SOUTH AUSTRALIA – The Pagan Alliance of South Australia recently ceased to operate as an incorporated association, citing a significant drop in membership and financial difficulties as reasons for the decision. With the Tasmanian branch of the Pagan Alliance facing similar issues, an end to this organisation – once a nationwide cornerstone of the Australian Pagan community — is becoming increasingly likely after almost 30 years.
The Pagan Alliance was founded in 1991 by Wiccan Julia Philips at the height of the “Satanic Panic,” partly as a response to the widespread fearmongering and misinformation about Paganism during that period. According to a 2006 article, Phillips was staying with Wiccan friends in Canberra early in 1991 when the first seeds were planted.
“One of these manipulative people appeared on TV, spreading the usual unsubstantiated claims that pagans and witches were conducting black masses, child sacrifice, and so on,” she remembers.
It soon became apparent to Phillips that many Australian Pagans were unaware that many accounts of so-called “ritual abuse” during this time were fraudulent. “My friends were all utterly shocked by what they heard, and started talking about ways to make sure the Pagan community could identify ’satanic abuse’ within Australia. When I told them that all these claims were fraudulent and simply an evangelical Christian attempt to discredit Paganism, they were sceptical and pointed out how much ‘evidence’ the woman being interviews [sic] had provided.”
Phillips, who had spent some years living in England and had been a long-time member of the Pagan Federation, realised that Australians simply weren’t cognisant of the events in England, Scotland and the U.S., which meant that they were unprepared to deal with any threats if they cropped up.
“Pagans in Australia didn’t have access in those days to a good communication network to learn about the truth behind the myth and reports had limited, if any, exposure in the mainstream Australian media. . . . [they] were really quite isolated from what was happening elsewhere in the Pagan world.”
This realisation prompted Phillips to contact her friend who was head of the Pagan Federation, Gardnerian high priestess Leonora James, and the idea was born: a nationwide organisation — the first of its kind in Australia — dedicated to providing news and networking to Pagans.
Launched at the 1991 Australian Wiccan Conference that September with the motto “strength through diversity,” the organisation was called the Pan-Pacific Pagan Alliance, in the hope that New Zealand Pagans would also be involved.
Oleander was present during this formative time, and handled the Pagan Parents’ League, a division of the PPPA. “We were all pretty spread out and there was no real networking back then,” she writes. [The PPPA was] “a kind of umbrella organisation that could also offer legal representation/advice to Pagans, because at that time there was a big scare about so called satanic and Pagan child abuse.
“As a mother of two children it was a really scary time. I remember how shocked and powerless many of us felt at what was unfolding. It felt like the days of the witch hunts could come again, which just felt so unbelievable. . . . the PPPA was born and it was an exciting and positive time in the community with lots of networking and ideas.”
The Pagan Parents’ League was a part of the initial PPPA. Oleander wrote parenting articles for the newsletter and ran Pagan parenting workshops, children’s activities and the children’s spring ritual for the next few Wiccan conferences. She also became a contact person for other parents.
“I still remember a very late night phone call . . . . a couple of years into my time as the PPPA Pagan Parents’ League coordinator from a very distressed older lady who was terrified of losing custody of her granddaughter because she was a witch . . . and that lady turned out to be Rhiannon Ryall, but that’s another story!”The PPPA thrived throughout the ’90s, with several coordinators — in most cases from differing traditions in an effort to prevent one group having more say than another — in each state reporting to a central coordinator based in Sydney. Around 1995, Michael Freeman stepped into the role of promoting the PPPA in New Zealand.
Toward the end of that decade, then-coordinators of the PPPA Chel and Jon Bardell steered the group in structural changes: its members’ magazine the Pagan Times was separated from the organisation and became a subscription-only publication. In addition to this, the PPPA was rebranded as the Australian Pagan Alliance.
In 1999, the Bardells retired from their positions. Julia Phillips returned to a leadership role, establishing the Pagan Alliance in Victoria as an incorporated body. Phillips remained in charge of a small committee until retiring in 2003. By that point the once-nationwide Pagan Alliance existed only in the states of South Australia and Tasmania.
The Pagan Alliance of South Australia
In January 2018, leaders of the Pagan Alliance of South Australia announced on their Facebook page that it had been struggling to get new members and retain old ones, and called for the Pagan community to lend their support to keep PASA running as a viable organisation.
