Archives For The Druid Network

This week a law was passed that will make same-sex marriage legal in England and Wales. The landmark legislation, approved by Queen Elizabeth II, clears the way for legal marriages to start in 2014. The way the new law is structured, religious organizations must “opt in” in order to perform a legally binding ceremony. This historic move follows recent advances for same-sex marriage in parts of the United States and for all of France. Just as I collected reactions from modern Pagans in America following the DOMA/Prop 8 Supreme Court decisions, so too did I want to see how Pagans in England and Wales felt about this development.

web-gay-marriage-getty

Mike Stygal, President of the Pagan Federation, celebrated the “wonderful development,” though pointed out that inequalities remained.

Mike Stygal

Mike Stygal

“Finally the Marriage Act (same sex) has made it through all the hoops our political system presents. This wonderful development is the result of many, many years of persistent effort to secure equality for the LGBT community. There are still inequalities towards LGBT that will need to be challenged and that will require persistent effort to overcome. There are still inequalities with regard to spirituality and faith too. The Pagan Federation is no stranger to persistent effort to challenge and change inequalities and we know just how hard it is to achieve success. Congratulations to all those people who kept at the cause of legal same sex marriage, and to all those who challenge inequality, take heart that inequality can be beaten.”

Yvonne Aburrow, a Pagan from Oxford who also writes for the Patheos blog Sermons From The Mound, noted that Pagans in England and Wales cannot perform legal wedding ceremonies of any kind (which became a point of contention in the lead-up to this law being passed), though was still “delighted” over this advance for marriage equality in the UK.

Yvonne Aburrow

Yvonne Aburrow

“I am delighted that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people can now marry someone of the same sex in England and Wales, and that some religious groups will be able to marry same-sex couples in their places of worship. Unitarians, Quakers, and Liberal Jews campaigned particularly hard on this, and Derek McAuley, Unitarian Chief Officer, Paul Parker (Recording Clerk, Quaker Yearly Meeting), and Rabbi Danny Rich, should be applauded for their lobbying efforts. It is a shame that Pagans in England and Wales are unable to marry either opposite-sex or same-sex couples in a legal ceremony, but it looks as if the House of Lords have left open the possibility of humanist weddings, and weddings for other religions too.”

Aburrow added that her optimism was “cautious” and that “tomorrow, we keep fighting for LGBT rights around the world, and for human rights generally. Until it is safe everywhere to be Black, disabled, LGBT, a woman, or a member of a religious minority, then our work is not yet done.”

Like Aburrow and Stygal, Sophia Catherine of the Divine Community podcast brought up the fact that Pagan weddings can still only be symbolic in nature, and not legally binding, but also raised true gender equality as a primary concern.

“My one sadness about this Act is that, initially, it was to be called the Equal Marriage Act, but the name was changed to make it clear that ‘same-sex’ marriage was involved. There are more than two genders, and that the Act upholds the gender binary that society is obsessed with. However, this Act does take a step forward, in that regard, Under the Gender Recognition Act 2004, for mixed-sex married couples where one member changed their legal sex, the couple had to divorce and obtain a civil partnership. Now that marriage is available to all regardless of sex/gender, this will no longer be the case. It is a shame that couples who were forced to go through this process will not automatically regain their marriages, but they will be able to ‘convert’ these civil partnerships back into marriages. Of course, this does not make up for the indignity of what they had to go through, but in the future, this won’t happen to any more couples where one changes their legal sex.”

Vivianne Crowley, author, Jungian psychologist, and faculty at Cherry Hill Seminary, is currently in Paris, and gave a broad perspective informed by France’s recent legalization of same-sex marriages.

Vivianne Crowley

Vivianne Crowley

“The last three centuries have seen in western culture a shift towards recognition of the autonomy of the individual and the right to freedom of self-expression. It is a tide that dictators and others have sought to suppress. It has been subverted – sometimes the tide has turned; but slowly consciousness has undergone a shift.

Major social changes occur when almost unconsciously the greater mass of people sense that an idea is self-evidently right. At first, such evolutions of thought are the preoccupation of a few who are ahead of the zeitgeist. In the late eighteenth century and nineteenth centuries, recognition of the unique value of each individual led inevitably to the abolition of slavery in Europe and the United States. The political impetus that overthrew absolute monarchs led to democracy and the recognition that every adult male should have the right to vote for who should rule his country. In the twentieth century, an inexorable tide saw that right extend to women. Now the west is ready for a new right – the right of individuals to choose to marry their life partner regardless of gender and to make a public commitment that is recognized and honored by the state.

The Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Canada and South Africa, among others, set the trend. Now the United Kingdom and France have followed almost simultaneously and other European countries will do the same.

Here, in France, Catholics marched against same-sex marriage, but the law has been swiftly passed. July 14th is Bastille Day, France’s equivalent of the 4th of July – a celebration of revolution past and national identity present. There are major celebrations in all French towns, and particularly of course in Paris. This July 14th the iconic Eiffel Tower was lit up with rainbow colors and songs filled the Paris night sky, celebrating equal marriage rights for all.

Where Canada and Europe can go, other nations can go too. But in the meantime, Vive la France –liberté, égalité, fraternité! And well done, Britain!”

Perhaps the most succinct response that encapsulates many of the recurring themes heard from UK Pagans on marriage equality is from Cat Treadwell, a Trustee of The Druid Network, and ordained Awenydd (Priest) of The Anglesey Druid Order.

“Consenting adults have loved each other for centuries, with or without permission, and will no doubt continue to do so; the law slowly moves forward to accommodate this. We can only hope that as society becomes more accepting, Pagan unions will also be recognised in our own lifetimes.”

