DUXBURY, MASSACHUSETTS – The First Church of Wicca (FCoW) has reopened its doors, which has reopened questions about its past. The Wild Hunt talked to Rev. Dr. Kendra Vaughan Hovey, founding Elder High Priestess of the First Church of Wicca, and to some of her congregants about the church, its closing in 2009, and their goals for the future.
To understand why the reopening has caused such controversy we have to look at the history.
In early 2007, the First Church of Wicca and its High Priestess broke onto the national scene when they were featured on an hour long TLC reality tv show, My Unique Family. While the show didn’t portray the family or the religion as freaks, many Pagans were surprised and curious. FCoW followed a Christian format, complete with sermons and congregants sitting in rows, and its High Priestess wore a clerical collar similar to what Christian priests and ministers wear.
The show depicted Hovey as being very dedicated to her church and to the local community. FCoW appeared to thrive with an estimated in-person membership of 200 people. The town of Duxbury, initially suspicious, seemed to accept them as part of the community.
Although everything appeared to be going well for FCoW, its sudden growth and scrutiny brought on by the show may have taken a toll on its leader. According to the April 2007 issue of Grey Matters, an e-zine for the Grey School, Hovey sent an email out to church members saying she was taking a two week sabbatical and all church activities would be canceled during that time. In the fall, the church restructured in an attempt to lessen Hovey’s duties. Then, in January 2008, Hovey took another two week sabbatical. Over the following months, church events were often cancelled on short notice.
What many people didn’t know at the time was that Hovey was not just a typical overburdened High Priestess battling burnout. By 2008, she was considering converting to Christianity.
After seeing the TLC special, Susan Jayne joined the FCoW. She said that she loved going to the FCoW and had made many friends. After being solitary for years, she had found her spiritual home.
For that reason, when Hovey confided she was considering converting to Christianity, Susan Jayne was devastated. She said, “I remember that day, vividly. We were at dinner following some event … 4th of July parade, a Pagan Pride Day, the event escapes me, and she told us that she was being baptized. I have personal issues with Christianity, so I was devastated because I didn’t know what it would mean for the church. Sure enough, it led to the eventual closure of FCoW.”
In January 2009, Hovey closed the FCoW. She sent at letter to all members of the church explaining her conversion from Wicca, pointing out her former faith’s (perceived) shortcomings.
I have come to see the serious failings of the Wiccan faith. A major problem with the faith is that there is no unity among the followers of the faith which makes it very challenging to define exactly what Wiccans do and do not believe in. Wiccans have a very open “do what you will” or “live and let live” perspective in life which very easily can cause harm to oneself and others without one actually knowing it until it is much too late. Additionally, there is no unified moral code of ethics. This puts up huge red flags for society-at-large because no one can really be quite sure of what any group’s intentions are. Society would have no way of knowing, for example, if you are a Wiccan that practices the Great Rite or polyamory, to name only two examples. Also, they would have no way of knowing just what “Do what ye will and harm none” means, and quite frankly, neither does each individual Wiccan. – from email sent by Hovey to church members, January 2009
The closing of the FCoW not only stunned its congregants, but it stunned the wider Pagan community. Once it was made public, her email angered many Pagans who saw it as a misrepresentation and a bad-mouthing of the Wiccan religion.
And then the accusations came – accusations of excessive monetary charges for classes and inflated egos. In a 2009 comment on a blog, Linda, claiming to be an FCoW member and participant in the TLC special, said that the FCoW started out with a fantastic group of people, sharing joys and sorrows while taking a Wicca 101 class. Then, after the TLC special aired, things began to change.
When our Wicca 101 class went from being free to the middle of the 52 week course, she announced that we would have to pay for it, I almost lost my friggin’ mind. The “Church” had also decided that all true members were to send a monthly payment as well for the services rendered to us. I could pay for one but not for both. It was insane! Money was needed for everything and of course we were given the sermon of “give until it hurts.” I was also told that if it hurt me to give, then I was truly giving, but if it didn’t hurt then my spiritually was in question …
I really could go on and on about the messes that were created, the hostility that began to grow. And because I was one of the first to verbally express my dissatisfaction I was one of the first to be “rejected” among the other members. It turned out to be a total nightmare, ruining the relationship that I was in as well as the entire home life. I watched as others who were involved in a relationship become disenchanted and more breakups were occurring than anyone staying together.
