by Catherine Edwards, Insight magazine
When Kathleen Ward Atchason left Wicca, or witchcraft, to join the Roman Catholic Church she never dreamed she would encounter witchcraft within the walls of Christendom. Atchason lives in Salem, Mass., and still encounters practicing Wiccans in the community and on the street-but in the church?
In fact, Atchason positively identified for Insight a Wiccan practice gaining currency in many churches. It is documented in two articles in Wellsprings, a defunct journal for Methodist clergywomen. The articles, "A Croning Ritual" and "Reflections from a New Crone," were written by the Rev. Nancy Webb, minister of education and children's education at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington-which the Clintons attend- and by the Rev. Mary Kraus of Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Washington. Webb and Kraus provide details of the Wiccan croning ritual in the articles from their own eyewitness accounts.
"I am surprised that they are doing that," Atchason tells Insight. "A croning ritual is a Wiccan rite of passage." According to Atchason, "the Goddess" worshipped by Wiccans takes on three forms: maiden, representing sexual ripeness; mother, representing birth; and crone, representing old age.
As recently noted by Insight, Wicca is becoming increasingly popular in the culture (see "Wicca Casts Spell on Teen-Age Girls," Oct. 25). Although Wiccans differ over semantics, most agree that Wicca is a pagan, nature-focused mystery religion. Most Wiccans worship a feminine deity called "the Goddess" and her consort, "the horned God." According to Wiccan high priestess Phyllis Currott, the goddess takes on many forms such as the mythological Greek deities Artemis, Gaia and Sophia as well as Roman, Celtic and Norse goddesses. Some Wiccans meet in groups called covens or circles, while others prefer to practice Wiccan rituals and cast spells alone.
As the millennium approaches and Christians around the world prepare to celebrate 2,000 years since Christ's birth, some in the church are concerned that the Christmas message is being distorted by pagan influences. As Wicca and goddess worship grow in popularity in the culture, elements of the practice also are appearing in Christian churches.
Connie Alt, a former Methodist cleric, is one of those concerned. Alt left her church partly because of what she perceived to be a lack of discernment in the matter of witchcraft by the church's leadership. When Alt read the Wellsprings article she telephoned Foundry Methodist to speak with Webb. Alt tells Insight that Webb informed her that she found Northern European practices of Wicca very helpful. She then recommended that Alt read a book called The Spiral Dance, by a Wiccan high priestess who calls herself Starhawk.
Disturbed that a professing Christian and Methodist minister would admit to any relationship with witchcraft, Alt called her friend Karen Booth, pastor at Long Neck United Methodist Church in Delaware. They had reason to believe that their bishop, Susan Morrison, herself had taken part in the croning ritual. When questioned, however, Booth tells Insight that Morrison said she could "neither confirm nor deny having taken part in the croning ritual, but that she had witnessed many croning rituals."
Although disturbed by this response, Booth did not bring up the matter for several years until last fall when she found out that one of her parishioners' daughters was reading Teen Witch: Wicca for a New Generation, by a Wiccan high priestess called Silver Ravenwolf. Alarmed that Wicca was influencing young women in her own congregation, Booth, along with Long Neck's lay leader, Elaine Wood, reluctantly filed charges against Webb and Kraus for practicing a spirituality contrary to the teaching of the Methodist church.
In the spring of this year, Bishop Felton May of the Baltimore-Washington conference acknowledged the charges in accordance with the Methodist Book of Discipline and presided over two meetings between the women and appropriate witnesses. Booth and Wood tell Insight that Webb claimed that the croning ritual was just a birthday party but grounded in paganism and Wiccan belief and practice. Of particular concern to Booth was a blessing mentioned by Webb at the end of the Wellsprings article which she noted bears a striking resemblance to a blessing mentioned in Starhawk's The Spiral Dance, except that Webb's blessing omits a line about "the Goddess." When May asked Webb why she left this line out, says Booth, Webb told him she had said the blessing from memory and she would have inserted the line about the goddess had she remember ed it.