Let us hope that society continues to move forward on accepting the simple reality of consenting adults loving each other, and that the desire for modern Pagan clergy in England and Wales to perform legally recognized unions within that tapestry of love is soon realized.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

spirits

 

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of them I may expand into longer posts as needed.

In November the media, along with The Wild Hunt, reported that The Charity Commission for Wales and England declined the The Pagan Federation’s request for charity status in the UK. Upon hearing the unfortunate news, I worked with my fellow Covenant of the Goddess Board members to offer support, “across the pond,” to those diligently working to achieve that coveted status.  As a result, I had the pleasure of corresponding with the president of The Pagan Federation, Chris Crowley. Our brief exchange gave me a much better understanding of the situation and I present my findings to you.

Pagan Federation

In a letter dated October 4, 2012,  The Charity Commission for Wales and England, a government organization charged with the regulation of all charity organizations, informed The Pagan Federation  that its application for charity status had been rejected. The Commission summed up its reasoning with the following statement:

“The commission is not satisfied that The Pagan Federation is established for exclusively charitable purposes.”

To reach a decision, the Commission brought in senior level advisors to evaluate The Pagan Federation’s application.  Under the Charities Act of 2006, all religious organizations must, like any other, prove to be a benefit to the general public or, as they say “advancing religion for public benefit.” Previously most religious organizations were exempt from these criteria.

It is not enough that an organization does something in the name of religion in order for it to be a charity advancing religion. It has to be shown that the aim of the organization is to advance the religion in a way that is for the public benefit, and not to further some other, non-charitable, aim. (The Advancement of Religion for Public Benefit, section C4)

The Pagan Federation felt its application established legitimacy as a non-profit, community-based religious organization that worked for public benefit. Its listed programs include community service, sponsorship of workshops, rituals and festivals, prison ministry, hospital visitations, Inter-faith outreach, and public awareness. In Scotland, where hand-fasting or wedding ceremonies are legally recognized, Pagan Federation clergy perform marriage rites.

In our interview, Chris Crowley explained:

The Pagan Federation was founded 40 years ago. Initially, it was set up to counter negative publicity concerning Witchcraft, primarily, and other Pagan Paths….From the 1980s onwards, however, we expanded our remit to also campaign actively for Pagan rights for all Pagans and also to become a contact network… We have had some success in establishing positive working relationships with some government departments. The most significant of these is the Justice Ministry who invited us, in the 1990s, to set up a prison ministry service to administer to Pagans in prison. It is still running very successfully. 

40th Anniversary Pagan FederationLater he added, “[Last year] we had a 40th Anniversary celebration in London which included a conference and a tree planting of 40 trees.” The entire event attracted 4-500 attendees, both Pagan and non-Pagan alike.

So where’s the problem?  While the Commission did acknowledge the Federation’s positive public work, the application seems to have gotten stuck in a quagmire of religious semantics. In the Charities Act of 2006 and UK Charity law, “religion” is defined as such:

[A] belief system involves belief in a god (or gods) or goddess (or goddesses), or supreme being, or divine or transcendental being or entity or spiritual principle, which is the object or focus of the religion (referred to in this guidance as ‘supreme being or entity’)  (The Advancement of Religion for Public Benefit, Section C1)

Specifically, section 2 of the Charities Act states that the term ‘religion’ “includes a religion which involves a belief in more than one god, and a religion which does not involve a belief in a god.”  It goes on to say:

The intention of the legislation was to make clear that religions that involve belief in more than one god and those that do not involve a belief in a god are included within the meaning of religion derived from existing case law. ) (The Advancement of Religion for Public Benefit, Section C1)

These statutes do take into account polytheistic practices. In fact, these are the laws that allowed The Druid Network to earn charity status in 2010. They were the first faith-based, Pagan organization to achieve this type of public recognition.

Charity CommissionHowever, in the case of The Pagan Federation, the Commission appears to be befuddled by the term:  Pagan.  Where “Druidry” defines a small subset of Pagan religious beliefs, Paganism itself is an umbrella term for a much broader group of religious practices that have no clearly delineated guidelines, no dogma or required practices.  The Commission feels that the term “Pagan” describes a “philosophy or way of life,” rather than a religion.

In its report, the Commission expressed a real concern over the fluid and dynamic nature of Pagan tradition and practice.  Responding to the concept of solitary practice and the Wiccan Rede, “an ye harm none, do what ye will,” the Commission remarked, “It appears that individuals are free to develop their own guidelines.”

Without the easily identifiable structure of monotheistic religions, Paganism and its organizations are a mystery to outsiders, even to those government officials who, like the Commission, appear to be making allowances for alternative religions.  Belinda Winder, Vice President of The Pagan Federation, told a Third Sector reporter:

“The first time we approached the commission, 15 years ago, one of its officials asked us if we sacrifice humans. I think we have come an awful long way in public understanding since then.”  (The Third Sector)

The Druid NetworkWith the language set forth in the Charities Act of 2006 and the success of The Druid Network, there’s hope for The Pagan Federation.

In November the Federation made its first appeal to a Charity Tribunal, part of the UK court system that answers annually to Parliament. I asked Chris why the organization is willing to go through this difficult fight knowing the potential cost in both time and money.  Aside from the tax breaks, he explained:

Mainly, [we will] achieve recognition as a valid religious and spiritual path and…have the same legal rights as, and parity with, other religions and…take our rightful place as part of the richly diverse community that lives in these islands.

