Ammerdown Centre, Somerset
Day Two, February 1st 2014
Our afternoon session was on the theme of Celtic Connections and was opened by Simon Howell, interfaith officer for the diocese of Bath and Wells. Howell is, of course, an honest-to-goodness, proper Celtic name. On first seeing Simon at the conference, my assumption was that he was part of the Pagan group; shaven head, mainly black clothing, great line in cool t-shirts, etc. Indeed, looking at one of the group photos from the event, one Pagan friend commented that, twenty years ago, you could tell the Christians from the Pagans really easily. Simon’s look was explained by his revelation of having been a drummer in various bands. He spoke of holding a drum workshop at Ammerdown with a group consisting of Christians, Jews and Muslims. In a fine tribute to the bardic aspect of our traditions, he said that a transcendent moment of the workshop came at its end when all joined in singing the great pacifist anthem of the anti-Vietnam War protest movement, ‘We Shall Overcome,’ most famously performed on record by the peerless Pete Seeger.
He said that interfaith dialogue often worked through telling each other stories of a Golden Age when the groups involved got on well together. In this context, Simon quoted John Michell, author of The View Over Atlantis and many other works, referring to Druids as setting the scene for the coming of Christianity and as being a sort of spiritual fore-runner to it. He endeared himself to me further by then quoting my old friend, Ronald Hutton, on the same topic, saying that, far from being a time of harmony, the change of faith in Europe was fraught with difficulties, tensions and hostilities, with Roman Christians evincing an extreme dislike for pagans of all flavours. Simon quoted Ronald as describing John Michell as a visionary and romantic, both of which are admirable things to be.
Simon concluded his talk by expressing the widespread opinion, shared by both Pagans and Christians, that the modern age “lacks transcendence,” but that this may be reintroduced into our lives by stories, through which we may be “lifted through the veil and reach the peace of the Otherworld.”
Our second speaker in the afternoon session was another old friend, Philip Carr-Gomm, who began by explaining that interfaith dialogue between Druids and Christians is by no means new, going back at least three centuries. Indeed, many of the founding fathers (and yes, they were all men) of some branches of modern Druidry were Christian ministers. Iolo Morganwg, founder of the Welsh Gorsedd, of which the Queen and former archbishop, Rowan Williams, are members, authored a number of popular Christian hymns. He explained that Iolo’s Druidry represented what might be called a cultural Druidry. He suggested that the Ancient Order of Druids, of which Winston Churchill was a member, represented a similarly cultural rather than spiritual take on Druidry, and one that is essentially Christian.
Ross Nichols, who founded OBOD in 1964, was what Philip called “a questioning Christian,” an ordained deacon of a group called the Ancient Celtic Church. It may surprise many to know that, as Philip went on to say, Nichols’ friend, Gerald Gardner, the father of modern Witchcraft, was also an ordained deacon of the related Ancient British Church.
Philip then asked “Is our conversation an appropriate one to be having?” He quoted the composer, John Taverner, as saying that “the mature religions are dying.” He also asked whether it was appropriate for Pagans to be looking back to the past for inspiration, suggesting that it might be moreso if we were doing it to slough off the accretions of the past and start afresh.
He spoke of aspects of contemporary Christianity that he saw as feeding back into Paganism as well as attempting to work alongside Pagans, suggesting that the two represent distinct and separate paths that can yet be combined. He said that he felt the overlap between Christianity and Druidry in particular was a potentially fertile one, and that the existing overlap could be strengthened through a shared concern for things like growing our own food, reverencing the Earth and celebrating the cycle of the seasons. He added that such collaborations already exist, citing as an example his own regular cooperation with a local vicar in staging celebrations of the eightfold festival cycle on Firle Beacon in Sussex, celebrations that attract both Pagans and Christians.