The Jan. 7 statement declared, “We are at the point where, if no new members come forward, PASA as an incorporated body will cease to exist by June 30, 2018.”
While many initially pledged their support, the follow-through was not enough to sustain the organisation going forward, according to PASA coordinator Tamzin Woodcock. “We had a last ditch attempt in January, with a big email and [Facebook] push. Lots of support, but only a few fronted up with the membership form and money. We literally did not have enough ongoing members to pay the yearly insurance cost, and to run camps and workshops, you need insurance if you are an incorporated body [in South Australia].”
Woodcock joined PASA in 2001, after meeting many members at the 2000 Australian Wiccan Conference. “Over the years [PASA] have run Australian Wiccan conferences and other camps, workshops and provided insurance for the yearly English Ale. Fortnightly, then monthly ‘Pagans in the Pub’ meetings with speakers, networking and raffles. A magazine, the Silver Wheel, was published at first eight times a year, then four.” The organisation has also run regular seasonal picnics and rituals.
A special general meeting was held on July 3. Attendees voted 17 to nothing in favour of de-registering PASA as an incorporated body.
“Thank you to all who have been involved and shown interest in PASA throughout the years,” the committee said in a statement on Facebook. “Unfortunately, the financial situation for PASA is such that we will no longer be able to continue as an incorporated body.”
Without incorporation, PASA will not have insurance, an official committee or members.
“We’re hoping to continue as a Facebook group, with no fees, no committee and no meetings,” Tamzin says. “To regularly get together and unofficially do many of the things that PASA used to do. . . . We are also looking into an online magazine for members to contribute to.
“At this stage, we are unsure what an un-incorporated PASA will look like,” the statement reads, later continuing to advise that “we will keep our community informed as to what we may look like and how you may be involved.”
The PASA committee will be meeting on Aug. 6 to discuss details of the de-registration process.
The Tasmanian Pagan Alliance
With the de-registering of PASA as an incorporated body, the Tasmanian Pagan Alliance is the only remaining incarnation of what was once the Pan-Pacific Pagan Alliance. However, they have reportedly faced challenges in the form of membership losses this year, as has been reported by numerous members.
On April 30, newly-elected alliance president Morgan Leigh and treasurer Jan Walker posted a statement on Facebook advising members of an upcoming special general meeting to “elect a new committee as so many people have resigned that we don’t have enough people left to have a quorum so we are unable to have committee meetings.”
One long-time attendee of alliance events, who did not wish to use his name, expressed his own concern at a sudden drop in numbers this year. “It’s really noticeable to many of us,” he told the Wild Hunt. “Lots of people have left the committee or left altogether, and the transition to the new committees hasn’t been that smooth, to be honest. I think a lot of us are sort of holding our breath to see what happens next. Numbers are getting pretty low.”
Other interviewees also expressed similar worries. The board, however, was unavailable for comment by time of publication.
The Tasmanian Pagan Alliance’s special general meeting took place online in May. Since then, another long-time alliance moot convener has resigned her position.
The challenges of running a Pagan nonprofit
Having been president of the New South Wales-based Pagan Awareness Network for over a decade, David Garland is no stranger to the challenges faced by leaders of these two groups. “It is unfortunate that the PASA is going to unincorporate[sic] but it is a sign of the modern Pagan community, in my opinion,” he told the Wild Hunt. “Nobody wants to belong to an organisation anymore. Nobody wants to pay membership fees or contribute or volunteer to produce things like the Silver Wheel for nothing.”
His organization has faced the same problem in the past, Garland said. “We just ran out of members and nobody was joining. Luckily we got through it and we managed have enough people to keep the association running . . . . if the community isn’t backing the organisation then why would your organisation continue to try [to] back the community? You will find that it is the same people who are the backbone of the Pagan groups and organisations, and they burn out. Especially when there is no support from the community.”
Woodcock agreed. “We asked what people wanted and tried our best to deliver, but to no avail,”she said, when asked about community support for the Pagan Alliance of South Australia.
“The majority of the Australian community in my opinion is not satisfied that an organisation is working behind the scenes ensuring that religious freedom and rights are being protected.” Garland said. “They want low cost or free events run [in] their area, even if there would be less than 20 people who may attend in that remote area. They don’t want to financially support a group that they do not directly get a personal physical advantage from for something that concerns them now. They all want events but don’t want to risk the time or money to run them.
“If anyone has a solution, I would love to hear it, to try [to] give Pagans the community that they want.”