Under the current conditions The Pagan Federation can only, as Chris notes, “represent individuals if they feel they have been victimized or unfairly discriminated against on a case by case basis.”  There is no uniformity in practice or legislation to fall back on.  UK Pagans are left out in the cold.  Fortunately, as Chris remarked, The Pagan Federation will “not give up and keep hammering away” until it can proudly stand as a recognized charitable Pagan organization.

 Pagan Federation International

Additional Note:  The Pagan Federation operates throughout the UK  It also has many international chapters, including one in the U.S.A.  To learn more about the organization outside of the United Kingdom, go to its international website.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Chico Goddess Temple entrance.

Chico Goddess Temple entrance.

  • Is the Chico Goddess Temple doomed? According to the Chico News and Review, noise complaints for an illegal festival held four years ago has led to a much larger struggle to survive and gain the permits needed to stay open. Owner Robert Seals thinks that hostility to Goddess religion might underlay the resistance he’s encountered in obtaining the permits he needs. Quote: “This is nothing new, worship of the Goddess, but it goes up against a lot of fundamental religions.” You can learn more about this struggle, and the upcoming appeal hearing, here.

That’s it for now! Happy Friday the 13th! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

Last night the ABC news program Nightline ran a “Sign of the Times” segment featuring Sgt Simon Wood of the Hampshire Constabulary in the United Kingdom. Wood is a member of the Pagan Police Association, an organization that formed in 2009 and was officially recognized as a Diversity Staff Support Association in 2010.

The report mentions the tabloid-headline generating Metropolitan Police diversity handbook, which discusses the fact that some Pagans practice skyclad, and may be bound and blindfolded during rituals, and (inaccurately) references the UK Charity Commission’s approval of The Druid Network‘s application for religious charity status as Paganism “being given the status of a religion” (Pagan faiths in Britain were already recognized as legitimate religions long before that).

While it’s nice to see a mainstream news outlet pay some attention to gains made by modern Pagans, the segment was something of a flashback for me. The announcer invoking “goats blood” at the introduction, the overly theatrical narrator, and the flashing jump-cuts that emphasize the strangeness of Pagan ritual all brought to mind the more sensationalist days when network news channels would go out to find a Witch for Halloween and bring the smoke-machines along for added effect. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not horrible, but it also could have been much better. There was very much a tone that set modern Pagans up as a strange fringe phenomenon. Then again, Nightline isn’t exactly the pinnacle of serious news reporting any longer, as they are devoting their Summer coverage to psychics, exorcism, and out-of-body experiences. So I suppose a report on Druids, with mention of naked initiation rituals, hit the sweet spot for them.

Maybe I’m expecting too much, but a nice sit-down interview in the studio, one that confronts various issues but avoids trying to be cute or salacious, would be a nice change of pace.

ADDENDUM: Sgt. Simon Wood weighs in with his take on the program.

“Considering that they spent quite a lot of time with me throughout the day and filmed the whole ceremony they could have made a longer film. But then how many regular watchers for their program [would] watch an hour on witchcraft? At least it is of a positive nature rather than the usual pap we normally get. I agreed to do it simply to try and get more positive things out there about Pagans in general.”

I’d like to thank Sgt. Wood for sharing his perspective, and for his service.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.

[You can read part one of this entry, here.]

05. The Druid Network Receives Charitable Status in UK: Perhaps the biggest Pagan-related story coming out of the UK this year was the Charity Commission’s decision to approve The Druid Network‘s application as a religious charity. In Britain, there’s a marked difference between a charity and a nonprofit, and The Druid Network was the first Pagan organization to take advantage of the the Charities Act of 2006, which lowered the hurdles towards becoming a religious charity. This not only caused a wave of press in the UK, but in America as well. Guest author Alison Shaffer did a remarkable job summing the whole issue up back in October.

“So why all the fuss? Because the rights and freedoms granted to religious practitioners of Druidry and Paganism in the UK are, as in the US, not necessarily guarantees that they will also have access to all of the same benefits available to more mainstream faiths — benefits such as nonprofit status, state-recognized holidays, prison and military chaplaincy, clergy who are legally empowered to perform marriages and burials, and so on. In short, although British law provides freedom from discrimination for practitioners of all religions, the freedom to participate fully and equally in civil society is something that rests on a foundation of legal precedent. For many religious minorities, securing the latter means buckling down to a long process of challenging numerous individual instances of oversight and exclusion, in order to push past the tipping point from legal tolerance into social acceptance and support.”

This was an important moment for Druidry in Britain, and for modern Paganism as a whole. Despite the occasional press exaggerations that the UK had recognized Druidry for the first time in “thousands of years, “ this moment does mark a new level of respect and understanding towards our family faiths.

04. Military Pagans and The Air Force Academy Circle: 2010 was the year the Air Force Academy tried to clean up its public image when it came to religious tolerance. Long accused of being a focal point for evangelical Christian takeover of the military, and still struggling to create an environment friendly to all faiths, much was made in the press about their support for the installation of a Pagan worship area, though perhaps even more press was generated at the subsequent vandalism of said site.

“The Air Force Academy, stung several years ago by accusations of Christian bias, has built a new outdoor worship area for pagans and other practitioners of Earth-based religions. But its opening, heralded as a sign of a more tolerant religious climate at the academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., was marred by the discovery two weeks ago of a large wooden cross placed there. ”We’ve been making great progress at the Air Force Academy. This is clearly a setback,” said Mikey Weinstein, a 1977 graduate of the academy. He is founder of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, and has often tangled with the academy over such issues.”

