As we reach the close of 2012, it is time to stop for a moment and take stock of the previous year. When you look at (and for) news stories regarding modern Paganism (and related topics) every day of the year, you can sometimes lose focus on the larger picture. So it can be a helpful thing to look at the broad strokes, the bigger themes, the events and developments that will have lasting impact on the modern Pagan movement. What follows are my picks for the top ten stories from this past year involving or affecting modern Pagans.
10. The John Friend Scandal: Since the beginning of 2012 I’ve been keeping a close eye on the fall of John Friend, founder of the Anusara yoga school, since allegations emerged of sexual, legal, and fiscal improprieties. Of those improprieties was the allegation that Friend ran a Wiccan coven, named the “Blazing Solar Flames,” as a pretext for sexual liaisons with Anusara students.
“John wanted us to do the ritual in sexy underwear and kiss each other on the mouth, tongue-y kissing,” said ‘Melissa,’ a former member of the coven who asked that her real name not be used. [...] Friend suggested to the other coven members that sexually charged rituals would heighten everyone’s senses and therefore raise more energy, according to Melissa. “It was certainly never the way that I had experienced Wicca,” Melissa told The Daily Beast, but she was initially open to the experience, in part because of her intimate relationship with Friend and because of her confidence in him as a leader and teacher. “A teacher’s voice is so deeply engrained in your brain, and you implicitly trust them because that’s what helps you do great things in your practice,” she said.
Friend would go on to assert that he takes Wicca “really seriously,” and that he has “taken Wiccan oaths over the years where death is actually the consequence of telling the truth.” This scandal is important for our communities not only because Friend claims Anusara yoga is “a philosophy and practice that is totally aligned with Wicca on every level,” but because this scandal should be a wake-up call for national Wiccan organizations, an opportunity to engage with myths versus the reality of how our traditions work. As other, more noxious cases of abuse done in the name of Paganism emerge, the need for a more proactive approach to these incidents seems clear.
09. Transgender Inclusion In Modern Paganism: For two years running, the issue of gender, and transgender inclusion in designated women-only spaces, has sparked debate, protest, and remarkable shifts within the Pagan community. The events at this year’s PantheaCon, where debate, protest, and controversy emerged around a scheduled “genetic women only” ritual led by Dianic elder Z. Budapest in part led to one Dianic group removing themselves from Budapest’s lineage, and PantheaCon changing its policy regarding limited-access events. However, this issue was not isolated to events at PantheaCon in San Jose, California, as transgender inclusion became a hot topic at Pagan Spirit Gathering in Illinois as well. That instance led to a historic press conference where prominent Dianic High Priestess Ruth Barrett acknowledged the womanhood of transgendered activist Melissa Murry.
“Both women said the transgender community is trying to find their voice, similar to the feminist movement in the 60′s and 70′s. Like the feminist movement, they speak of suffering, pain, and violence. Murry and Barrett also spoke of the value in claiming mysteries and rituals specific to their sacred journey as women. “Within my Tradition, which is about the female body and the journey of being born female and the journey through the bloods and birth and menopause,” said Barrett. “That is a different journey for transgendered women who come to womanhood through a different path.”
What we are witnessing, in real-time, is change happening. A realignment and reconsideration of gender both within and outside a Dianic context that seemed almost unthinkable a decade ago. No doubt there will be further debate and analysis related to this issue, but I think the shifts seen in 2012 are a predictor for future changes in how modern Paganism thinks about, and engages with, gender identity.
08. Cherry Hill Seminary and CHS Graduate Achieve Major Milestones: While there are many Pagan learning institutions Cherry Hill Seminary is reaching farther than most, working towards accreditation as a seminary for Pagan clergy. This year two important milestones in their journey were accomplished: the awarding of its first Master of Divinity in Pagan Pastoral Counseling, and graduate, Sandra Lee Harris having her credentials examined and accepted by the Board of Chaplaincy Certification, Inc., the credentials-examining body for the Association of Professional Chaplains. This not only frees Harris to her to complete the process of becoming a board-certified chaplain but, in the words of David Oringderff, Ph.D., Harris’s department chair and adviser at Cherry Hill Seminary, “the precedent set by the BCCI/APC decision, which could strengthen the case for future acceptance of Cherry Hill Seminary degrees by other institutions, the U.S. Department of Defense, for example.”
