Pagan Paths

Into the Coven is a sneak peek into the development and workings of a Wiccan coven. Each monthly installment will explore the history and lore surrounding the idea of the coven. In addition to looking at the coven in history, Jason Mankey will share the growing pains, triumphs, and tragedies of his own working group.

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Into the Coven: Coven Hierarchy

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The other day a member of my coven offered to lead an upcoming ritual.  I was extremely pleased by this development. Though my wife and I often function as the "High Priestess" and "High Priest" of our group we didn't start this endeavor with the idea that we would run every ritual.  It's nice to just sit back sometimes and participate instead of having to stand forward and "lead."  

I know that our group is kind of set up in a such a way that it often looks like I'm in charge. My wife and I started our coven, we selected our initial circle-mates, and I organized our week to week gatherings.  As time went on we adopted a formal ritual structure, which I wrote.  


However, even after writing all the backbone, I still don't think of myself as the "leader" of our coven. Like most BTW (British Traditional Witchcraft) influenced groups its our High Priestess that's the real heart and brain behind our circle.  I sometimes write pretty words, but my wife generally directs the energy and comes up with our magical workings.  With one raised finger she wields more authority than I ever will, no matter how many times I rewrite our BoS (Book of Shadows).  

This morning, in between musings over our upcoming Samhain ritual(s), I stopped to ponder coven hierarchies for a moment. At my most dastardly I sometimes think of myself as a "benign dictator."  There are legitimate reasons for feeling that way.  I schedule all of our rituals for instance, so everything is basically done on "my schedule."  We have rituals when I'm out of town or whatever, but I'm still the one setting the dates.  I've cancelled things a few times too when I haven't been feeling up for ritual (which doesn't happen all that often).  I will move dates around now and again when people ask, but things generally happen when I say they do.  

Reading that I don't even feel like a benign dictator, just a dictator, but there's a reason to the madness, I swear.  After twenty years of leading groups I've simply given up on consensus. Have an open discussion about when a group should meet and you'll hear a chorus of conflicts.  No one date and time is going to make everyone happy, there are always going to be things that get in the way.  I schedule things sometimes knowing that I can't go to them.  The needs of the many always outweigh the needs of the few (that makes me feel like I'm somehow quoting Ayn Rand, I'm sorry).  We do keep dates and times rather consistent (everything is always on Friday) so everyone always has a pretty good idea of when we'll be doing what.  

It seems to me, through experience, that every group is always going to end up with one or two people who primarily steer the ship.  Two of my coven-mates are in another group, one that is supposed to be run by consensus.  Perhaps many of the things they do are run that way, but in public there are always one or two members who continually speak for the group.  In addition, anyone who hosts an event is going to have a little extra sway over how coven matters go.  It's their house after all.  (When my wife and I are out of town the coven still meets at our house, it's just where our group's stuff is.)   

I don't want anyone to think I'd advocating wholesale dictatorship, far from it.  Even in some of the more traditional coven structures I've been a part (covens where the High Priest and High Priestess are truly expected to be completely in charge) there's always been a bit of diffusion.  The smart High Priestess knows when to give others a chance to lead and usually does.  Some groups have certain rules dictating who should do what, but beyond those rules getting as many people involved as possible is always a wise decision.  

Locally also I'm President of an eclectic group that presents open rituals at the sabbats.  That group is run as a democracy.  I sometimes have to make a few executive decisions now and again (usually about dates, we rent public spaces, so rituals are often at the dictates of the local Unitarian Universalist Church) but we generally vote on everything.  Strangely this has caused a great deal of conflict.  The previous President simply appointed various people to lead rituals.  When that got changed to having people vote on who does what I ended up being accused of not liking democracy.  That's fine, I'd rather have people passionate about the group even if it means a few folks take a few well aimed shots at me now and again.  

Thinking of these things makes me wonder "what's the best way to lead a group?"  "Can a coven truly be democratic?"  "Does consensus ever work?"  I know that a lot of my Craft brothers and sisters in the Reclaiming Tradition try to work by consensus but I've never had much luck with it.  Perhaps since my Witchcraft comes from a country with a monarchy I'm just inclined to lean that way?  I know that Gerald Gardner sometimes liked to impose his will (or at least get his way) on his coven.  Often that had beneficial results, but it also had negative consequences too.  My coven hasn't had any of the negative consequences quite yet, but sometimes it feels inevitable.  (A little argument can sometimes do a group good, it's only when things turn uncomfortably personal that disagreement becomes exceptionally awful.)  

Because every group, coven, and circle works differently I can't say what sort of leadership structure works best in Witchcraft.  Every group just has to find their own way of doing things.  I will say that when a group turns strictly into a cult of personality that something is definitely broken.  A good coven is sometimes there to knock people back down as much as it is there to raise them up.  (If I ever start to feel like a a VIP-Very Important Pagan-my coven makes sure it doesn't last long.)  

As our coven continues to spend more time together things are starting to change.  There are more volunteers to lead ritual all the time and people certainly seem comfortable telling me to stick it where the sun don't shine.  It's a refreshing change.  Sometimes what I'd most like to be doing is sitting on the sidelines letting someone else call the shots.  






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Jason Mankey has been involved with Paganism for the last twenty years, and has spent the last ten of those years as a speaker, writer, and High Priest. Jason's main gig is writing "Raise the Horns" at Patheos Pagan, but he's also a columnist for "Witches and Pagans" (print) magazine, is currently working on his first book for a major publisher, hosts a twice monthly radio show, and lectures frequently on the Pagan Festival circuit.   When not reading and researching Pagan history he likes to crank up the Led Zeppelin, do rituals in honor of Jim Morrison (of The Doors), and sing numerous praises to Pan, Dionysus, and Aphrodite. He lives in Sunnyvale CA with his wife Ari and two hyper-kinetic cats.


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