The angry blog comment ended with “The First Church of Wicca may it burn as ashes in her christian hell.”
Hovey went on to become a minister of a Christian church for a short time, then returned to her cultural Jewish roots before gradually working her way back to Wicca and reopening the FCoW in fall 2014.
So what happened?
Hovey said that several months before she decided to leave her church, an ongoing situation involving polyamory came to a head. She said that she was asked to take a positive and public stand on polyamory and, after contemplating it, she agreed.
Hovey recalled, “I held a class and taught the entire concept, along with the very clear boundaries that needed to be adhered to, in order for it to truly work among any couple exploring it. Everyone seemed to understand, at least until they didn’t. To say that things got complicated, ugly, and out of control is an understatement.”
She said that people ended up splitting up or divorcing, which caused stress and turmoil in the church. She was then asked to speak about polyamory for a Pagan Pride Day in Maine. She said, “Hindsight being perfect vision, I should have canceled; instead I spoke against it. Needless to say, things were spiraling down.”During this same time she became friends with a local Christian Pastor. As she came from a Jewish background, she hadn’t much experience with Christianity and wanted to learn more. Over the course of two years, they emailed back and forth daily. “I had learned so much about Jesus and his teachings, that I saw nothing but metaphysics all over it. It spoke to my beliefs, and added a level of dimension that I had never before experienced,” said Hovey.
It was then, in August 2008, that she asked him to baptize her, but she planned to stay with her church. Yet Hovey’s plans changed. “When the whole polyamory mess happened in our church, I thought it might be a sign to move on, and so I did, to Christianity,” she explained.
She said that she was surprised by the reaction from the wider Pagan community when she closed the church and sent out her explanation to church members. “…I had no idea the letter would go viral. I was actually addressing some very serious issues that were taking place in our church, and wanted to be sure my congregation knew what was driving me to leave. However, after all of the backlash from the wider Pagan community, I think the point was lost.”
There and back again – a spiritual journey
Hovey opened Living Waters Community of Hope in the same space as her former Wiccan church. She said it was tough being a progressive minister in a born-again community and her struggle wasn’t so much with the religion, but with other Christians.
By 2011 she had had enough. Although she loved the teachings of Jesus, it wasn’t enough. However, she wasn’t sure if she wanted to return to Wicca, but she knew she was a Witch and she missed magic.
In October 2013 her mother died. When Hovey attended her mother’s funeral, it was the first time she had been to a Jewish event in decades. She said it felt incredibly comfortable and familiar to her, saying, “My children have over the past several years identified themselves as being Jewish, and I thought to honor my mother, I would take my children back and re-embrace my heritage.”
In a December 2014 blog post, Hovey detailed how she underwent a ritual bath to re-embrace the Jewish faith.
December 31, 2013, wasn’t just the start of a new year and new religion for me. It was the end of a very long spiritual journey that had led me in a complete circle. As I immersed in the living waters, I was met with a full gamut of emotions. My journey was complete and G-d was right there in the center of it all embracing me in His loving arms. Then I heard Him whisper, “Welcome home, Shifra, my dear prodigal daughter. Welcome home.- Rev. Dr. Kendra Vaughan Hovey, writing as Shifra Hovey in her now deleted blog MyJewishness.com
Hovey said that she and her children attended a synagogue for about three months, but the experience only reaffirmed that she had been right to leave Judaism when she was young. That’s when she returned to Wicca.
While Hovey was on this spiritual journey, her former Wiccan congregants were traveling their own paths.
Sara Jayne tried attending Hovey’s Christian church, but soon stopped. She then attended a liberal Christian church that didn’t mind a Wiccan sitting in the pews. “I actually love the Christian philosophy of loving everyone and spreading God’s love, which led me to be baptized myself ultimately,” said Susan Jayne. She eventually served as an Elder in the Presbyterian church, and she thought that was it, “My Wiccan “phase” was over, and I was very spiritually filled.”
But it wasn’t. Susan Jayne explained, “I missed being a Witch, and having a bunch of other Witches to worship the God and Goddess with. I wanted to go back to FCoW then, and every time that thought crossed my mind, I would strongly remind myself that that was in the past, and FCoW was gone.” She said that lasted about ten months. Then she came back from a vacation saw a message on Facebook about the FCoW reopening for a Samhain ritual.
Delia joined the FCoW back in 2006. She enjoyed finding like minded people and felt she was growing by learning from others. She said that she was upset when the church closed and tried attending Hovey’s Christian church but it didn’t feel like home to her.
