In our increasingly materialistic world, an ethical question that plagues many of us who try to live as persons of spirit is that of whether, and how much, to charge for our services. A vocal section of the Druid and Pagan communities in Britain maintains that it is always wrong, verging on evil, to charge a fee for anything connected with spirituality. A cynic might argue that some who express this opinion do so because they expect to be given everything in life and to offer nothing in return. However, the same argument rages amongst Druids themselves, as it does amongst other indigenous healers, medicine people and shamans around the world.
The problem is that we live in a capitalist, consumerist culture, where, like everyone else, we have to pay rent or a mortgage, electricity, gas, water and telephone bills, feed ourselves and our families, buy fuel for our stoves, clothes to wear and so on and on and endlessly on. To do so, even the most spiritual of us need money, because, for better or worse, money has come to be the accepted means of exchange for virtually every material thing we need to keep us fed, housed and clothed. Therefore we need a way to make money in order to live.
Many spirit workers subsidise their spirituality by having other jobs that they do to earn their keep. I've done this myself, subsidising the growth of the BDO throughout the 1990s out of my earnings from painting pottery and then from writing, giving talks and workshops and appearing on TV, often with Bobcat (Emma Restall Orr). Bobcat and I debated the financial question and reached various conclusions, one of which was not to charge a fee for 'priestly' services such as conducting handfastings (Druid weddings) or other rites of passage, but to ask for a donation of whatever the folk we were working with thought appropriate. This led to us preparing and conducting rites in various parts of the country for anything from a bag of apples to a cheque for £600. It balanced out. This is a technique used by spirit workers in many cultures.
Many of my 'shamanic' friends say that, if you have faith, spirit will provide. Again, this is a widespread belief amongst spirit workers worldwide. At the same time, we're all canny enough to recognise that just sitting around waiting for riches to pour out of the sky isn't going to work. We need to be active participants in the process, from deciding on the forms ceremonies are to take to making travel arrangements and booking venues.
In the British Druid Order, we charge for the distance learning courses we offer. We could give them away, but we don't. Why? Well, I've spent an average of about 40 hours a week working on them over the last seven years and still have at least another eighteen months to go. For six of those years I received nothing at all for this work. Even at the national minimum wage of £6.32 an hour, I could have expected to earn over £75,000 or £12,500 a year. I did it without payment because it seemed like the right thing to do and it was also a good thing to do, in part because of what I learned from it and gained in terms of personal growth. Oh, and because I doubt that the BDO has generated £75,000 in its entire 35-year existence.
Following my wife's death in 2000, I received financial support that enabled me to put in all these hours on the courses whilst bringing up our two sons. Only when that support ended did I, out of necessity, begin to draw any payment from the BDO. Given that the BDO courses are relatively new (our first went online in June 2011) and unknown (we only began to advertise beyond our own websites when our second course went online in 2012), the BDO does not produce much revenue and the amount I draw from it comes nowhere near covering my family's living costs. As I write, myself and two of my sons are living on my savings. I keep working on these courses, however, because I believe in them, and part of that belief is that they will one day generate a living wage sufficient to keep me through my rapidly approaching old age.
My BDO colleagues and I spent about a year and a half deciding how much to charge for our courses. Should we charge a token amount just to cover admin? Should we charge the same as OBOD? No, because our digital delivery doesn't entail anything like the overheads and secretarial costs that OBOD has. But pitch our cost too far below OBOD's and we risk upsetting people who might think we were deliberately trying to undercut them. In the end, we settled on a compromise figure that more-or-less satisfied everyone, and we do consider requests for reduced fees in cases of genuine financial hardship.
