This year at PantheaCon, the CoG/NWC/NROOGD suite hosted a Sunday afternoon discussion called “Engaging ‘Wiccanate’ Privilege.” This meeting was a follow-up to an on-going debate centering mostly on “the way in which aspects of Wiccan … theology [are] assumed to be normative for Paganism as a whole.” Moderated by Jeffrey “Shade Fane” Albaugh, program manager for the Conference on Current Pagan Studies, the PantheaCon meeting attracted a diverse, standing-room only crowd lasting a full two hours.
It all began three months earlier when The Interfaith Observer (TIO) published Don Frew’s article “The Rudiments of Neo Pagan Spiritual Practice.” A link to the article was posted here at The Wild Hunt after which an intense debate ensued. Non-Wiccan practitioners took serious issue with the article’s language and assumptions. The conversation then spilled over into other blog environments including Patheos’ Pointedly Pagan, Aedicula Antinoi: A Small Shrine of Antinous and Of Thespiae.
Recognizing that “a number of people were feeling left out of the conversation,” Don asked the CoG/NWC/NROOGD suite to host a talk. He said,“On the Internet we argue with an argument; not a person. It is important to keep the human element involved … We needed to meet.” Don wanted as many voices at the meeting as possible. “I invited P. Sufenas Virius Lupus because I knew e comes to PantheaCon.”*
Lupus accepted the invitation saying:
I accepted Don’s invitation to the talk because, in my opinion, we had a very productive discussion in the comments section of my blog post on some of the initial objections I raised to his article… I hoped that some basic understandings would emerge from this discussion, on what makes more strict, literal, devotional (or, though I don’t like the term, “hard”) polytheists different from Wiccans, Wiccanate Pagans, and more general eclectic Pagans would emerge.
After working out logistics, moderator Jeffrey Albaugh handed the floor to Don and Lupus. Don explained that the TIO article was only a portion of a longer response piece and that he had no input in its editing or titling. Next Lupus spoke thanking Don and other interfaith representatives for their ongoing work. Then Lupus went on to say, “Everyone has privilege because we are here. It is not a bad thing to be privileged. [But] there is a hierarchy of privilege in our community.”
After these introductory words, Albaugh started the conversation by asking Lupus to define Polytheist. Lupus said simply, “Many Gods.” Several attendees then defined the term in relation to their own practice. Many present consider themselves polytheists in some form. In response, Lupus said, “Nobody owns the word.”
After this terminology discussion, the conversation moved on to concerns over the use of prayer in mixed-faith environments. Several speakers referenced T. Thorn Coyle’s prayer during Saturday’s Pagans and Privilege Panel. According to reports, Thorn’s prayer had alienated some panel attendees. In a post-PantheaCon blog post, Thorn herself considers this very issue. Her words mirror much of what was said in the Wiccan Privilege discussion. She wrote “I almost said, ‘I would like to start us with a prayer from my tradition … and invite you all to meditate or pray to whomever you feel called.’ Almost.” She counts this as both a failure and an opportunity to “try again.”
Don stressed the importance of saying “from my tradition” in mixed-faith situations. These words clarify both expectations and the relationship between speaker and audience. As Don suggested, ecumenical prayers are nice but they teach us nothing about each other’s beliefs. Lupus then asked the group, “If I did a panel would you be offended by my prayer?” The response was a unanimous “no.”
Present at the meeting were both Margot Adler and Starhawk who offered an historical perspective. Margot noted that in the 1970s “Wicca” was all that was available to most people including herself. Many attendees agreed. Starhawk added “Wicca has come to mean something different. [Being] Wiccan has a different connotation now.” Times have changed affecting language, availability of education and visibility of practice.
The conversation went on to acknowledge the relational power structures within the greater Pagan and Heathen communities. Several people stressed the importance in examining the oppressions that affect us and in staying aware of the points of privilege from which we speak. Who is given automatic authority by virtue of the established, dominant power structure – by virtue of age, position, accomplishments or religious tradition? Rayna Tempebee noted that people communicate from a position informed by who they are. Mistakes are often made unintentionally. But is still important for each of us to “be as clear and precise as possible” in our communication.
Don and Lupus remained attentive and quiet for most of the talk as Jeffrey Albaugh negotiated a complex discussion in a crowded room of participants. Eventually the conversation did return to Don who brought up the idea of “inside and outside voices.” The language used to define and explain “Paganism” within greater society is very different from the language used to define ourselves to ourselves. One remains broad while the other can be and should be much more detailed and specific.
Then several people shared their own feelings of alienation due to unique religious practices. At least three attendees said they identify as both Jewish and Witch or Pagan. Taylor Ellwood noted that his pop culture magical practice often raises eyebrows. Another woman emotionally expressed her feelings of isolation caused by her spiritual affiliation to Guadalupe, the Virgin Mother. She then said, “The paradigm is shifting.” We are no longer a “melting pot. We are a salad bowl.” We must learn to “tolerate diversity.”
As the session came to a close, Don said “we are headed for a big wake-up call. Paganism(s) will look very different.” He was referring to the growing number of indigenous groups who are finding their voice in the global interfaith conversation. Wicca and “Wiccante” practices will not be the dominant Pagan faith tradition forever. Russia’s PFI coordinator Gwiddon Harvester corroborated this point when noting that Russia’s dominant Pagan/Heathen practice is Slavic Reconstructionalism; not Wicca.
At this point Minos Lugh of the Minoan Brotherhood and a Kemetic Priest called upon the community to “show up” for conversations such as this one. He also emphatically said, “Do not put down another Pagan.” This sentiment received an applause. Earlier in the discussion, Starhawk also emphasized this point when lamenting “how little time [we have] to discuss the Earth” and those larger issues affecting all of us. She said in that bigger context “we should have each others’ backs where it really counts.”
The entire session was not without controversy and frustration. There was a give-and-take that at times became quite heated. Overall the meeting seemed to be a solid beginning where important issues were placed on a table for open examination.
In the final moments of the meeting, Lupus challenged the attendees to attend one of eir PantheaCon events. The yearly convention provides an excellent opportunity to learn about other faith traditions and practices. The very next morning Don attended Lupus’ Beard Blessing and has since made future plans to continue that education. In retrospect, Lupus says:
I have never been in a situation with so many Pagans of various stripes telling me exactly what I believe, or what my group stands for, or who is included and excluded in my group, than on that occasion. In every case, all of them were wrong, misinformed, and have not availed themselves of the resources out there on my tradition … [However] I think it was an encouraging event, and one that demonstrates to me that some people are trying to make an effort and want to come to a better understanding of these matters. I also think it illustrated how far we have to go, and how good intentions can’t accomplish much of this work…
Looking back Don says “I hope everyone came away with a better understanding of each other and each other’s position.” He adds that people were able to express “how they felt” but the meeting did little in the way of education on faith traditions and practices.That would have to come later.
This article only highlights the key points raised at the Wiccan Privilege meeting. It only grazes the surface. Many people spoke from many perspectives. The conversation will undoubtedly continue in live-format and over the blogosphere. Several attendees have already published posts on the subject including Lupus and John Halstead. Look for more in the days and months to come.
*Note on Pronouns: Lupus prefers to use Old Spivak pronouns. For more details, see here.