“The courses credited toward the first Master of Divinity in Pagan Pastoral Counseling from Cherry Hill Seminary are shown to parallel those of degrees from two accredited seminaries, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Tyndale Seminary, when religion-specific requirements for Bible and Christian history studies are replaced by Pagan studies and personal spiritual formation is based on the stated mission values of Cherry Hill Seminary rather than the teachings of Jesus. Further analysis, given similar accommodation, suggests that the Cherry Hill Seminary curriculum in Pagan Pastoral Counseling could satisfy the accreditation requirements of the Association of Theological Schools.” - Sandra L. Harris, M.Div., Pagan Pastoral Counseling
As the Wild Hunt’s Heather Greene noted, “these advancements indicate a shift in society towards genuine respect for alternative religions within the professional world.” Meanwhile, 2013 is shaping up to be a notable year for CHS as well, with their upcoming partnership with The University of South Carolina for the “Sacred Lands and and Spiritual Landscapes” symposium.
07. Druid liturgy in Paralympics Closing: One unexpected highlight of 2012 was the inclusion of Druid liturgy in the London 2012 Paralympic Games closing ceremony. Alongside performances by Jay-Z, Rihanna and Coldplay artistic director Kim Gavin, Music Director David Arnold and Designer Misty Buckley showcased a seasonal theme which “took the audience on a journey through Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer.” Part of the seasonal-themed closing ceremony, spoken by Rory Mackenzie, a representative from Help For Heroes, was in fact written by Druids from the British Druid Order (BDO).
“We were sworn to secrecy beforehand, but Emma Restall Orr and I [Greywolf] were approached by the organisers of the 2012 Paralympics closing ceremony with a surprising request. They wanted our permission to use parts of the gorsedd ritual we wrote in 1997. So, about 20 minutes into the ceremony, these words went out to 750 million people around the world,”
Philip Shallcrass (aka Greywolf), Chief of the British Druid Order, says that the original ritual was written to bring people from different backgrounds and faiths together, so “its use in the Paralympics closing ceremony seems perfectly in keeping with this original intention.” While the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony featured brief hints of Britain’s pre-Christian past, it featured no explicit contribution from the vital Pagan threads that exist in the United Kingdom, a nation that has played a huge role in the revival of Pagan religions. So it seems fitting that the last closing ceremony in London, for the Paralympic games, would explicitly reference modern Pagan contributions to British culture.
06. A Major Setback For The Maetreum of Cybele: Earlier this yeear I reported on how Maetreum of Cybele, Magna Mater, in an ongoing tax battle with the Town of Catskill, New York, lost their exemption battle before the New York State Supreme Court. Catskill’s lawyer intimated to a local paper that he “does not expect much protest from pro-pagan groups now that a judge has carefully analyzed the evidence.” That lawyer may have spoken too quickly, as the Maetreum seems fighting mad, not cowed, though Pagan attorney Dana D. Eilers (author of “Pagans and the Law: Understand Your Rights”) doesn’t seem convinced that the Maetreum would be able to turn this decision around on appeal.
“We are now at risk of losing our property to back taxes under a corrupt local system that does not allow for payment plans, installment payments or anything other than immediate payment in full. We are a poor order and spent all our money fighting the Town of Catskill in court. Currently four women live at the Maetreum who would be homeless otherwise. We need to take the battle to Federal court at this point and we need help in doing so. We need to raise the back taxes just to hold on to our property and continue our work.” – The Maetreum of Cybele
The Maetreum is about to launch an IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign to raise funds to save their building, and hopefully further pursue their legal case against the town of Catskill. We will keep you posted as this story continues to develop in 2013. I personally don’t think this fight is over as the Maetreum feels that the judge analyzed the evidence through a lens that delegitimized practices he didn’t understand. Quote: “Charity is not charity, prayer, meditation and spiritual activities are not religious, duties of clergy clearly spelled out are not spelled out, activities every week and formal ones every two weeks are “irregular”, some mythical standard of number of regular congregants was not met. We are a “legitimate” religion but actually exist to wrangle a tax exemption (not legitimate) I am personally a liar with no actual evidence provided to justify saying that.”
Tomorrow I will post the top five Pagan stories for 2012. In the meantime, I invite you to check out the top religion stories from some different perspectives. The Religion Newswriters Association top 10 religion stories of 2012, HuffPo Religion’s top 10 religion stories of 2012, and 13 religion stories that went missing in 2012 from Religion Dispatches.