He then spoke of a group called the Celtic Orthodox Church which consists of Christian Druids who live completely “off the grid” in woodland in Brittany, growing their own food, generating their own power, etc. They are a proper community, ranging in age from infants to OAPs. They are inspired by the example of Saint Francis and “came out” publicly as Druids only last year (2013), following which Philip gave them a talk on the Wheel of the Year. Philip suggested that similar communities might be possible that put Druidry to the foreground but had Christianity in the background, ending his presentation by saying that he now felt we had reached a point at which combining various traditions is possible.
And so to dinner, followed by our evening music session, led by Forest Church alumni, Alison Eve and Paul Cudby, whose band is called Eve in the Garden. Ali plays harp, Paul percussion, and they’re augmented by guitar and bass. Their music is a lively blend of traditional folk style with Christian lyrics, though thankfully not of the typical happy-clappy variety. In breaks in their set were the guest slots, one of which I blagged to perform a few of my songs, ‘Song at Wodnesbeorg,’ ‘My Lady of the Greenwood,’ and ‘Lord of the Wildwood.’ The latter includes a wolf chant that came to me about twenty years ago that ends in wild howling. I was pleased to note that both Christians and Pagans were joining in with this enthusiastically.
And so, having been gently, kindly and very charmingly evicted from the bar for being just a wee bit too noisy a wee bit too late, to bed, just in time for …
Day Three: Sunday, February 2nd
On Sunday morning most of us trooped off into the soggy, cold parkland surrounding the Centre for a ritual, again led by Alison and Paul. This reminded me of many Druid ceremonies in that we all had printed service sheets, laminated due to the weather, clutching which we all stood in a cold circle not moving much. I was distracted by the sight of a huge, phallus-like concrete monument rising from a hillside a little way off. I have to admit that every time the word ‘god’ was used in the ceremony I found myself quietly adding an ‘s’. This reminded me again of the fact that I’d have liked to have seen the weekend’s ceremonies jointly composed and conducted by Christians, Druids and Pagans. Something to bear in mind for next time…
Following on from this, our final session was appropriately entitled “Better Together.”
Opening this session was Tess Ward, who said that in prayer, “all is one and only love remains,” a statement that immediately endeared her to me. She said that we face a spiritual and environmental crisis, the latter having been responsible for bringing spirituality and environmental concerns back together. Tess was ordained as a Christian minister in 2000 while she was, as she said, “in a literal and metaphorical dark wood.” She spoke of mystical Christianity as representing a way out of the dark wood, adding the telling phrase that “through religion and out the other side is the divine.”
She spoke of female spirituality not being obvious in the established church. She now runs a Pagan women’s circle in Oxford in which she is the only Christian. They meet in the open air with fires, “poetry, silence and Nature.”
She expressed a feeling that “the church needs to die before it can be reborn,” and that one aspect of this had to be facing “the dark shadow” that Christianity has cast over history. She then led the Christians present in speaking a lament regretting the divisions and brokenness of the past, asking forgiveness and help to make good. While this was obviously heartfelt, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a Native American woman who once launched into a tirade of complaints directed at myself and Emma Restall Orr in which she blamed us for every evil Europeans had ever foisted upon her people. While we both share her anger at Europeans’ historical treatment of Native Americans, neither of us felt that we were personally to blame for it.
Tess then spoke of Christ as a source of union. Again, while I can see where this might be true if you look at the recorded actions and sayings of Jesus himself, many of those who have historically presented themselves as his followers have been responsible for fuelling all manner of hatreds, divisions and even genocides.
She spoke of not pushing our own traditions onto others, but working with others towards “a healing and love beyond ourselves,” adding that “the miracle is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment.”
Our last speaker was Liz Williams, a Glastonbury-based Druid who runs the town’s Witchcraft Shop, who began by saying that we had to lay aside the myth of ‘The Burning Times’ with its erroneous claim that nine million witches were burnt.
