Covens and Temples, Bands and Sessions

by Christopher Penczak

I was recently asked on Twitter by @Gardnerians about what it is like running a Witchcraft Church vs. traditional coven experiences. Since 140 characters is not an easy place to get into depth, I thought I would write about it via a blog post.

Overall, I have to say I love being one of many people, and arguably the most visible person, responsible for running the Temple of Witchcraft. The experience has certainly been a challenge both on the front of working with a larger and more diverse community, and the sheer volume of business it involves, from meetings, financial planning, goal setting, legal sessions, and the set up process dealing with the state and federal governement, and local advisors and lawyers to attain our 501(c)3 nonprofit status as a legally-recognized church. But the rewards are amazing as well. The trick, and really the mission, is to be organized structurally and follow sound business practices without losing the essence of our purpose, the magick and mystery. Our goal is the evolution of the soul, and the evolution of community, and any structure or business should serve to support that.

Our mission greatly creating opportunities for people to serve beyond the traditional coven structure. Its been wonderful to see many people step up to those opportunities and fill in niches we sometimes didn’t even know were there. It’s been fun to step back from some aspects of community service and education, to allow others to flourish, and have opportunities to go deeper in my own teachings and writing, and also get some introductions to more advanced education for ministers. We’ve done classes on communication, mediation, suicide awareness, and have some plans for classes on social justice and financial management. My world has been expanded.

One of the reasons for starting the Temple of Witchcraft, and to structure it outside of the more traditonal coven framework was to provide opportunities for both advanced study and ministerial skills, and opportunities to minister, to serve, beyond how most people define a High Priest/ess. While I don’t have a formal British Traditional Wicca background, I have been in groups that have emmulated the structure. The coven unit becomes very familial, and over the years I’ve noticed that in such groups, the High Priestess and High Priest really take on parental roles. In groups where that is clearly understood and appropriate boundaries and conduct are maintained, it can be an amazingly healing time to work out family issues and become clear enough to truly embody the mysteries. I’m sorry to say that most of the folks I knew in that situation, both emmulating BTW groups and those with initiatory lineage, didn’t seem to hold that space when I began my path. Boundaries were lacking. Things got very weird and there was a high sense of drama. I didn’t really want any part of it. I’ve had people ask why I didn’t seek out initiation from these lineages earlier in my own education, and the lack of seeing elders that I wanted to emulate steered me in other directions, including getting a lot of education outside of traditional Witchcraft and Wicca circles. I gravitate toward the definition of the Witch as vocational. It’s a purpose, a job in the community, and that job has been whittled away with the growth of mainstream religions and the movement of the role of the shaman to priest/priestess, to minister and now dividing futher into all manner of medical practitioners, counselors, and coaches. But I looked for people and practice were practicing a magickal vocation. I explored shamanism, Theosophy, Ceremonial magick, alchemy, astrology and hollistic health involving herbs, flower essence and gem therapy. I didn’t even realize it was possibly to work it in a really healthy and healing way until many years later when I saw some amazing BTW initiates hold that space in such a way that it was clear and honorable.

But the overall model is that you “grow up” and reach third degree, hive off, and start your own “family.” I’ve known many talented Witches, seekers of the mysteries and workers of magick, who were not cut out to be coven leaders, teachers, and celebrants for others. In trying to do so, I think they created many of the covens with the messy dynamics. Those raising families beyond the coven find themselves overworked, and there are unusual dynamics if your partnering HP/S is your spouse, and different difficulties if your partnering HP/S is not.

My own training was not coven based, but class based. I had no prohibitions against charging for teaching, as I was charged and, in many ways, it made the exchange much cleaner and clearer than some of my peers’ education. I approached my Craft much like religious education in a college setting. There was a schedule, a syllabus, and class description and expectations for work. The class was as advertised. While I honored my elders, when the class was done, my formal obligation was done unless I volunteered for something in community, or took another class to deepen my education. There were no strange family dynamics, hidden subtext, or unspoken obligations and vows, and I appreciated that. When some in my circle of friends and acquaintences asked me to transform a little study group into a class, I followed the example set for me and treated it like a formal course. That helped me eventually work in metaphysical stores and community centers offering education, and maintain appropriate boundaries in these settings.

An unforseen problem arose from this work over many years. I eventually found through my teaching like-minded souls to form a group, a more Aquarian coven based structure of trained priests and priesteses, sharing roles, responsbilities and duties, rotating in various ways over the years. That structure was highly fulfilling for me. While I had a robust solitary practice, and often practiced with my partner Steve, the coven also provided a social support in our magickal studies. Yet not teaching in a coven base, when people graduated, there was a sense of “what next?” Some continued studies with others, and decided that perhaps a BTW approach, or perhaps even a whole other complimentary path, was for them. With a good foundation, they sought other arenas of education and experience. Some formed small groups, or practiced solitary, and even took on their own students, which is honestly what I envisioned would happen. Some foundered, not knowing how to engage community on their own terms without crafting a coven or leading open circles. Many, seeking identity in the greater community, started awkward phrases such as “Penczakian” or “Christopherian.” I was a bit horrified by that. In talking with long time students, friends and covenmates, it became clear that a new model might be helpful, a structure to provide support during and after  training. Along with similar techniques, we were building a shared culture and mythos beyond a basic Wicca to share, and with that would come an identity beyond any tradition named for its founder. Thus, the first stirrings of the Temple of Witchcraft occurred.

My desire was not to create a family dynamic, or the “tribe” that many seek, but to explore Witchcraft in the structure of an esoteric order. We are sharing community, and have shared techniques, but we each work a personal path. We can gather when appropriate, be solitary when appropriate, but have the dual responsibility to self and self-development while also doing this work in community. It’s the paradox of the Age of Aquarius. While there is structure and hierarchy to any organization, we modeled ours on the web, a lateral spinning out from the center, with projects directed by those with the passion and will for each goal, and receiving support in the network of strands along our community web.