In the meetings Webb and Kraus maintained that the croning ritual had been a private party and therefore should not be subject to public scrutiny. Kraus told Booth and Wood that she should be free to choose which ritual activities are meaningful to her. Troubled by this line of reasoning , Booth expressed her concern in a letter to May. "The same argument could be made that private sexual conduct does not matter," she wrote, "or that one could be a member of the Ku Klux Klan on private time as long as it does not impinge on public religious life."
"I understand we have freedom of religion in this country," Booth tells Insight, "but this is different. This woman is Methodist clergy and she also is in charge of children's ministry at Foundry Methodist. I don't believe that her private acts don't influence her public life."
In June of this year, before leaving the country on sabbatical, May did not take disciplinary action, as hoped by Booth and Wood, but instead recommended a mediator to assist the parties in reaching a settlement. Both Webb and Kraus remain at their jobs. May was out of the country and unavailable for comment, and Kraus did not respond to Insight's requests for an interview. Webb tells Insight that she would rather not comment on the situation, but maintains that she did not take part in Wiccan rituals as a practice.
Much of the media attention about goddess worship in churches first focused on an event held in Minneapolis in 1993 called the Reimagining Conference, but more isolated incidents such as the "croning ritual" have not received a great deal of coverage. Most mainline denominations sponsored the Reimagining Conference, at which a group of Methodist clergy, among others, encouraged participants to reject traditional notions of Christ's death to atone for sin because "in light of women's experience, such as slavery and female sexual abuse, understandings of sacrifice, atonement and martyrdom are being re-examined. According to a report by Methodist clergy who attended, as many as 2,200 conference participants shared in a communion of milk and honey and recited a feminist liturgy: "To our maker Sophia, we are women in your image, with nectar between our thighs we invite a lover, we birth a child, with our warm body fluids we remind the world of its pleasures and sensations." Sophia was honored at the conference as "our creator Sophia." "Sophia" is the Greek translation of the Old Testament word for wisdom. Some feminist philosophers claim that wisdom is portrayed as a woman in the book of Proverbs.
Most churches, except the United Church of Christ, have withdrawn their funding of the continuing Reimagining conferences, but many women from mainline denominations still attend. The next conference is scheduled for October 2000. The conference coordinator, Joan Regal, is Lutheran, and one member of the coordinating committee is a retired Methodist pastor, Jeanne Audrey Powers. But neither denomination is officially participating. And these are not the only ones to reimagine God as female. In late October, a conference titled, "Jesus: A Feminist, Womanist Perspective" was held in Hendersonville, N.C., at Kanuga, a retreat center affiliated with the Episcopal Church since 1928. The noonday order of service was Psalm 121 rewritten as "Goddess, the Lady and Mother." Speakers at the conference included Carter Heyward, a professor at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., and author of Saving Jesus From Those Who Are Right, and Delores Williams, a professor at Union Theological Seminary who has cited other feminist scholars in her work who call the crucifixion of Christ "divine child abuse." Recommended reading for participants included She Who Is, by a Catholic nun, Elizabeth Johnson, and books by radical Catholic scholar Rosemary Radford Reuther, author of Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology Healing.
Abigail Noll of the Washington-based Institute on Religion and Democracy, an organization that seeks to monitor and reform mainline-church denominations, attended the conference. She observed that all the participants appeared sincere. Noll tells Insight, however, that she was surprised by a song sung by conference coordinator Rosemary Crow, called "You Can Be a Heretic, Too." Crow views herself as a heretic because she promotes feminist theology, standing against the structure of the church.