This concession to the religious lives of Pagan cadets also spurred some religious and political figures into saying some rather stupid things. What was largely missed through all the media glare was that this circle wasn’t some media relations band-aid, but a response to a genuine need among Pagan cadets, one that has permeated all aspects of life there. Sadly, a lot of coverage treated the whole story as something of a joke, instead of acknowledging the important steps forward being taken. The Air Force Academy circle wasn’t the only military-oriented Pagan story of 2010, but it was certainly the biggest, and one that was highly symbolic of our overall struggles for equal treatment.

03. Christine O’Donnell’s Dabble-Gate: I tried to dismiss it, but few could withstand the hurricane force of Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell (a local Tea Party favorite), who completely dominated the election news cycle this year thanks to comments made over ten years ago that she had “dabbled” with “witchcraft”. Faster than you could twinkle your nose, media outlets from all corners started interviewing “real” Witches about the controversy, while political pundits scored cheap laughs. Then, just when everyone thought the news cycle had died out, O’Donnell’s campaign released the following campaign ad.

Committing one of the classic blunders in politics (right up there with starting a land war in Asia), O’Donnell sparked a new landslide of negative news coverage, and a host of Pagan-created response videos. Her image damaged beyond repair, she lost handily to the Democratic candidate. While the abundance of mean-spirited mockery had some in our community questioning why “dabbling” in a minority religion is such a deal-breaker for political office, O’Donnell’s largely unexplored connections to conservative Christianity and how they influence her politics made few Pagans regret her loss.

02. Vodou & Haiti: Under any other circumstances, I would have welcomed with joy the emergence of our cousins in Vodou into the media spotlight, but it was not to be. Instead, 2010 has been a year of death, horror, suffering, and media smears, all triggered by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that devastated Port-au-PrinceHaiti’s capital. The quake killed nearly a quarter of a million people, and over a million are still homeless.  Within hours of the tragedy triumphalist smears concerning Haiti’s history from a noted Christian pot-stirrer emerged, then there was a veritable onslaught of pundits, many of whom had never set foot in Haiti, opining on how Vodou was the main detriment to its forward progress and recovery.

“The kind of religion one practices makes a huge difference in how the community lives — for better or for worse. I suppose it’s at least arguable that the Haitians would be better off at the Church of Christopher Hitchens rather than as followers of voodoo.Rod Dreher, Beliefnet

But amidst the wave of stunningly wrong-headed criticism,  there were also several pro-Vodou voices,within and without Haiti, that came to the fore. Most notably Max Beauvoir, the appointed “supreme master” of a coalition of Haitian houngans, who ended up being the de facto voice for Haitian Vodou to the Western press in the months after the quake. While I counselled reporters to remain aware of the decentralized nature of Haitian Vodou,  the much-publicized attack on Vodouisants by evangelical Christians in Haitiand its aftermath, created little room for nuance in those hectic first weeks (not to mention tensions over insensitive and controversial missionary activities). Sadly, the centrality of Vodou in Haitian society was often ignored, though there were the occasional nods in that direction.

That suffering was bad enough, but now Haiti, still in political turmoil and further damaged by a rampant cholera outbreak, is seeing angry mobs turning against Vodou practitioners, killing over 40 so far. Sadly the religious press has either ignored or downplayed Vodou during these events, focusing instead on (Christian) charitable giving to Haiti, and an accusation of trafficking. From all this tragedy we can only hope that a new birth, a renewed flowering, is to come. That Vodou, and the Haitian people will overcome the massive obstacles in their way.

01. Patrick McCollum’s Fights and Triumphs: Patrick McCollum has made my top ten list before, but 2010 was truly the year when his efforts started to gain wider notice and recognition. McCollum has been working as a Pagan chaplain and activist for well over twenty years. He was one of the founding members of the Lady Liberty League, and has been involved in numerous legal struggles involving modern Pagans. In recent years he has received attention for his appearance before the US Commission on Civil Rights in Washington, DC, to speak at a briefing focused on prisoners’ religious rights (full transcript of the proceedings), and for his meeting with Obama Administration officials concerning interfaith relations and discrimination against minority faiths in America. On Imbolc of this year, McCollum was installed to the Executive Board of Directors of a United Nations NGO, Children Of The Earth. McCollum currently serves as an unpaid statewide correctional chaplain for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation in all 33 CDCR correctional institutions.


Rev. Patrick McCollum

His current fight, which has been in litigation for over five years, and is currently before the 9th Circuit, centers on the State of California’s “five faiths” policy. This policy limits the hiring of paid chaplains to Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, and Native American adherents. The case itself has yet to be heard, as legal counsel for the CDCR has been arguing that McCollum doesn’t have the standing to bring the case (an assertion that is rejected by McCollumAmericans Unitedthe ADL, and other groups). This battle is about overcoming what McCollum has called an “endemic” level of religious discrimination against minority faiths in our prison system, and if the courts swing our way, 2011 could finally see a full court trial on this issue.

2010 was also a year that has seen many triumphs for McCollum. He was honored by the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) with the Mahatma Gandhi Award for the Advancement of Religious Pluralism at their 7th annual Capitol Hill Receptionfeted at the Lady Liberty League 25th Anniversary reception, participated in the 2010 International Day of Peace at the United Nations in New York, asked for feedback on Pagan practices by the Washington Department of Corrections, and attended the first World Forum of Spiritual Culture in Astana, Kazakhstan. He has, in short, become a globe-trotting emissary for modern Pagan faiths. If one figure represented and defined the public face of Paganism in 2010 it was McCollum, and there is every indication the 2011 will see even more from this tireless advocate for Pagan rights.

That wraps up my top ten news stories about or affecting modern Paganism in 2010. Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll join me for another year of sifting through the news and views of interest to our communities. See you in 2011!

Top Story: Outrage is spreading across the Internet over The Lost Abbey brewery’s decision to feature a woman being burned at the stake for their “Witch’s Wit” wheat ale.


