Temples, Covens And Groves - Oh My!


There appears to be a fair amount of ongoing confusion as to what each of these is and what each of them should be doing, so let me stick my oar into it, too. But first, let's play the definition game.

CIRCLE Three or more people who gather together to work ritual or Craft. Some are ritual only, some worship only, but most do both. The following are all special cases of a Circle:

GROVE Circle usually led by, and under the auspices of, a coven. Frequently eclectic in practice, Groves are commonly used as an introduction to the Craft as a whole but not necessarily to any given Tradition. Groves usually don't initiate. May also be called a study group.

COVEN Circle gathering at least once per month (with a majority gathering twice) for worship and/or magic. Membership tends to be stable with gradual personnel changes. Normally practicing within a single Tradition, Covens typically have strong group rapport. Most train their members to whatever standard they use. Rites of passage (the "I" word) are the norm.

TEMPLE Two or more Circles, generally at least one Coven (the Inner Circle) and a Grove (the Outer Circle), the latter being open to the public. Serves the public as a place to worship and/or learn about the Gods with advanced training for those seekers who meet the Temple's standards. I'm on shakier ground here, never having run a Temple, but I see a Circle/Grove open to the general public as essential to the definition, while the strong affiliation to one or more covens is a matter of observation (as is the relationship between Groves and Covens cited earlier.)

A fair number of practitioners do not distinguish among these terms (nor, for that matter, among Wicca, Paganism and New Age). Feel free to take issue with any of these definitions, but they are what I have in mind as I write this. Let's take a closer look at what each of these is and how they tend to function within Neo-Paganism.

A Circle is a gathering of, preferably like-minded, individuals for purposes of magic and/or worship. None of those gathered need be of the same Tradition, nor even Initiate, though it makes for better results if at least some of them are. All Groves, Covens and Temples are therefore Circles. The reverse, however, isn't always the case since many Circles do not also meet the criteria for a Grove, Coven or Temple.

A Grove, or Study Group, is a Circle of students learning the basics of Neo-Pagan (or Wiccan or any of the other subsets of Pagan) worship and Circle techniques. While normally under the tutelage of one or more Initiates, the members are not necessarily being trained towards Initiation in any particular Tradition, nor need the tutors be of the same Tradition(s) as the students (nor even of each other).

Mystery religions, by their very nature, aren't for everyone, nor is any given Mystery suitable for all Initiates. The Grove is a way for potential Initiates to take a good look at one or more Traditions while learning how to handle themselves in just about any basic Circle. If this isn't for them, they can easily drop it. If it is, they can focus on the specific Tradition (or family of Traditions) which seems to speak most clearly to them (assuming they were exposed to more than one). Similarly, the tutor(s) can teach general techniques to any serious Seeker without worrying about an implied commitment to Initiate someone unsuited to their particular Tradition.

Groves do not normally do Initiations (they're done by the sponsoring Coven, if any), and tend to be oriented more towards teaching and worship than towards magical practice. They are also more likely to be fairly open to new members or even the general public than is the case with established Covens, while study groups, in my experience at least, are more likely to be invitation-only. The most effective Groves (or study groups, of course) are under the helpful eye, if not out-and-out sponsorship, of an established Coven or family of Covens.

A Coven, on the other hand, is a regularly meeting Circle, all of the same Tradition, at least some of whom are Initiates (and at least one of whom holds Initiatory power if the Coven is to survive or grow). Such a group tends to become very close ("closer than kin") and is bound by the rules and styles (deliberately non-existent in some cases) of its Tradition, and by its own internal rules and customs. A member of a Coven is normally provided training and, when deemed ready, Initiation or Elevation by that Coven's Priesthood/Elders.

There are also magical considerations which go into the making of a Coven which further differentiate it from a Grove/study group, but it isn't my intention to go into them here. Suffice it to say that they are connected to the closeness and tend to enhance it. Because the bond is tight, and because a Coven generally intends to be around for a few decades, they're kinda fussy about who joins. The wise Seeker is equally fussy about which, if any, Coven s/he eventually joins. You're not joining a social club here, you're adopting, and being adopted into, an extended family. And this time round you have some control over who your kin will be!