How much to charge for individual events is also a cause of much debate within the BDO. My parents never had much money, I was raised to be frugal and, in my hippy youth, lived for some time on nothing but the kindness of strangers. The result was the malnutrition that contributed to my mental breakdown at the age of 18, but that's another story 😉 As I've tried to make clear, my motives for being a Druid are not financial. I'm reminded of Robin Williamson's joke, “Did you hear about the Irishman who became a folk musician for the money?” Druidry is not a cash cow. However, if they're well-planned and conceived, Druid events can make a bit, or at least break even. When Elaine Gregory and I, ably assisted by many wonderful friends and colleagues, hosted The World Drum in April 2013, we took it to ceremonies all around the West and South-West of Britain for six weeks, culminating in a wonderful weekend at Wild Ways in Shropshire. Most of the ceremonies were free. Two events were charged for. At the end of the time the Drum was with us, we managed to break even and were delighted to do so.
Part of the reason we were able to charge so little for the World Drum 2013 events is that many of our teachers and musicians gave their services for nothing, including World Drum founders, Kyrre Franck White Cougar and Morten Wolf Storeide, and their friends, Lena Paalviig Johnsen and Will Rubach, who travelled over from Norway at their own expense to bring us the amazing Chaga ceremony and to be with us in other ceremonies with the Drum.
In May this year, White, Morten and Lena are coming back, accompanied by Bobby Kure and Anita Dreyer, members of the shamanic band, Baalfolket. This time we hope to make a few quid. We obviously need to in order to cover the hire of two venues, travel expenses and other basic costs, but we also want to be able to pay the guys something for coming over to the UK for 12 days. Like us, they have to have money to live. I even hope to make a few quid myself to compensate for the many hours work involved in putting these events together, producing leaflets, visiting venues, generating advertising. And why not? If I were doing these things in any other sphere of activity, no one would bat an eyelid at my being paid a reasonable sum for my time and expertise.
Why then do I still feel vaguely guilty about it? Partly, it's a hangover from my impoverished youth, partly it's because I view the whole capitalist enterprise as deeply and irrevocably flawed. It rewards the basest of human motives, relying on the vast majority of the world's population having next to nothing so that a tiny, obscenely wealthy minority can lord it over the rest of us. It stinks. No wonder I feel guilty. It baffles me that anyone doesn't. And yet, as said, until we demand and get a better, purer, more equitable way of running human affairs, my family and I need money to live.
For most of the existence of classical Druidry, of course, we were supported by the warrior aristocracy of Iron Age Europe (OK, this guy may not look like a patron of the arts, but take my word for it, he loved nothing better than a finely honed poem), a patronage that was transferred to the bardic colleges of Ireland, Wales and Scotland. We were part of society's elite, fed, housed, clothed, provided with musical instruments and given high social status because our services were deemed worthwhile. We sang for our supper … in the case of bards, literally. We advised kings, divined, prophesied, oversaw ceremonies, told tales of gods and heroes, judged legal disputes, healed the sick, created poems of praise or blame, and, for many centuries, were both honoured and handsomely rewarded for doing so. We still do many of these things, but without either the social status or the payment, bed and board that came with it. We are, instead, looked upon as colourful eccentrics at best, dangerous loonies at worst, occasionally despised, more often simply ignored by our wider society. Hence our need to find new ways of making a living.
Druidry is no longer viewed as a job but as a hobby. For some of us though, it wholly defines who we are and what we do. For this minority of driven individuals, Druidry is our calling, and one that we see as every bit as valid and valuable as more recognised fields such as traditional teaching or medicine or, of course, priesthood in the more mainstream religions. I very much hope that our courses demonstrate both the breadth and the worth of Druidry. I know from my own experience that Druidry can and does regularly transform and even save lives.
The Druid Network undertook a three-year campaign, the result of which was to have Druidry as they understand and practice it recognised as a valid religion, the Druid Network itself achieving the status of a charity. This status means, among other things, that they can legally accept donations and bequests and have certain tax and planning advantages. Such charitable status for 'alternative' religious groups is commonplace in the United States, where freedom of religion is written into the Constitution and, as a result, has traditionally been taken seriously by legislators. The presence of Native Americans endeavouring to maintain their own religious cultures has also played a part in ensuring that religious balance under law is maintained in the USA. In the UK, on the other hand, we have had a state religion since Henry VIII's decision to abandon Catholicism so that he could get a divorce. This state religion, Anglicanism, as manifested through the Church of England, has, until recently, enjoyed a virtual monopoly on state support and the status and financial advantages that such support brings.