Detail from the “Witch’s Wit” label.

“First of all, it’s an insult to me as an ordained Pagan minister and long-time practicing witch. If you want to capitalize on the beer’s name in order to sell more brews, at least use a more tasteful image. Hex, I could accept a picture of the stereotypical wart-nosed, green-skinned ugly old hag over this. But to show a buxom woman standing helplessly as the flames engulf her… while a group of onlookers (presumably male monks) surround her gawking at the sight is simply degrading.”

In a widely-forwarded e-mail message about the beer label, Motherpeace Tarot co-creator Vicki Noble calls the image dehumanizing and outside the bounds of good taste.

“Can you imagine them showing a black person being lynched or a Jewish person going to the oven? No, of course not, such images are simply not tolerated in our society anymore (thank the Goddess) and this one should not be either. Please call them or write them a letter to protest this hateful and dangerous expression which dehumanizes women.”

So far no statement has been issued from the California brewery, and there’s no mention of the controversy on their Facebook or Twitter feeds, though a discussion thread has been started at their Facebook page. Considering the fact that women are still being killed and imprisoned for crimes of “witchcraft” it does seem rather tone-deaf of the company. I’ll keep you posted as this story develops.

UPDATE: Lost Abbey responds:

“I encourage you to look at all of Lost Abbey’s beers and consider them in context. Each of the Lost Abbey beers features a label which depicts a theme of Catholic excess — good and bad — on the front, and tells a moral story on the back. (Our founder is a recovering Catholic.) In the case of Witch’s Wit, the back label is a story of the bad consequences of religious intolerance and oppression. The woman on the front is referred to as a “healer” on the label and accuses the Church of being narrow-minded and violent, threatening the same fate to anyone who would help the woman. The label ends with a note that this beer — a light, sweet and golden ale — is brewed in honor of that woman (and all those who died for their convictions).”

I’ll be interested to see how Noble and others who were offended will respond to this.

Pagan elected Trustee of International Interfaith Organization: Covenant of the Goddess National Interfaith Representative Don Frew has been voted in for another term as an At-Large Trustee for the Global Council of the United Religions Initiative.

“The URI is the world’s largest, grassroots interfaith organization, with 496 local branches (“Cooperation Circles”) in 77 countries, involving millions of people in interfaith programs around the world (www.uri.org). The purpose of the URI is “to promote enduring, daily interfaith cooperation; to end religiously motivated violence; and o ctraete cultures of peace, justice, and healing for the Earth and all living beings.”  I worked with many others – including CoG’s Deborah Ann Light – in the writing of the URI’s Charter in conferences in 1998-2000.

This is my third term on the URI’s Global Council.  In 2002, I was elected to be one of three Trustees from the North American Region on the URI’s first elected Global Council.  In 2006, I was asked to be one of two At-Large Trustees on the URI’s second elected Global Council.  This time, on the third elected Global Council, I am again one of two At-Large Trustees, the other being Swami Agnivesh of New Delhi, India.”

This election to a third term as a trustee of the URI comes not long after Covenant of the Goddess member Rachael Watcher, a longtime interfaith activist, was elected to the Executive Board of NAIN. In addition, Phyllis Curott, President Emerita of COG, is one of three Pagans currently serving on the Board of Trustees of the Council For A Parliament of the World’s Religions. It’s clear that COG is an organization that is leading the way for Pagan involvement in the interfaith community. Congratulations to Don on his election.

Druids vs The Daily Mail: One of the ongoing side-stories to The Druid Network being granted charity status in the UK (a process that was explained in-depth here at The Wild Hunt) was reaction to a scathing editorial by Melanie Philips of the Daily Mail, who called the situation both “absurd” and “malevolent”. TDN founder Emma Restall Orr sent out a lengthy rebuttal to Philips, while a 4100 signature-strong petition calling for an apology was hand delivered by around 30-50 Druids and Druid-supporters to the Daily Mail offices.

“The Daily Mail had someone waiting for us on the steps to take the petition. I handed it over and he promised that he would get it to Robin Esser. I made damn sure I got a handshake and thankfully, someone was quick enough to take a photo of that. At the PCC, Simon Yipp, the gentleman who has been dealing with complaints RE this article, came down personally to recieve the petition. I’m going to give it a week and email both the DM and the PCC for updates, if I don’t hear from them before then.”

In attendance at the petition-delivery were noted UK Pagans like Arthur Pendragon, Vivianne Crowley, and Andrew Pardy (Chairman of the Police Pagan Association). It remains to be seen if this petition will have the desired effect. No doubt Philips thrives on controversy, and I can’t imagine her backtracking on her views.

Moving Halloween? Since Halloween falls on a Sunday this year, some communities are moving observances to Saturday. Some for practical reasons, and some because they believe Halloween to be “pagan” or “Satanic” in origin. News10 in California covered the mini-controversy and spoke with PNC-Sacramento coordinator David Shorey, from Sacramento Grove of the Oak.

“David Shorey. a practicing Druid (a form of Paganism) with Sacramento Grove of the Oak, says “Halloween or as we call it Samhain, is a time to honor the ancestors, look at the past year and honor those who have passed on.” Shorey recognizes that Halloween has evolved into a secular holiday for most Americans and says he and his fellow Druids celebrate with candy and costumes as well as in a traditional Pagan manner. “We’re actually going to be celebrating on the following weekend where we’re going to do an ancestors feast, where folks come together and bring a dish that recognizes and honors their ancestry,” Shorey said.”