She then made what was, to me at least, the contentious claim that we have no structure for analysing the validity of spiritually-inspired claims. In Druidry, at least as we teach it in the British Druid Order, we make such judgements based on the creative output of our students. Central to our path is the creative spirit we call awen. Students on our bardic course create art based on their connection with awen and the art thus produced gives us a basis on which to judge the strength and quality of their link with awen. OK, art itself is prone to subjective judgements, and yet it is still a basis on which judgement can be made.
Liz went on to say that she feels the idea of humans as “guardians of the Earth” is anthropocentric, egotistical and wrong. She then spoke of our perceptions of various faith groups as being monolithic structures all members of which are in agreement, pointing out that Glastonbury Witches are constantly at odds with each other. She said that “cult behaviour” was rare amongst Pagans due to our largely responsible leaders who we don’t put on pedestals.
On the downside, she spoke of links between some threads of Paganism and far right and nationalist groups, of Pagans damaging and littering sacred sites, of many Pagans having no conception of the Country Code, and of the natural tendency of internet groups to generate rows, a tendency as prevalent amongst Pagans as anyone else.
On the plus side, Liz spoke of an increase in the debate of ethical issues amongst Pagans, particularly those connected with the ways in which we relate to our environment. She spoke of Pagan involvement with actions against badger culls and fracking. She cited the writer, Richard Mabey, as influential in promoting the idea of re-connecting with Nature as a cure for depression.
In the closing round-table session, many points from the various talks were picked up. Simon Howell, for example, shared my problem with the list of past faults Tess Ward had encouraged the Christians in the room to voice, stating simply that “We are not responsible for some of the things on that list.” He also expressed concerns about the speakers who had been critical of the role of scientists in disenchanting Nature, saying that science was fuelled by a sense of wonder and enchantment. Liz Williams said that Pagans find enchantment in Paganism, but also in science fiction and fantasy.
Philip Carr-Gomm asked what people thought of what has been described as the “pick and mix” attitude towards religion. Graham Harvey said that, as a religious scholar, he felt that religion had always been “pick and mix.” Marcus Small differentiated belonging to a particular group from having a sense of kinship with other groups.
Graham Harvey pointed out that not all gods are nice.
We all, I think, felt the need to end on a positive note. When we hear of renewed tensions between opposing Christian factions in Northern Ireland or continuing murder between Jews and Palestinians in the Middle East, it is all too easy to despair of the power of spirituality to better anything, and yet these same things encourage me to thank the gods – all of them – for those who are willing to engage in interfaith dialogues, to look beyond outward appearances that potentially divide us to the fundamental human qualities that can unite us, one of which is an appreciation of the sheer magic of being alive, a magic that, as many of our weekend’s speakers confirmed, is most commonly felt by Christian and Pagan alike in the presence of natural beauty.
In this weekend there were things I would have done differently. Minor matters aside though, it was an enjoyable and interesting few days. It seems likely that more will flow from it. Plans for a book have already been announced. Working groups to address specific joint ventures have been proposed. I would love to see joint ceremonies, perhaps joint pilgrimages, as well as combined approaches to ecological concerns and pacifism flow from these.
No doubt there will be problems and stumbling blocks as we make our way forward. There are people in both Christian and Pagan communities who will despise us for the very act of engaging in dialogue with each other. Personally, I agree with the Druid, Winston Churchill, who maintained that “to jaw jaw is always better than to war war.”
With thanks to all who took part for sharing so much with such intelligence, warmth and good humour, and looking forward to the next time,
Incidentally, when I first began publishing my thoughts on interfaith dialogue in the mid-90s in Pagan Dawn and elsewhere, a Liverpool-based Pagan group published a leaflet calling me “Archbishop Shallcrass” and accusing me of trying to convert all Pagans to Christianity. While I appreciated the promotion (and would certainly appreciate the regular income and the place in the House of Lords), if I wielded such powers of persuasion, rather than use them to convert everyone to a faith that is not my own, I would use it to encourge all Pagans to sign up for the amazingly wonderful BDO courses. Is that just a shameless excuse to plug our courses again? Of course it is!