SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — America of the 1960s was in the throes of a renaissance, believes Oberon Zell, and he expects another one will shake up humanity in the coming decade. Zell’s public work as a Pagan began in that decade of cultural upheaval; he conducted his first water-sharing ceremony in 1962. Only a few short years later the Church of All Worlds (CAW) was incorporated. Through its newsletter, Green Egg, the Church of All Worlds became a focal point for contemporary American Paganism.
Zell took the opportunity of that imminent milestone to reflect upon the evolution and growth of Paganism, from a term that broadly meant non-Christian to the complex tapestry of practices associated with that word today.
“Now there are millions of people and hundreds of groups” in the Pagan movement or practicing religions with overlapping characteristics, such as Heathenry. A half century ago, however, “that simply wasn’t the case.”
Zell himself did not use the term “Pagan” until he was asked during a public talk to categorize the Church of All Worlds. “I said, ‘I guess you can say we’re Pagans,'” he recalled, and, “the rest is history.”
Those talks arose from a pedestrian need: to publish a newsletter, which required a ditto machine. Churches were, at the time at least, eligible for free public service announcements on radio. As a result, the fundraising garage sale that was held by Church of All World’s at a “local beatnik coffee shop,” was advertised publicly, and it made people curious.
This was in 1967, and Zell had been invited to give a talk on this new religion at that very coffee shop. “It was some from Stranger, but a lot of comparative religion as well,” he said. It was the first of what was to be countless appearances Zell has put in over the years; he actually has stops planned in the northeastern U.S. in the near future.
Those early appearances led to the church taking over another coffee shop’s lease. This one had been operated by a consortium of Christian organizations. Now with a base of operations, the CAW saw a rise in the demand for wedding services, which required ordinations and, in turn, required incorporation.
Members of a Native American church actually paid the legal fees to make that step happen. The papers were filed March 4, 1968.
At the same time, Raymond Buckland was establishing himself on the East Coast, but was operating independently from Zell. Being a pioneer is challenging, Zell said, because “you have to create the definitions, what it all meant. At Church of All Worlds we did what our ancestors did: we made it up as we went along.”
Zell and his friends had been doing a lot of reading and study in their quest for life’s answers before they found Robert Heinlein’s novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, from which they took the name of their group. What Zell discovered in that novel was the idea of coalescing the vision in his head as a new religion.
“Heinlein said that with separation of church and state, you could do anything you want to. The First Amendment prohibits rules governing churches, other than for criminal acts.”
While the Church of All Worlds was named in tribute of the one founded by Martian-born Valentine Michael Smith in Heinlein’s book, the similarities don’t extend much further than that. “We probably should have called it the ‘Church of Your Choice,'” Zell said, “as an homage to all the billboards one would see on the highway, directing people to attend the church of your choice.”
Calling it a church at all troubled some of Zell’s contemporaries, he remembered. “The various factions have given a bad name to the idea of religion,” he said. “People have banned it in favor of spiritualism. I’m deeply religious, but not spiritual at all. I don’t like to give up a good word.”
Zell believes that “Pagan” and “Witch” were also words worth saving, although not as much effort has been needed to rehabilitate Pagan, thanks in part to the 19th-century romantics who wrote about the term. “I grew up on Greek mythology,” he said, and part of its appeal to him was the seemingly endless variations.
“With the Bible, that’s all there was. Pagan stuff is never-ending; good luck reading it all!”
The philosophy Zell believes is common throughout Pagan and polytheist religions is that of orthopraxy, although he did not use that word for it.
“Religions that are based on belief always fracture into different factions,” he said, “but in religions like Paganism and Judaism, no one cares what you believe. If you show up at the temple and make the offerings, that’s fine. In tribal societies, you wouldn’t have been burned at a stake for what you believed.”
The first issue of Green Egg was put out for the vernal equinox, 1968, “and boy, did it ever grow,” Zell said.