So why do observers say feminism and goddess worship is growing in popularity in the church? "Women are looking for empowerment and a safe place to explore these things and a place to rebel against God," explains Donna Hailson, author of the Goddess Revival and visiting professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Mass., and Eastern Baptist Seminary in Philadelphia. Hailson tells Insight she does not believe that God is female, but beyond gender. Hailson does acknowledge that the church has not always behaved in ways that are honoring to women. "But that does not mean that we should reimagine God!" she says. "Many feminists claim that men have interpreted Scripture throughout the centuries in a way that subordinates women and that women should have the chance to change things to better suit their experience. Sadly, this plays into the myth that women are feeling creatures and not thinking creatures," Hailson tells Insight. Much of the feminist literature focuses on the environment, the arts and new spiritual practices such as goddess worship. "This should all serve as a wake-up call to the church to reclaim the arts, to care about the environment and to show that church is not just a Sunday-morning thing."
Evidence of this can be found in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), or PCUSA, which also has sponsored goddess worship. At the PCUSA-owned Ghost Ranch retreat center in New Mexico last fall, women were invited to "celebrate the sacred feminine goddess in the land of enchantment with art, movement, ritual and song. Honor the goddess within each woman. Tell your Herstory with art, voice, dance ritual. Walk a Hopi labyrinth. Create art with your symbolic Goddess language. Dance at the temple of the Living Goddess. Connect us with a sacred circle with very special women for mutual transformation. Share the Magic!"
Concerned that such programs encouraging goddess worship were incompatible with the Bible, Sylvia Dooling, wife of a Presbyterian pastor, founded Voices for Orthodox Women, or VOW. Its goal is to try and influence the Presbyterian Church to be more orthodox through the proper channels of the church. "We have grown from twelve members two years ago to 1,000 members today," Dooling tells Insight. "Presbyterian women are concerned about this." Mary Hunt is a feminist who does not share Dooling's concern and is pleased with the growth of feminist philosophy in the Christian church. Hunt is a Roman Catholic and codirector of the Women's Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual, or WATER. An editorial on the front page of Waterwheel, WATER's quarterly newsletter, reads, "Starhawk gets it right in her new introduction to the twentieth-anniversary edition of The Spiral Dance, the book that launched Goddess religion into the contemporary mainstream. 'How do I learn this... how do I pass this on?' " Hunt tells Insight that while her newsletter quotes Starhawk, a Wiccan high priestess, that she and codirector Diann Neu consider themselves to be Catholic, although WATER is not affiliated officially with the Roman Catholic Church. "We seek to influence it however and receive funding from some Catholic bishops," she says.
One issue of the newsletter features a liturgy for All Saint's Day, honoring the gracious Mother Goddess, "Wisdom-Sophia," written by Neu. Participation of a young woman, a middle-aged woman and a crone are required. "This liturgy is a resource for others to use on their own or in their denomination. We are not promoting Wicca," says Hunt, "but it is certainly something that is a help." Hunt and Neu hope to transform the church by inducing it to have a more feminist agenda. They hold workshops and sponsor events on such issues as spirituality, sexuality and anti-racism. Yet the church to which they profess to belong does not agree. "The Catholic catechism forbids divination, sorcery and magic as a mortal sin against the first commandment-and that includes Wicca," explains the Rev. Mitch Pacwa, a Roman Catholic professor at the University of Dallas and author of Catholics and the New Age.
Atchason says that she fears that women who practice goddess worship and Wicca in church are uninformed and don't know what they are doing. "They think they are celebrating their womanhood, but there are darker associations and they should understand what they are dealing with." Atchason tells Insight that there are some pagans and Wiccans who practice with similar naivete and are what she terms "nominal witches." She and another ex-witch in Salem, Mass., Paula Keene, states that witchcraft is dangerous and real. Keene left Wicca in favor of Catholicism in the 1980s and warns, "Magic is real and it works." Keene tells Insight she left Wicca because of negative experiences too frightening to describe over the phone. But Atchason and Keene maintain friendships with Wiccans and now share the truth of their own passage with all who will listen. "These women in the church do not have the discernment we do from the experiences we had," warns Atchason. "They must be informed. It's like the warning on a pack of cigarettes. Wicca is dangerous and could be hazardous to your health."
Catherine Edwards writes for Insight magazine.