Covens and Congregations

by Christopher Penczak, edited by Tina Whittle

Photo by Barnabas Davoti from Pexels

At the end of my current year in our online class, we had an interesting short discussion about religious institutions, fundraising, and essentially, proselytizing. Most of us come from a religious background where there is the wholehearted belief that their way is the “right way” and for many, helping others come to the right way is a moral duty. I have heard from some true believers that proselytizing is the same as pulling your burning body out of a fire to save you, only the burning building is the fires of hell. And she believed it, but it’s not the same thing. You only think it is because of your beliefs.

The conversation came up after we announced our annual online conference, TempleHearth, and more detailed plans for our community center, including the architectural sketches, vision drawings, and site plans. Estimates are around $1.7 million, so we have a long road ahead, though I know we can do it, little by little, with the help of some magick. Community is a lifelong project, not a quick flash. One student appreciated that at the end of Witchcraft One, we start the conversation about if you should or shouldn’t perform the solitary initiation ritual at the end of the course. There is no assumption or expectation you will, and it is only required if you want to go onto level two in the program. We encourage people to really reflect on it, take time and be sure. There are no hard oaths, nor any requirements, and you can still be a general member of the community and not initiate. It’s not for everyone. We have a segment of people who take the class, learn about magick and psychic ability, meditation and energy, and then go on to other things. Some initiate, and some don’t.

This consent-based approach was praised, and then the hope that it wouldn’t change as we faced our challenges to build the community center, as other religious organizations, in an effort to meet financial goals, will often push membership drives to meet such goals.

Generally Witchcraft and Paganism are non-proselytizing by their nature. It’s one of the hard-wired things I took from my early studies, though some don’t place the emphasis on it today in the growing polytheistic world. We’ve had members and even leaders want to focus on growing families in the Craft or enticing new demographics to grow the community as a traditional church does (see Children Are Our Future). Yet Witchcraft is an initiatory tradition. One must seek to go through the door of mystery, but with a more public organization like ours, we try to make the door more visible and the requirements more clear. We don’t proselytize to any specific demographic or seek to improve our “numbers” with any segment of society. Those who are called to come are welcome to enter, but we don’t entice. We do have our challenges with modernity and being online, yet keeping to the essence of what is important will always be foremost in our minds. Ideally I’d love in-person access for anyone who wants it, but until then, we face the challenges, and blessings, of being online as well as in-person.

The tougher part, the antithesis of this financial concern, is we often discourage people from going on too quickly, and encourage people to take their time, integrate, and learn other complementary things, within the Temple or outside of it, to be properly prepared for deeper work. We discourage rushing through the process, though we live in an age where people wish to complete things quickly. We often turn down applicants at all levels (sometimes based on previous work, sometimes based on the application itself) if there are concerns that the student is not ready and the teachings might be damaging or simply not have a hope of taking root at this time. Waiting to proceed can feel like rejection, and it’s hard to parse out rejection from a specific course at a specific time and teacher from rejection of selfhood. We explore this more in The Subtle Process, Part 2: Facing Rejection and Who Guards the Gate. We work with all sincere seekers, but as each level progresses, the classes become purposely smaller.

We do accept donations as a nonprofit church, which is quite helpful, and have generous contributors, quite a few of whom are not even initiates of the tradition, just those who appreciate what we do and what we stand for in greater Paganism. Our goal is to create land-based resources that will be passed from one generation to the next and which will continue to grow to serve many different locations, eventually. I struggle with the nonprofit church part, as I question if what we do is really “a church.” The answer is yes and no. To answer that, we have to get into the divide between prophetic religions and mystical religions, and how there is more than one definition of a religious organization, even if it’s something unfamiliar to us because of upbringing and background. And sometimes there are more similarities than we would like. But if other religions are going to get societally recognized breaks for themselves and their members, why shouldn’t we partake in the same benefits? It’s quite helpful to a young organization such as ours as we work to establish long-time resources, allowing us to better focus on what is important, such as helping each other through magickal evolution and helping train ministers to serve our community and beyond in the world.

Sadly a lot of Pagan community is still much like the Protestant preacher model. Communities form around a charismatic leader, teacher, or healer. That is how I got here. I fully admit it, though I didn’t know enough about it at the time when the process began. I went from a word-of-mouth teacher working in people’s homes to working in bookstores, centers, festivals, and conventions. Then a group of past students wanted to build community and put the teachings into deeper practice. Some Witchcraft traditions, however, are based on a Catholic or Orthodox sense of apostolic succession. The sense of authority is passed down from founders to specific branches, such as High Priestess to coveners, usually closed to the public. To deny these things in relationship to other religions wouldn’t serve us, despite many of us naturally wishing to disassociate from anything to do with a church, but as we enter an Aquarian Age, these similarities can illustrate how we take those strands and look to new models. The Temple of Witchcraft is one such way, focusing upon a school and providing a wide variety of ministries for a Witchcraft priesthood to serve, learn, and experience outside of a coven context. The intention is to provide container, support, and continuity for the training of the magickal priesthood.

Unlike many other congregational religions, we in the Temple are more like the cunning folk of old, being service-based. There are specific costs for classes, events, or specific work beyond pastoral care. Some would critique that one cannot charge for mystical training, and I’ve struggled with that as well, though I was charged for my initial training and appreciate the clarity of the relationship and the clearly marked rights and requirements between both parties. There was a distinct sense of beginning, middle, and end to all agreements, and what options were next. In other models, what you “owe” is not always clearly spelled out. I was speaking to a friend in several initiatory groups who jokes that “you always pay, one way or another.” I think there is some truth to that. Sometimes we get mired in oaths of loyalty we feel obligated to follow, even when we believe our teacher to be wrong. And I think of all the amazing spiritual things that I have also paid for in terms of art, music, literature, and lessons to practice art, music, and writing myself. Were they any less meaningful than my magick? No. They are framed differently, but still deeply magickal and spiritual on my life path.

We offer pastoral care to students in the mystery school, and there is a supportive community body of members, students, initiates, and ministers to aid. You can volunteer and share in experiences, find some work study programs, apply for scholarships, or attend quite a few free events and partake in free resources. If you want specific expertise or private counsel, healing, or divination, you might book a session with a professional who can offer those services to you. Unlike a congregation where weekly tithing is often the order, you only pay for the professional services you receive.

There are no yearly dues, and one does not lose membership from lack of attendance of events or classes. We have members of the tradition who show up to things sporadically as time allows, going back to the 1990s as their time of initiation. We have many wonderful community members whose initiatory path is elsewhere for a personal focus, but we enjoy our time together for kinship, community events, and magickal projects. And I’m sure we will keep that ethos, even when facing the projects of community center funding, just one of our multi-generational dreams for our community.

While church implies congregation—and perhaps in the eye of the government giving us nonprofit status, we have a congregation—as a Witch, I see us as a mystical order with many different options of participation, where everyone can come together in community, but is also free to come and go as they please in the pursuit of their own mystical attainment. It’s not a coven. It’s not a congregation. It’s a secret society with an open secret and public listings. It’s a magickal order that clearly marks where the entrance and exit is. And I don’t think I would have it any other way.

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