Catholics in the UK are trying to “reclaim” Halloween, while animal shelters halt adoption of black cats, partially due to rumors that Witches are out sacrificing cats. All seem to be rooted in the anxiety that Halloween, at its true root, isn’t really associated with the Judeo-Christian backdrop most people are comfortable with. In any case, I think David did a good job with the interview, and stressed that this time of year is one of religious observance for most Pagans.

Invoking Artists: In a final note, artist Jeffrey Vallance, participating in the annual Frieze Art Fair, decided to hold a massive séance involving famous (deceased) artists.

“There were some spooky goings on this week at the fair around the Frieze Project devised by the artist and Fortean Times contributor Jeffrey Vallance, who asked five psychics to channel the spirits of blockbusting artists Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo, Jackson Pollock, Leonardo da Vinci and Marcel Duchamp. Before the mediums—and the artist phantoms—arrived, the spiritualists predicted: “There might be some problems with electricity.” Before you could say Doris Stokes, the internet crashed during the séance, which meant that a live web broadcast had to be scuppered. It was all to do with “forcefields”, apparently.”

Of course the Internet crashed! Artists, particularly great artists like Kahlo and da Vinci, are/were some of the most potent magic(k) workers around. You don’t invoke them lightly. It’s unseemly, and it’ll play havoc with your electronics.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

[The following is a guest post by Alison Shaffer. Alison lives, moves and practices her Druidry in the lovely, thrice-rivered city of Pittsburgh, where she dwells on the edge of a wooded park with her fiancé, her cat, her pet frogs and her houseplants. A member of the Ancient Order of Druids in America and the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, her spiritual studies revolve around a fascination with theology, peacemaking, ecology, Celtic mythology and ritual aesthetics, as well as a love of song and a great deal of poetry. She writes frequently on these themes at her blog, as well as contributing essays to publications such as Sky Earth SeaPatheos.comPagan+Politics and, of course, The Witches' Voice.]

Being a Druid is good for society, says UK Charity Commission. Or so the headlines should have read in the BBC, the Telegraph, the Times, the AFP, the Associated Press and CNN this past week, as each major media outlet reported on the [Charity Commission]‘s approval of The Druid Network‘s application for religious charity status. Instead the news, which has earned a surprising amount of attention (and not a bit of bile) since the decision was announced in a press release on 1 October, has run under headlines declaring, Druidry recognized as a religion in Britain.

Which is, strictly speaking, true. But it also isn’t news. In fact, modern Druidry has been a recognized religion in Britain for as long as there have been practicing Druids to call it one.

Religious Freedom in UK Law

Similar to the religious freedoms protected in the United States’ Bill of Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the freedom to believe and practice according to one’s personal conscience has long been protected in the legal systems of the United Kingdom. Article 9 of the Human Rights Act 1998 (based on the European Convention of Human Rights, in effect since 1953) states that a person’s right to freedom of religion includes: “…freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”

In other words, under British law a system of belief or practice is “recognized as a ‘religion’” — and protected as one — if one or more adherents to that system say it is a religion. That goes for Druids, Pagans, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Scientologists, Jedi and Pastafarians alike.

So why all the fuss? Because the rights and freedoms granted to religious practitioners of Druidry and Paganism in the UK are, as in the US, not necessarily guarantees that they will also have access to all of the same benefits available to more mainstream faiths — benefits such as nonprofit status, state-recognized holidays, prison and military chaplaincy, clergy who are legally empowered to perform marriages and burials, and so on. In short, although British law provides freedom from discrimination for practitioners of all religions, the freedom to participate fully and equally in civil society is something that rests on a foundation of legal precedent. For many religious minorities, securing the latter means buckling down to a long process of challenging numerous individual instances of oversight and exclusion, in order to push past the tipping point from legal tolerance into social acceptance and support.

In the United States, the work of Patrick McCollum and the Lady Liberty League, among others, helps to establish just such a critical mass of legal precedent for Druids, Witches and Pagans within mainstream American society. Similar strides have been made in the UK, where Pagan chaplains already work in hospital and prison ministry and Druids have played prominent roles in public discourse about the protection and preservation of ancient monuments and other important aspects of British heritage and culture. In both countries, several Druid and Pagan organizations also already enjoy not-for-profit status, including The Pagan Federation, the Children of Artemis, Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF), the Henge of Keltria, and the Avalon Druid Order. Yet, despite the exaggerations and well-intentioned misrepresentations in much of the mainstream media coverage this past week, The Druid Network’s success in becoming the first Pagan organization to earn charity status under the new Charities Act 2006 is a momentous stride towards wider social acceptance of Druidry and Paganism in the UK.

TDN’s Journey to Charity Status

The Druid Network officially began the arduous, four-year-plus process of seeking charitable status under English Charity Law in February 2006, when they submitted their application to the Charity Commission of England and Wales (more briefly known as the Charity Commission or CC) just as the new Charities Act 2006 was passing through British Parliament. A great deal of research, reflection and discussion had already gone into the formulation of TDN’s constitution and by-laws before that point, however, as Phil Ryder, Chair of Trustees for TDN, explained to me recently in an interview.

Ryder said he became involved in the process early on: “I simply asked if we were registered and got the reply, ‘Should we be?’ So I investigated the options and found that we did indeed need to register.” As an unincorporated association that accepted membership fees and donations from contributors, The Druid Network was legally obligated to pursue one of two courses of action. “We could have registered with Companies House as a Limited Company,” Ryder explained, “or we could register with the Charity Commission. ‘TDN Ltd’ didn’t seem right, so the trustees decided to register with the Charity Commission.”

