Review: All Acts of Love and Pleasure: Inclusive Wicca. Written by Yvonne Aburrow (Avalonia Press, 276 Pages)
Early in my studies I spent a lot of time pouring over books to learn how to be a witch, and those introductory books were plentiful. I absorbed so much information about the elements, circle casting, the deities, and magic during that time, then relearned most of it when I later entered formal studies.
The “New Age” section of the bookstore has since lost its appeal. Most of the books sitting there are more additions to the Wicca 101 genre, with one recipe after another for invocations and spells. While some of these books offer beautiful and inspiring poetry and ritual ideas, few of them inspire critical thinking and practice examination. However, this is exactly what I found in Yvonne Aburrow’s All Acts of Love and Pleasure: Inclusive Wicca.
Aburrow begins by stating “[t]he aim of the book is to act as a guide to existing initiatory covens who want to make their practice more inclusive.” She says that inclusive Wicca is not a specific tradition but is “about including all participants regardless of sexual orientation, disability, or other differences, not by erasing or ignoring the distinctions, but by working with them.”
Why would Pagans need to read a book like this? The assumption is that we’re so accepting. We’re so open-minded. We’re so progressive and enlightened and… well, cool. Compared to other unnamed religions, absolutely. However, there is always room for improvement, though, and awareness is the first step.
Early in the book, Aburrow tackles the issue of sexuality and gender. To illustrate her point that Wicca tends toward heterocentrism and genderism, she explores the duotheistic belief that “all Goddesses are one Goddess and all Gods are one God.” She writes:
As the divine couple are then understood to be lovers, this again excludes LGBT practitioners. It is also a problem for those people of either gender who do not particularly identify with or relate to the predominant archetypes associated with the divine couple.
Aburrow goes on to say “the gender binary is the notion that cisgender heterosexual pairs are the norm and that everything in the universe resembles a cisgender heterosexual couple. We need to expand the model to include different genders and sexual orientations.” It is common, in my experience, for people to encourage practitioners to think of this as the union of “masculine” and “feminine” energies, but regardless of metaphysical semantics, it can still feel exclusive especially since “masculine” and “feminine” are so often used interchangeably with “male” and “female.”
Polarity, however, is such a foundation in Wiccan practice – how could we displace the sexual union of the Divine Couple to be more inclusive and still function? Aburrow suggests a focus instead on the dance of light and dark as seen in the seasons or making the primary polarity the “interaction between self and other, lover and beloved (rather than as male and female),” or even primordial ocean and lightning bolt. I found myself wondering how much rituals, especially at Beltane, would change if groups wholeheartedly embraced “[t]he ultimate polarity is not male and female – it transcends gender.”
While the entire book could have been written on LGBT inclusiveness (indeed, there are several), Aburrow ventures into the idea of inclusiveness on a number of other topics as well. One that stands out is the chapter called “The Nature of Truth.” In this section, Aburrow explores the meaning of truth, scientific truths, mythological truth, and absolute truth, leading up to the conclusion that truth is uncertain. She writes:
Because we are not certain about the existence or the nature of deities, it is good to allow for a diversity of views, including atheism, agnosticism, monism, pantheism, duotheism, polytheism, polymorphism, and so on. Many Wiccans hold more than one of those beliefs at the same time, or change their minds about the nature of deities… Wicca is primarily an existential religion, so there is no real imperative for everyone to agree on theology.
I sat with this idea for a while. A long while. I had never considered that some Wiccans could be duotheistic while others were polytheistic or monistic. I (perhaps wrongly) assumed that all Wiccans were pantheistic or at least animistic. After reading this chapter, I found myself wondering if we could still consider Wicca a religion if we had no generally agreed upon idea of what deity was, and especially if deity even existed. I realized at that point that it had been nearly two decades since I had my head buried in my Sociology of Religion text books, and that perhaps I needed to refresh my memory on the current working definition of “religion.”
The Oxford Dictionary defines religion as “the belief and worship of a superhuman controlling power.” That seemed too limiting and rigid, and does not really apply to Wicca. Merriam-Webster defined it as “the belief in a god or in a group of gods, an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or group of gods, or an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.” This seemed too broad. I really love spinning yarn, and I particularly love doing so in a group of other spinners, but that does not make it a religion.
Then I came across this page of definitions on Religious Tolerance.org, and remembered why I disliked sociology with all of its rambling academic ponderings. I ultimately gave up on my quest for an operationalized definition. But I still wondered, what would I do as a teacher and coven-leader if someone who identified as an atheist wanted to be initiated into Wicca?
As open as I am to students having their own idea of deity and of their idea being different from my own, and as open as I am to the idea that a person can be Pagan and atheist, I don’t yet know how open I would be to initiating a person into Wicca who felt certain there is no Goddess or God. At what point can we draw the line in the sand and say “This is what it means to be a Wiccan?” Then I recalled a New York Times article about the decline of Christianity being partially due to changes occurring in the some of the more liberal branches. Writer Ross Douthat argues:
…the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism. Which suggests that perhaps they should pause, amid their frantic renovations, and consider not just what they would change about historic Christianity, but what they would defend and offer uncompromisingly to the world. Absent such a reconsideration, their fate is nearly certain: they will change, and change, and die.
I wondered if this could be the fate of Wicca should our quest for inclusiveness leave us without a central and uncompromising set of beliefs?
I don’t have the answer, just a whole lot of questions. This, however, was my favorite aspect of Aburrow’s book: it inspires critical thinking about my own beliefs and practices as a Wiccan and a teacher. And, my comfort with the uncertainty it evokes is a compliment to the sociology major I so despised.
Yvonne Aburrow is the author of eight published works, of which All Acts of Love & Pleasure: Inclusive Wicca is the most recent. The book is published through Avalonia press and is available on their website, www.avaloniabooks.co.uk, and through major online retailers.