated with sparkling white, silica-rich stones of a type often found incorporated into megalithic structures, and with emblems of the four elemental quarters; feathers in the East, red wood and stone in the South, a goblet of water at the West and, of course, stones in the North. We were encouraged to join in with Gaelic chants invoking Brighid and aspects of the natural world, led by Alison. A chalice was passed around containing a mix of herbs, grain, milk and whisky, along with baked bannocks. It was well-planned to give those Pagans among us a sense of familiarity. It was also reasonably short and to the point, something Pagan rites sometimes fail to achieve. At the end of the rite, Ali took the remaining food and drink outside to offer it to the Earth.
I was sufficiently impressed with the chapel’s acoustics to want to try them out myself later, so I headed across with a yew-wood flute and my drum. I arrived just as one of the Centre’s staff was emerging, having turned out the lights and extinguished the candle on the altar, which I had thought was supposed to be left burning throughout the weekend. She put the lights back on for me, relit the candle, and asked me to extinguish it again before I left.
Sure enough, the acoustics were extremely good. The flute sounded wonderful, its sound filling the building. I unpacked my drum bag and, starting in the East, invoked the four quarters using my rawhide rattle, itself having feathers of eagle and buzzard attached to it as well as, inevitably, a piece of wolf fur. South, West, North and back to the East to complete the circle. Then the drum. Having begun with my accustomed heartbeat, I slid into the wolf-chant that had come to me twenty years ago. It was good.
Afterwards, I put out the candle as instructed. Of course, I later discovered that, as I’d thought, the intention had been to leave it burning, it was just that this message had not got to the Centre’s staff. It was relit subsequently, and left burning.
Thence to the bar, where stimulating conversation, much of it related to our purpose in being there, continued until 1.30am. Then to my room, finally calming my racing mind enough to sleep at about 3am. It was a promising first evening, and the next day there were scheduled talks from Graham Harvey (Pagan animist), Steve Hollinghurst (Church Army – a name he finds embarrassing), Philip Carr-Gomm (Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids) and Simon Howell (Interfaith Advisor for the Bath and Wells Diocese). It seemed were in for a good day. I’ll see you there…