After that decision came the challenge of drafting a constitution in a way that, as Ryder put it, “reflected our vision of TDN as an organisation with no hierarchy based on pagan principles of honourable relationship.” Easier said than done. Harder still was the process of crafting a forward to that constitution that included a definition of religious Druidry describing, as simply and inclusively as possible, the basics of Druidic belief and practice that would be both acceptable to the CC and approved by as many of the major Druidic organizations as possible. As an article published to the TDN website clarifies:

Druids by nature (pun intended) don’t wish to be tied down or submit to definitions; however, they all relate to the term ‘Druid’ so it must mean something, or it would simply be a meaningless word. Great thought, mediation and spiritual guidance went into the drafting of the definition of Druidry adopted by TDN (Annex 1 to the decision [.pdf]). It was intended as a statement of common ground held by the majority of Druids who felt that Druidry was a religion or deep spirituality; it was not a full definition. [...] It is not, and was never intended to be, a creed or definition that all Druids must accept, but a legal explanation of common ground of those Druids who consider their path to be essentially religious.

The carefully-crafted religious focus of this definition was necessary, Ryder explained in our interview, because English Charity Law requires charities to register under what are called “Heads of Charity” (for instance, “the advancement of religion,” “the advancement of education” and “the relief of the poor”) which outline potential causes in the service of “public benefit.” Although the British government provides no formal, legal mechanism for defining “religion” — and indeed, the term remains ambiguous and problematic even among academics — English Charity Law has its own working definition for the purposes of determining charitable status.

At the time of TDN’s initial application, the CC’s understanding of religion was determined by the Charities Act 1993 and precedent set by several legal cases since, including the application and rejection of the Church of Scientology for charitable status in 1999. In fact, the CC originally rejected TDN’s application as a religious organization under the assumption that Druidry was esoteric or occult (that is, a mystic or mystery tradition intended for only a small number of initiated members) and therefore not beneficial to the public at large. This initial rejection led to a review procedure of TDN’s application, during the course of which the new Charities Act 2006 came into effect and began to change the rules of the game.

The Druid Network’s application for charitable status stalled as the CC scrambled to determine what the new Charities Act, which amended and expanded upon much of the previous Act, meant for their definitions of “religion” and “public benefit.”

An opportunity for change came with the implementation of the Charities Act 2006. It stated for the first time that a religion could involve a belief in more than one god or a belief in no god at all. After its implementation, the Charity Commission embarked on a lengthy process of consultation on how this Act affected charity law, which it followed by drafting various guidance documents that set down how it would interpret the law.

TDN remained deeply involved during the public consultation process that followed, submitting numerous documents and emails expanding upon their definition of Druidry and provoking detailed examination of how it compared to other non-Abrahamic faith traditions. “The CC just didn’t understand us,” Ryder said,

they are lawyers, not theologians, and have their own beliefs. It must have been hard for them to break down those barriers of monotheism. We simply provided information and answered any questions they raised. Of course, many times it served to confuse them even more and raised even more questions. At times we had to make comparisons with other world religions that the CC already had registered, and demonstrate that our understanding of deity and practice was not that far removed from those religions. It was hard, but on both sides, and full credit to the CC.

After four years of rigorous inquisition and debate, the Charity Commission finally informed TDN on 1 September of this year that its Board Members would be holding a meeting to determine its final decision on TDN’s pending application. The CC’s approval of The Druid Network’s status as a religious charity, ratified on 21 September 2010, was published in a 21-page document (available in .pdf) detailing the many areas in which TDN has demonstrated itself up to the task of “advancing a religion or belief system for the benefit of the public.”

Perhaps most interesting about this decision is the fact that the Charity Commission lists among TDN’s publicly beneficial activities not only those such as “promoting the preservation of heritage and culture” and “promoting conservation and preservation of the environment” but also “the provision of information on the practice of Druidry to the public” and “facilitating the practice of Druidry through conferences, camps, workshops, retreats and courses, and through its affiliated groups.” In other words, according to the CC, a non-ministerial department of the British government, greater access to information about Druidry and the practice of Druidry itself are both beneficial to the general public.

News Spreads, The Druid and Pagan Communities Respond

Given the impressive influence The Druid Network had on the Charity Commission’s evolving approach to definitions of religion and public benefit, and the implications of the CC’s decision to acknowledge TDN’s understanding and practice of Druidry as not only legitimately religious but also beneficial to the larger community — it’s no surprise that the mainstream media coverage of this story entirely missed the point.

News reports soon spread in several major media outlets (both in the UK and here in the US, where the story even made it on to a local nightly news program in California), announcing that Britain had “officially recognized” Druidry as a religion for the first time in thousands of years. Stock photographs of bearded men in white robes hoisting staves above the silhouettes of Stonehenge graced every page. CNN reporter Phil Gast even indulged in a bit of good ol’ tacit American competition with Merry Olde England about who was more tolerant of Pagans, when he quoted Professor Marty Laubach of Marshall University saying, “‘In some ways, Druidry in Britain is catching up to Druids and other neo-pagans in the United States, which already provides tax-exempt status for religious groups,’” completely overlooking the fact that, while Pagan non-profits already exist in the UK, there is no comparable process of earning charitable status in the U.S. Amidst the hubbub, one columnist for The Daily Mail produced an article of astounding prejudice, decrying Druidry as a bunch of “barking mumbo-jumbo” and demonstrating not only the writer’s gross ignorance of even the basics of Druidic belief and practice, but her fundamental misunderstanding of religious freedom under British law. Yet all in all, the coverage was positive and congratulatory in tone, if often far off-the-mark on the facts.