Neo-Pagan Temples are a fairly new phenomena combining many of the characteristics of Covens and Groves. I think that the clearest description of just what they're about comes from the (draft) Constitution of the proposed Victoria (BC) Temple:

  1. To minister to the Pagan community by way of providing support, education, and sponsoring religious celebrations;
  2. to establish and maintain a religious sanctuary and place of worship accessible to all who would worship the Goddess and the God;
  3. to provide a seminary for the training of Wiccan clergy;
  4. to provide accredited ordination for Wiccan clergy;
  5. to provide accurate information about Witchcraft to all who would ask and to engage in dialogue with other religious groups with the purpose of furthering understanding and friendship between us; and
  6. to do other charitable acts of goodwill as will benefit the community at large.

As stated in my definition of Temple above, I consider the provision of Neo-Pagan (not necessarily Wiccan) religious instruction and services to the general public to be essential, and provision of community services to the local Neo-Pagan population highly desirable. To be taken seriously in the wider world, we need to have our clergy recognized by our government(s), which in turn means that we need to be visibly providing training and ordination which meets government accreditation criteria (which can vary significantly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction). Such accredited ordination is most easily administered through Temples.

To address a diatribe current on the Nets (computer Network Bulletin Boards: Ed.) so long as the governments we seek accreditation from think in Christian terms, then we will have to use Christian terms, carefully defined to earmark differences in usage, to describe ourselves to them. Sure, there's some danger of picking up some inappropriate (to Wicca) ways of thinking along with those terms, but we're more likely to import them with converts who were raised as Christians. The solution to both problems is the same: clearly understood (by the tutors above all!) religious instruction. And if a Christian notion isn't inappropriate, and if it's truly useful, why shouldn't we adopt it? Religious intolerance itself is inappropriate to Wiccan thought, and I think we should be clearer in condemning it.

So how does it all tie together? I think that the Neo-Pagan community needs a mix of solitaires, coveners and templers, along with significant variety among their Traditions, to remain intellectually and spiritually healthy. We also need umbrella organizations capable of meeting the needs of each of them, not only for credibility with governments and the general public, but to spread new (and not so new) ideas around the very community they should exist to serve. I'll talk more on what this umbrella organization should look like in a bit. For now, let's get back to roles of the different types of Circle.

One of the things that fascinates about the Craft is our teaching that the Gods don't need a Priesthood to run interference between Them and Their worshippers. Nor is this a new idea. Heroditus recorded with a certain amazement that Persians must call on a Magus to perform every little sacrifice, whereas among the Greeks of his time, anyone, including housewives and slaves, could sacrifice at any time, assuming they had the desire and the means. We have a Priesthood because some people feel called to a deeper understanding and expression of

their faith than is the case for many. And while They don't need Initiated Priesthoods, humans find them very useful both as a source of thoughtful religious instruction and as a ready source of warm bodies to stick with the administrivia of organizing group ritual.

Like sex, however, effective worship isn't something that just comes naturally. It must be learnt, and practiced. Groves, festivals and Temples are all good places to learn the fundamentals, assuming you weren't fortunate enough to learn them at home. They are also good places to socialize with people who think much the way you do, a deeply-seated human need we do well not to overlook. If your need runs deeper, you will find Priesthood there to talk to. If your needs prove more mystically oriented, they should be able to arrange contact with one or more Covens, who can in turn, if appropriate, Initiate you into whichever flavor of the Mysteries they practice.

Different Circle structures serve different needs. None is superior to the other except to the extent that it serves your needs better. For those of us simply seeking to express our religious feelings in sympathetic company, whichever form best serves that expression is all we're likely to need. But those of us who feel called to serve the greater community will need all of them to achieve the mandate we have set ourselves.

To return to our model umbrella organization, to serve a significant majority of the community it will have to address as many of the rather different needs of solitaires, Covens and Temples as is feasible without stepping on the concerns of any of them. To be effective, it has to have some standards, but it can't impose them from above without violating the sovereignty that all three segments of the community value rather highly.

One of the difficulties with any ideal is that it manifests imperfectly, if indeed it can be brought to manifestation at all. Rather than a discouragement, however, I find that a challenge: to bring about the best fit possible between reality and our ideal. Here then are my ideas on some of the attributes such an organization can aim for. To start from the top, I think the stated purpose of the organization should be to serve as a liaison between member clergy and the Establishment, whether government or public. Why clergy? Because we don't need government approval simply to worship our Gods, especially if we're doing so discreetly and on private property.

It's our institutions which need public recognition in order to be able to avail themselves of public resources available to other, already recognized, religions, not the worshippers themselves. And institutions effectively mean the clergy. Note I don't say Priesthood. It's one of the earmarks of the Craft that all Initiates are clergy, but in many of our Traditions, Priesthood requires a deeper understanding of traditional lore and techniques.