1960s in the United States was a time when many more people were attending college than ever had before, breaking down class barriers. On those campuses many study groups arose, focusing on Druidry and Hellenic research and ritual, or otherwise pursuing inquiry into the emerging idea of a contemporary Paganism.
Green Egg became the place where ideas were shared: readers would send in their own manifestos, or debate one another through the letters page; mini-newsletter inserts for some groups were included, such as Gardnerians and the Egyptian Church of the Eternal Source.
Margot Adler used it to distribute the survey which formed her early research for the book Drawing Down the Moon.
“It was a single place to meet,” Zell said, something which in the internet age, “we don’t have anymore.”
One of its subscribers was Robert Heinlein himself, who Zell finally contacted in 1972. He’s heard that the author was cantankerous and prone to lawsuits, but upon writing him a lengthy letter, he received an equally verbose reply. Zell still has all the letters he received from Heinlein during a correspondence that lasted many years.
Zell would have given Heinlein a subscription for free, but the author strongly believed that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” and preferred to pay. He never contributed anything to the newsletter and later magazine, but from time to time Heinlein would write directly to someone whose letter tickled his fancy, as mailing addresses were included much of the time.
“He found the idea fascinating,” Zell recalled, and appreciated that this was not an attempt at imitation, but rather was inspiration.
“He thought Witches were pretty cool.”
Organizing those letters and the rest of his archives is on Zell’s to-do list, but “if you want to hear the laughter of the gods, tell them your plans.”
Those plans include several books. One that he’s particularly excited about, co-written by death doula Judith Fenley, has a working title of Death Rights and Rites.
Oberon Zell is still part of the board of directors for Church of All Worlds. “Not a lot of founders last this long,” he said.
The church owns a 55-acre sanctuary in Mendocino County, and is the home of the Grey School of Wizardry and Academy of Arcana, a museum collection the centerpiece of which is the late Morning Glory Zell’s goddess statues from around the world.
Santa Cruz is “not working out as the best place” to permanently set up that collection, and Zell is looking for alternatives that won’t leave him in a very rural location, which he desires to avoid at this time. Despite spending decades as a professional wizard, he says that “the community does not support its institutions,” and by extension its elders.
“I’d love to see a Pagan credit union, which could lend money to build these things,” he said, “but I’m not a banker. We have doctors and attorneys; surely we have bankers out there who could do this. I’ve been talking about it for years. Our biggest impediment is not having money, but we have millions of people, and that’s crazy. Much smaller groups can raise money for missions to Africa, but we can’t do anything.”
Zell buried his wife, Morning Glory, and has outlived many of his contemporaries, such as Michael Kraig, Margot Adler, and Raymond Buckland. Part of how he honors them is by maintaining a list of departed Pagan pioneers, founders, and elders.
“I’m too busy to stop,” he said, but “sometimes I really wish I could.” He likens his life to a Mission Impossible script, only he’s getting his missions from the Goddess.
“On that show, the trick is you have to accept the mission, or they cancel your show. I always take her up on it.”
He expects that Morning Glory is organizing the welcoming committee in the Summerland, but “I’m having fun here, and I’m not willing to quit yet.”
He also finds that his notoriety makes finishing up projects like the books he has in the works challenging: “Heinlein called it being nibbled to death by ducks.” Nevertheless, travel helps sustain him as well, and he’s not looking to give it up yet.
Being the “sole survivor,” as he termed it, means that there are mysteries he no longer shares. “A mystery is something which must be experienced, and cannot be explained,” he said.
Living through the 1960s, or seeing a total solar eclipse, or giving birth, all fall into that definition. Age brings wisdom, but he’s also grateful he’s been able to maintain good health and an active sex life.
Looking back through history several centuries, Zell sees a cycle of renaissance occurring about every 60 years. “The 2020s should be interesting,” he said; he expects it will be an awakening. The 2080s, he predicts, will be a time of diaspora when humans start seriously colonizing other worlds.
“There will be human settlers on Mars, and one of the first children born there will be named Michael or Michelle. The writings of the Church of All Worlds will be remembered.”