However, the Druid Network case does not mean that all Druid groups now have charitable status or official recognition. Should other groups such as the BDO decide that charitable status was a good idea, we would need to go through much the same bureaucratic process that TDN went through in order to prove that our brand of Druidry is also worthy of the name religion and that we too have purposes in mind that come under the fairly broad umbrella of 'charitable.' If we wanted to, I'm sure we could, but it would involve precisely the kind of bureaucracy that our current constitution seeks to avoid while gaining us very little.
The most successful Druid group in the world currently is the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. My friends, Philip and Stephanie Carr-Gomm, have been running it for nearly thirty years. During that time, they have also been running a Montessori School, Stephanie has worked for Glyndebourne Opera House and Philip has written numerous books (some with Stephanie) and lectured widely. It is these latter activities that have kept the roof over their heads and food on the table, not running a Druid Order. Some folk have the mistaken impression that they were making loads of money from OBOD camps. On the contrary, it was only the Summer Camps that ever made a profit at all, and that was used to subsidise the camps in the rest of the year that ran at a loss. Druidry is not a cash cow, one simple reason being that it is a minority interest, best estimates being that there may be 10,000 Druids in the UK, or 0.01% of the population, though the true figure may be less. There's also the fact that many of us attracted to Druidry and other 'alternative spiritualities' are, to a greater or lesser degree, outsiders within our society, a position that leaves us ill-placed as well as un-inclined to benefit from its capitalist structures and agendas.
Ours is by no means the only culture to wrestle with the uncomfortable clash between spirituality and commerce. A Lakota healer called Gary Holy Bull (his Lakota name is Ampohiksila, which means 'Sunrise') has spoken of his own struggle with this dilemma:
“Prior to 1942, everyone took care of their healers and medicine people. They understood the sacrifices that they made. Today, unfortunately, too many people feel that giving a K-Mart blanket is a sufficient offering for seeking spiritual help. It's a very difficult life that we live. We have to pay bills, have a home, drive a car, and place groceries on the table.
“I was always told to ask for nothing. If a person asks you to do a ceremony, they will give you what is needed. The Creator helps you in this way. When you seek the help of a spiritual person, think about the price they pay to help you.
“I was taught that you should give to others because the Creator will return it to you. You will get twice as much back as you put out for others. You give because you have compassion for children and for families.
“Here's the advice I give to others who want to know how to approach a medicine person. First, don't call them. Go find them, no matter how far you have to drive. Then offer them some tobacco*. This is called a binding ceremony. Then tell him or her what you need. Don't insult him by leaving a skull of an animal, a seashell, or a feather, because his family doesn't eat animal skulls or seashells. If you don't want to leave money, then buy some groceries, or some fuel oil for his stove. Don't insult him with five dollars. Give in proportion to the value of what is being done for your life. Show your sincere appreciation. Demonstrate your compassion to the Creator through generosity and sharing. In the old days, a family would give up several horses to be healed. What price is enough for your life?”
So you see it's not just us. Similar views are expressed by spirit workers around the world. The big, organised churches can pay their clergy a living wage because they have, over many centuries, demanded payment from 'the faithful' and expected many of them to leave their entire fortunes to their church when they die. Groups such as Scientology have flourished financially by being arranged as pyramid selling schemes designed to generate wealth for those at the top. The Guru Maharaj Ji, founder of the Divine Light Mission, became hugely wealthy by exploiting his followers, buying himself a fleet of Rolls Royces, yachts, personal jets, etc. Fortunately, such exploitation is anathema to all the Druids I've ever met.
I think the answer is that when everyone else stops demanding money from us for taxes, services and goods and adopts a barter system instead, we'll be utterly delighted to do the same. In the meantime, we'll continue to struggle with our consciences and the Druid community will continue to benefit from those struggles as we strive to do everything for as little as we can feasibly manage and still put food on the table.