When Schism Happens to Pagans

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 31, 2011 — 97 Comments

The Feri Tradition of Witchcraft (aka Anderson Feri), while a relatively small grouping within modern Paganism, has had an immense impact on our movement through its initiates. Starhawk is a Feri initiate, and many of the individuals that would form the nucleus of the Reclaiming tradition were also initiates. In turn, many of those Reclaiming/Feri initiates (Aline O’Brien, Anne Hill, Deborah Oak Cooper) would go on to hold prominent positions within our interconnected communities. Bard, activist, and Feri initiate Gwydion Pendderwen had a pivotal role in developing the idea of a “Pagan music” in the United States, and his shadow still looms large over many modern Pagan musicians. Over the years Feri initiates have played a role in several achievements and milestones within modern Paganism (the founding of COG, for instance), and in many instances have cross-pollinated with other Pagan traditions, creating new paths as a result.

Today, Feri is more visible than it has ever been. Several initiates have become high-profile teachers, including T. Thorn Coyle, Storm Faerywolf, Anaar, and Valerie Walker (among others). There are hundreds of individuals who are being taught, or have attended classes, led by a Feri initiate. In addition, Feri initiates like Morpheus Ravenna co-run a Pagan sanctuary, and are featured in documentaries, while others, like Sharon Knight, create music much-beloved by today’s modern Pagans. But Feri’s increasing popularity and visibility, amplified by the Internet, have also intensified long-standing tensions within the Feri community. Recently three web sites, The Faery Tradition, Faery Roads, and Free Feri, emerged claiming that there has been a split within the tradition.

“We dissociate and emphatically disconnect ourselves from the practice of those who seek to define the name “Feri” exclusively to themselves and from the public face they have created.”The Faery Tradition

Shortly after I was made aware of these sites, and started making inquiries in order to cover this very public move for a tradition that highly values its privacy, T. Thorn Coyle wrote an essay for Patheos.com about the split.

“At core, I feel the sundering of the Feri Tradition is a reflection of the tension seen all over the world right now, which is the tension felt in ages of transition. It has been said that we are moving from the Piscean to the Aquarian Age. Pisces wants to hold things close and in reclusion, within existing structures, striving for a beautiful purity. Aquarius wants to open up the windows of the Witch’s hut—or sometimes bust down the walls – and let in some fresh air, while figuring out how to build something new. While I have great sympathy for the Pisceans, and think that likely there will always be those needed to hold that polarity, my work is firmly on the side of the non-conforming Aquarians, even when we vehemently disagree. The world needs us. The world is in trouble. We must bring the souls of body, culture, and spirit back together, or we shall surely perish, whether alone or together. To do this requires stepping out of the nurturing cave, and into the light.”

This sparked quite a bit of comment, and a lengthy response from Henry Buchy, a Feri initiate, teacher and member of The Covenant of Rhiannon.

“Concerning the ‘Blames’, this sundering has been ongoing for decades before I received initiation into the tradition. I would add ‘not listening to the counsel of peers’, as one of these ‘Blames’. Concerns about this issue and all of the ramifications and possibilities have been continuously put forth over the years, and went unheeded. Those who have decided for themselves to teach Feri publicly, to teach it enmasse, to make Feri practices available to the public indiscriminately decided on their own to withdraw from discussions. Some few claimed autonomy. Some few claimed they as initiates had the right to do whatever they saw fit to do in regards to teaching, to materials held in common, and that any criticisms to the contrary were simply attempts for power over or control.

And yes, there were heated exchanges and impassioned discussions and things were said on both sides that were regrettable, but there were also attempts to reconcile which were refused out of hand, that were taken into the public arena well before this, and mischaracterized to support claims that initiates on the whole were dysfunctional and irrational in their disagreement and sought only power over and elitism.”

After that, the matter of this split spread all over the Internet. Thorn offered further explorations of the issue at her blog, several outsiders weighed in on the matter from different angles, while Feri initiates like Happydog1960 and Eldri Littlewolf offered their own personal takes.

“We are still working out our ‘standards’ here. To Stop kinstrife this Had to happen–It Did Happen. That part is done. Nobody is ‘better’,’more Feri’, or ‘less Feri’. We are Different, and that is Good. When tribes get too big, they often divide—bands go different Directions- (hunt different game)–sometimes they meet up and camp together, later, then go separate ways once more. This is not war–only clan division”

As a Pagan journalist I believe that what happens within our communities is important. When this split started spilling out into the public eye, I knew that it would be irresponsible for me to simply ignore it. Feri has become too influential, too seminal in our history, too “big” to escape our notice when something like this is revealed to non-initiates. However, I was also somewhat vexed on how to frame this schism for the readers of The Wild Hunt. There are different narratives and nuances as to why this happened, and I hesitate from making a rush to judgement as to what “the” reason was. So in addition to the links from various opinions and essays above, I have uploaded statements from several Feri/Faery initiates that I personally contacted, or who contacted me, regarding this schism. Some follow a simple three-question format, and some do not, but I hope all of them will provide deeper context into the issues and history involved.

Splits and schisms are nothing new in the history of Paganism, ancient or modern, or indeed in the history of religion as a whole. What separates us from some religions and traditions is that we are generally able to carry on and coexist with each other after these splits, sunderings, and schisms happen. We can still attend the same conferences, attend public rituals together, break bread, preserve friendships, and eventually, find the wisdom and humor in experiences that were once so wrenching, and possibly even find a way to unite once more. Feri, or Faery, may be split, but it will carry on. This notion is touched on in a thoughtful essay from Morpheus Ravenna.

I wish to say that what the initiates of the Feri tradition are experiencing is not just another witch war. It is not a petty personality conflict – it is the fruit of long-standing, deep-seated and substantive differences in philosophy and practice. Some kind of change or divergence of paths was probably inevitable for a tradition growing as fast as ours. In the minutia of the process, of course personal conflicts have arisen, but that is not what’s really driving this, and I feel like it would be demeaning and harmful to our process to frame this as a Big Personality Conflict between two opposed sides. “The Sundering”, as it’s being called, is not nearly as severe as that title implies. The reality is, people are still in communication across all sides of the philosophical debate, and the community as a whole is far from divisible into two camps.

Schisms happen to Pagans, and we should take them seriously when they do, because they can ripple through and affect our own spiritual lives, but we should take heart that these splits are not impediments to our growth, or insurmountable obstacles that trigger the scorched earth campaigns of some faiths. I wish the Feri, and the Faery, well in the future, and hope that these developments bring growth, positive change, and new beginnings for those who need them.

Jason Pitzl-Waters

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