Meanwhile, Druids and Pagans in the UK and abroad had begun to weigh in with their own views. For many, The Druid Network’s success was cause for celebration and optimism. “It’s an awe inspiring thing to have seen happen,” wrote Brynneth at The Pagan & The Pen, one of the first public responses to the news. “One of the things that charitable status for the Druid Network shows is that we can engage and be heard, without having to become something other than we are. That gives me hope.”

“I, for one, am quite excited at the development,” said Kirk Thomas, Archdruid of Ár nDraíocht Féin, one of the most influential Neopagan Druidic organizations in the U.S. “We have an ADF Grove in Hampshire, and have long wondered what it would take to get ADF recognized in the UK. We suspect that TDN has ‘broken the ice’ as it were, and this might make it easier for other Druid groups to become recognized.”

Tony Everett, who has been a member of TDN for a number of years but has usually kept in the background of the organization’s activities, felt both pride and humility: “When the news came I was so humbled by all the work that must have gone into the application over the last couple of years and proud to call myself Druid. Once all the negative press has settled and the antagonists have had their fun, I am certain that this can only do great things to promote Druidry and inform the public of the truth behind our beliefs.”

“It’s a good first step, wonderful in fact.,” said Farrell McGovern, another member of ADF residing in Canada. “[W]e have to be responsible adults if we want to be recognized as a religion. We thus need to jump through all the hoops and pay our dues just like every other religion out there.”

However, amongst the congratulations was also a hint of ambivalence and caution among some Druid and Pagan voices. In a post titled “Is Druidry a Religion?” on his blog, Philip Carr-Gomm, head of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD), one of the largest Druidic organizations in Britain, expressed mixed feelings about the news, saying:

I ‘and many other OBOD members’ have always liked the way Druidry has avoided being ‘boxed-in’ to one definition: a spiritual path to some people, a magical tradition to another, a religion to a third, a philosophy or cultural phenomenon to another, and so on. As soon as you start on the path of trying to define Druidry you run into problems. [...] Not all people who call themselves Druids would agree with all aspects of the definition of Druidry that The Druid Network have agreed with the Charity Commission. As with many things there are positives and negatives and it’s a question of weighing these up and looking more closely at the implications of the decision.

Carr-Gomm’s post prompted several other OBOD members to leave comments both on his blog and Facebook page expressing their concern, discomfort and even fear at the CC’s decision to approve TDN based on their definition of religious Druidry.

Graeme Talboys, Druid scholar and author of Way of the Druid: Renaissance of a Celtic Religion and its Relevance for Today, also had a few misgivings about the decision, although he emphasized that it was generally “a step forward”:

On the surface, all that has happened is that TDN has been granted legal permission to operate as a charity. At a deeper level this has been achieved by persuading the Charity Commission for England and Wales that Druidry (sic) is a bona fide religion. It is another recognition in law of Druids and what they believe. [... I]t is now just a little bit easier, in England and Wales, to be Druid.

Pointing to several statements contained within the The Druid Network’s definition and description of Druidry, however, Talboys expressed his qualms with some historical inaccuracies and conceptual inconsistencies, worrying that “any pedant” could use them as an excuse to pick apart or challenge the definition on purely factual grounds.

Whilst I am grateful to [TDN] for the work they have done in this respect (and it cannot be denied it is a big step in terms of recognition in England and Wales), it is only a single step for one particular group of Druids. Whether it brings benefit to the whole Druid community, including those of us in the Hedge, remains to be seen.

Members of The Druid Network have, in turn, attempted to respond to some of the concerns raised by other Druids in the larger community, particularly those who do not consider Druidry to be distinctly Pagan or explicitly religious in nature. A comment shared on TDN’s website by a writer under the name ‘Celtic Knight’ notes:

I have seen some criticism that this move makes Druidry part of the establishment. I don’t accept that. What it has done is to force the establishment to take Druidry seriously. Some fear that this will somehow define or box in Druidry. It will not. The Commission accepted the diversity of beliefs and practices that represent Druidry and that these are a reflection of the diversity inherent in nature. [...] Many dislike the label ‘religion’, with its associations of rigid dogma, archaic institutions and being told what to believe. However, the decision accepts that Druidry is an experiential religion: Druids’ beliefs come from their experience and not from what they are told. They change and adapt over time and in different environments, just as nature differs according to time and space. This is not a case of Druidry being forced into the straightjacket of religion, but of the very definition of religion as accepted in charity law being changed to accommodate beliefs such as ours.

In our interview, Phil Ryder replied to my questions on the matter by appealing to what is positive about the decision, rather than what might be divisive. He asked that others obtain facts before voicing uninformed opinions, but acknowledged that “even then there will be those who disagree with TDN’s approach. And I celebrate that! How can we learn and evolve if we all have the same beliefs? We all perceive this reality in different ways, and that is Nature.”

In some ways, it is precisely this aspect of Druidry and the greater Druidic philosophical tradition — with its ever-evolving, self-analytical understanding of how the specifics of landscape and local community give rise to a diversity of religious experience and belief without jeopardizing the bonds that unite us together in a dynamic, thriving community — that may transform religious and interfaith discourse and bring the most benefit the British society in the future.

Further Resources

Pagan author and teacher T. Thorn Coyle and some local Druids, including PNC-Sacramento coordinator David Shorey, from Sacramento Grove of the Oak, were interviewed in California by a local Fox affiliate concerning The Druid Network in the UK gaining charitable status, an event that has seen a surprisingly large amount of mainstream coverage.

Sadly, it looks like they didn’t use David’s footage, since I don’t see him in that clip, but on the whole it’s a rather unsensationalistic piece of local network television. Kudos to the local Pagans for handling the experience in a professional manner. Has your local paper or television station decided to go Druid hunting? If so, do share it in the comments.