The immediate needs such an organization should attempt to fulfill are essentially three:

  1. Establishment of a Seminary to provide the training necessary for government accreditation as a minister of religion for those who need or seek said accreditation. To achieve this it will be necessary to look into the minimal training expected by any intended licensing bodies and ensure that those standards are being met or exceeded by all graduates of said certification program. This accreditation is to serve no other purpose within the organization: all of our members will be recognized by us as clergy, whether or not they seek further accreditation.
  2. To act as a public relations and information office on the Craft to the general public. If we exist, we will be used as an information source, so we might as well plan on it and do the job properly.
  3. To act as a Craft contact and social network to facilitate Pagan networking among members and non-members alike.

To expand upon the seminary somewhat, any member should be able to sit for an examination without taking the associated classes (a process known in Ontario as "challenge for credit"). If s/he passes, s/he is given the credit, if not, the associated courses must be taken before s/he may sit for another examination on that subject. In this way we can grant credit for existing knowledge without in any way compromising our standards. I think it would be a very bad idea to grant an exemption from this procedure to anyone.

Because very few of us are likely to be able to drop everything for a couple of years to travel to wherever we happen to establish the campus, one should be able to complete the courses necessary for certification by correspondence. Nor should the topics of instruction be limited for those required for accreditation with government.

Let's also see to it that our ministers have a grounding in the philosophy of religion, comparative religion (especially comparative Pagan religion) and chaplaincy as well. Note too that I keep referring to the document as a Certificate, not a college degree. A university level of education, while great for the egos of graduates, is unnecessarily high to meet the needs of our Pagan laity - a Community College is much more appropriate. The stages of learning in a guildcraft are apprentice, journeyman and master, NOT baccalaureate, master and doctor! Mind, I have no objection to our Seminary offering college level courses, nor any other course or seminar it may choose to offer. I merely object to the insistence in some quarters that since most Christian ministers must hold graduate degrees, then by golly ours must too! Horsefeathers!

Our Organization then breaks down into a Seminary to provide internal education, and accreditation, to Pagan religious tutors; a PR office to provide external education, and referrals to the public; and one or more Festivals, and no doubt a periodical (e.g. a newsletter), to provide for contacts and networking both internal and external.

Further, I see our Organization as an ecclesia in the ancient Athenian sense of the term, and assembly of all those having the right to vote in our affairs. I don't feel the ecclesia should either set or attempt to enforce any standards beyond those required for government accreditation and a minimal ethical standard for membership. I feel that membership should be restricted to ordained clergy within a Pagan tradition, nor should the ecclesia itself set any standard as to what does or does not constitute clergy (though I expect it may have to define criteria for determining what is or isn't Pagan). All this because any other approach compromises the essential sovereignty of our Covens and Temples (for which purpose I see a solitary as a Coven of 1).

Since our membership is composed of clergy, not Covens and Temples, I favor one-person-one-vote. Certainly, groups with a large number of ordained members will thereby gain a larger number of votes in the ecclesia, why not? The ecclesia has no authority over individual members nor the organizations they may represent. Its most extreme power is to suspend the membership of persons found to be in violation of the ethical code, which code is set and policed by the members themselves. Or to appoint officers to manage the ecclesia's property and affairs, which officers will be legally and constitutionally answerable to the membership.

On the topic of polity, I see the ecclesia/AGM as setting policy which is then administered and interpreted by the officers. The officers should have no power to set policy themselves. Our structure should be absolutely minimalist to avoid unpleasant takeover bids later. Any office or function which doesn't need to be there, shouldn't be there. If someone has grounds for an ethics complaint, an ad hoc committee should be assembled to look into it. If amends are made or the objectionable behavior corrected, then the case should be dropped (i.e. the committee is focused on correcting unethical behavior, not punishing it).

On the subject of officers and their terms of office, I rather like the notion of electing them in alternate years for two- year terms. A one-year term is too hard on continuity. One possibility to avoid little fiefdoms is to provide each function with two officers, one senior and the other junior. Each year the senior officer retires, the junior officer becomes the senior and a new junior officer is elected. Continuity is preserved, and each officer gains an assistant who has a year in which to learn the ropes. I think that barring the outgoing senior from seeking re-election as a junior would be wasteful of resources, myself, but it would certainly serve to break up fiefdoms even further, should the ecclesia happen to be particularly paranoid about them.

A not-so-little proposal, but the subject is an important one. This is only somewhat-baked, and I see the need as both real and immediate, so please give me some feedback on this.

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