As silly as it might sound, the model of Jedi Knights and Jedi Masters in the popular Star Wars movies, was more like our model than covens. We have a council that guides, and a smaller group within the councel that takes the legal responsbility. Many gather together and many do their own thing within the mission statements of the Temple. We have formal classes and education programs, but mentor programs where people receive one-on-one attention and training. We have both a formality, as I did when first learning, and a personal mentorship, another complimentary pair of qualities. Students and ministers are asked to give back to the greater community, but have a wide variety of options in regard to service. We created a structure of twelve areas of service, based on the Zodiac signs. You don’t like to teach or lead ritual? That’s fine. You can do prison ministry, community building, disaster relief, environmental action, or healing, to name a few. And each could be approaches as a part of a ministry. And you can have multiple roles, based upon your interests. But, unlike the Jedi, as Witches we seek the balance between the light and the dark sides of the Force. We understand the blessings of shadows and light, and the magickal time of twilight between them.

I recently read a quote from Thelemite Soror Feiri Facias. “O.T.O. is critical to Thelema because it’s a social laboratory for this spiritual science.” The O.T.O. (Ordo Templi Orientis) is a magickal order associated with the works of Aleister Crowley, while his system/religion is Thelema. He was a huge influence in Wicca, and on me. I think both Witchcraft covens and temples play a similar role. I was taught that Witchcraft is a science, art, and religion. The religious community is the vessel, the container where we research the science of our mystery school and create the art of our lives. In the Temple of Witchcraft, we often call the overall community “the cauldron,” for it holds us, but we each must do our own “cooking.” I think covens are a container of a sort, and can often work out familial issues, and give us opportunities to apply those spiritual principles in such a family setting. But they are limited as covens share such a similar identity together, just like a family. A greater body, an order, a temple, allows us to work with those who have a great difference views and identity. Not everyone in the Temple of Witchcraft identifies as a Witch, or has a the same definition of Witchcraft. We worship a wide variety of gods, and while we share practices, we have a wide range of practices and how we perform them. We have a social order that encourages disagreement and debate, leading to some form of agreement to move forward. It’s easy to be very “spiritual” when you are  alone, but the task is to apply these principles with those working in a somewhat a similar frame, our spiritual community, then apply them to the greater world. I think a Temple structure is an intermediary step between coven and greater community.

I don’t really think of the process as an either/or experience, coven vs. temple. At the moment, I am no longer in a traditional (or even non-traditional) coven, but I have been in some form of circle aspiring to be a coven or formal coven structure since 1993, and my last coven experience ended in 2011. That’s been the majority of my magickal life. As the group evolved, many of the same people were involved in most incarnations of the group. As many of us discussed our goals for community, education, and the culture of our Craft, and decided to found the Temple of Witchcraft and put our energy towards manifesting our vision, the most active coven members were also the most active members of the Temple. The least active members of the coven were the least involved in the Temple, and many of us (but not all) felt that perhaps it was a better use of our time to transition out of one structure and focus on the new endeavor. Things end, and the desire to hold on can be just as harmful as letting go before it’s over. Since then, many of our lives have changed radically, perhaps in ways that would not have occurred if the coven was still present and I do think these things were necessary. We’re all still friends, and those who are more active in the community still practice together in various combinations, publically and privately as the desire arises.

Many members of the Temple, including the Temple leadership, belong to covens inside and outside of the Temple structure while maintaining their work in the Temple. Many more or less formal groups come together for specific rituals, or a series of rituals and teachings. In many ways, the Temple council acts as its own magickal group, undergoing training and doing magick together. The Ministerial Dark Moon meetings, for graduates of the training program, have been come a key group for advanced practices, sharing, support, comraderie and magick. I love the fact we can be someplace where the default assumption is that you are an experienced practitioner with your own practice and ministry, and we can go deeper. Working on the Dark Moons has been a huge place of support and inspiriation for me. It’s become a little “R&D” for future writings and books. And the folks who attend our Full Moon rituals, open to the public, have bonded together in that lunar work. They are much smaller than our large sabbat gatherings, and are ideal for forging coven-like bonds.

A wonderful priestess and magician in the St. Louis area, owner of the store Pathways, Deborah Bourbon, made an excellent analogy for me a few years back. She compared magick to music. Many of us start out in bands, from the high school garage bands to perhaps playing with some seasoned musicians who help improve each other’s chops. In a band, we learn a set style and work on “our sound.” There is a familial bond to the band. I know I was in a band in college, and we often talked, in all seriousness, that the band was like a marriage. Yet bands are often drama-filled and volitile. And my band certainly was. Then we advance in our skills, awareness and broaden our tastes. A seasoned musician can join in jam sessions with others of a variety of skills to work in specific projects, and soon you can have several projects going at once. You play off of each other in session, and help each other with goals and recordings. With maturity comes a fluidity and an ability to adapt and support, as well as lead and create. She then said that the bands were the covens and the sessions were what happened after the covens for many of us. You could always be in a band, but seasoned musicians could do both, or just play in various combos to suit the needs of a project.

After many years of being in a band, or really a coven, I’m taking a bit of a break. I feel like I’ve formed a musicians guild instead, but for Witches. We have shared needs and shared goals, and are sharing the work. Beyond a single sesson, we are creating something that will have a structure to last, yet a flexibility to support and serve many. It is hard? Hell, yes! Anything involving change, people, and interacting with the general public to be more visible is always hard. Is it rewarding? Absolutely. I can’t imagine any other group with whom I’d like to be playing the Great Song.

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