After that, she continued with her solitary practice and “… took time to reconnect with the Goddess and God on [her] own.” She also kept in touch with other former members of the FCoW. Once she heard the church had reopened she joined back up, happy to once again see her old friends. “It feels like home,” said Delia.
Hovey said that her journey has taught her many things. She said that she’s always been willing to look for answers and doesn’t fear exploration. “I will forever be a seeker, but that doesn’t mean that my seeking needs to be explored by jumping from religion to religion. I have found that the Goddess supersedes all religions, but that I best fit where I am today,” said Hovey. She added that one of the beautiful things about eclectic Wicca is the freedom it gives to seek and experience other faith beliefs.
Allegations from the past
When asked about the allegations that she had excessively charged congregants for classes and tithes, Hovey said that these allegations were false. She explained that the church hosted an annual meeting where members voted on the budget. She said that one year they voted to pay her a salary of $200 a month, adding “a very small salary, but it showed me that I was appreciated.”
In order for FCoW to meet its budget, each member agreed to tithe $40 a month. Hovey said that she understands that for some $40 a month is large amount of money. However, she felt church goers received quite a bit for that voluntary donation. She said that she was a more than a full-time minister who held services every week. There were church outings, religious education for children, and pastoral counseling and healing treatments Monday through Friday from 8am to 8pm. She welcomed church members to eat meals with her family anytime they wished and took in congregants who faced temporary economic hardship.
As for monetary gain? Hovey said her husband donated over $200,000 to the church, and it caused them financial difficulties. She added, “We ended up having our home foreclosed and currently live in a small two bedroom apartment.”
According to the former FCoW website from 2007, there is no required payment for church membership. It does list the available classes that members can take in order to advance in their initiation degrees or to simply gain basic knowledge. They range from $30 to $100 per class.
And what about the clerical collar and the congregational model of worship?
Hovey said her model for FCoW came from the Unitarian Universalist Church, where she and her husband attended for several years as Wiccans. As for the collar, she said that she had noticed one of the UU ministers wearing one and asked “why.” The minister explained, “because I am a minister and I have every right to wear one if I choose to.” That answer stuck with Hovey. “At the time I was doing both hospital and prison chaplain work as a Wiccan minister and the collar worked out well in providing credibility to our faith,” she explained.
In addition, Hovey makes no apologies for running a church rather than a coven. “We are a public Wiccan ministry and I want anyone who comes to our services to feel something that they can identify with that gives them a level of comfort,” she said. Although FCoW’s metaphysical services look and feel somewhat like a traditional church service, its ritual observances are done in a coven-like setting.
Hovey said that she didn’t make the decision to reopen FCoW lightly. She remembers how challenging it was to be a solitary practitioner and not have anyone “standing in her corner when she was ready to come out of the broom closet.” She said that there are Wiccans out there who want a spiritual community, but aren’t trusting of a coven environment. “The First Church of Wicca is public. We have nothing to hide,” said Hovey, adding that FCoW “… encourages people to bring someone they trust with them to check us out—a friend, a family member, anyone. We’re a safe place to explore, and welcome anyone who is curious.”
The church reopened November 1 to host a Samhain ritual and is currently being run out of Hovey’s home. She said that they have already outgrown the space and so they are looking to return to Tarkiln Community Center in Duxbury. Old members, like Susan Jayne and Delia, are returning and new members are joining.
Hovey noted that their private Facebook group has already grown to 70 members in just two months and that she receives inquiries by phone and email daily. She hopes that the church is so successful in meeting the needs of their members that people forget the past six years.
Susan Jayne is one of those hoping for success, if not quite able to forget the past. She said, “Life in FCoW 6 years ago wasn’t always sunshine and roses, and there were things that happened there that gave me pause. It took a lot of prayer and meditation to decide to return. I decided to go back for the Samhain ritual and get a feel for the new FCoW, and I think that’s where I’m at right now. I’ll stay as long as it’s a positive thing in my life.”
Hovey invites people who have questions to contact her directly at KVHovey@gmail.com. She said that she’s made mistakes in the past and apologizes for the hurt she may have caused. She also added that “…even though our name is the same, our leadership is the same, and our church mission is the same, there have been many things that have changed and are very different here. So, I don’t even view the First Church of Wicca as the same church anymore. It’s something new, and we’ve all been given a fresh start.”