Cedric's Pagan Thoughts

The spiritual meanderings of a NeoPagan shaman, an eclectic Wiccan, a Celtic musician, a world traveler, a bard, and an uncompromising cat-loving Bast-worshipper

Monday, October 10, 2005

Why I Left the Tradition I Trained In

(For those not familiar with Wiccan terminology, let me explain that in Wicca, the word “Tradition” means the same thing that “denomination” does in Christianity. The usage derives from the somewhat questionable concept that the rituals and practice of Wicca have been passed down for centuries (some would say millennia) by word of mouth. Ironically, the “Tradition” I’ll be discussing in this entry is new enough that its founders are alive. That doesn’t invalidate it from a spiritual standpoint, just a lexicographical one.)

Some years back now, I went looking for someone to study Wicca from. I’d read plenty of books, and I felt that I’d gleaned all I was going to from that method of study. Synchronicitously, just as my life worked out that I could look for a teacher, one appeared—a friend I’d lost touch with had not only moved within a mile of my home, but was starting a Wicca 101 class that week. Clearly, the cosmic two-by-four was whapping me on the head so that I would study with her.

I have no regrets about studying where I did, nor about joining the coven she formed out of that class, nor about membership in the Tradition she hailed from. All were beneficial to me, and I still feel a close bond with the members of that coven, which is now defunct.

However, I almost did not join; and my reason for hesitating was ultimately the same reason why I left several years later: sexual discrimination.

Now, hold on, I’m sure you’re saying. Isn’t there a great tradition of feminism in American Wicca? Isn’t Wicca in all forms revolutionary because it accepts the idea that the divine can be feminine as well as—or instead of, according to some—masculine? Don’t women take strong leadership roles in Wicca? Aren’t these the hallmarks of a movement that opposes gender-bias and sexual discrimination?

You would think so. I certainly did. I was glad to have found a home in a religion that did not consider women inferior to men; after all, I never had.

But sexual discrimination can run either way. Equality is a two-way street, and discrimination against those with penises is as wrong as discrimination against those with vaginas.

I was shocked when I learned that the Tradition I was looking to join had a rule barring men from coven leadership. There are four offices within the covens of that tradition: Of them, the top two (High Priestess and Maiden) can be held only by women. The third (Guardian) can be held by a man or a woman, and the last (High Priest) can be held only by a man—but it is an optional office, whereas the others are mandatory.

When I heard about this structure, I was puzzled. It was as though I’d been told that the Constitution barred women from the presidency and the vice-presidency. However, because I felt the hand of fate guiding me to study with this tradition, I asked my teacher for explanations—sadly, none of them satisfied me.

One explanation was that men run so much of our lives, women need a place to be empowered. We’ve all been brain-washed, my teacher told me, by our culture and our families, by the Great Destructive Patriarchy, to accept gender stereotypes, including the dominant male and the submissive female.

This explanation perplexed me. I was raised not only by a father who could cook, sew, and do other things the culture once regarded as feminine, but also by a strong mother, a college professor and published composer. Likewise, my older sister was as big an influence on my early life as my older brothers—she has gone on to build a highly successful business in partnership with her husband, where they hold equal shares of authority.

I didn’t feel that I’d been raised to accept gender stereotypes. But perhaps my family was exceptional; perhaps those stereotypes were the standard outside, in college and the workplace.

Hmmm. For the bulk of my college career—and especially when I was in grad school, when it mattered most—the head of my department was a woman, even though male professors were in the majority. Likewise, the Director of Freshman English, my direct supervisor when I was a Teaching Assistant, was a woman. It was almost like people there cared more about a person’s mind than about their plumbing.

Well, I finished college eventually and went out into the world, where I had various bosses. The two that stand out, though, as the ones I worked for the longest, were both women. If society was enforcing the stereotype of the submissive female, it was doing a pretty bad job of it.

But maybe that was just economics—maybe I needed a job badly enough that I would go against the grain of all society had supposedly taught me—maybe I was hard up enough to work for a woman. Yet in my leisure activity, I chose to apprentice myself to a very smart, capable, wise and strong woman, from whom I learned a great deal. Somehow, the almighty patriarchy had failed to dominate my private life as well as my career.

Another explanation for the Tradition’s rule was that other religions have exclusively male clergy.

I take exception to that argument on two grounds. First, discrimination does not justify further discrimination. Second, the argument is less and less true everyday.

One of the things I find utterly repugnant about Christianity and some other major religions is that women have traditionally been treated as less than men, and hence have been barred from clergy. The ridiculous fact that potential Catholic clergy are evaluated based on the possession of a penis cannot justify the equally ludicrous practice of evaluating potential Wiccan clergy on the same basis.

And as I mentioned above, a surprising number of Christian denominations are opening up their clergy to women. I think it amusing that the same Wiccans who look down on Christianity (privately if not publicly) are less progressive with regards to gender equality.

Yet another argument is that if the Gods had wanted men to lead covens, the men would have incarnated as women. “Coven leadership isn’t your lesson for this life,” my teacher said.

Hmmm. That’s a bit like a proponent of slavery saying that God meant for the slaves to be in bondage; otherwise, He would have made them free. It’s a bit like saying that if God had wanted Susan B. Anthony to vote, He would have given her a penis. It’s like saying that if the Goddess had wanted Rosa Parks to sit at the front of the bus, She would have made her white.

Perhaps it’s because I’m an American, but I believe that every person—regardless of what station they were born to, what color skin they were born with, and what shape of plumbing the Gods gave them—should have the right to do what they wish to do, so long as they don’t harm others. (Funny how much that sounds like the Wiccan Rede, huh?) I certainly never saw any of the women in that Tradition shying away from anything conventionally masculine because “it wasn’t their place in this lifetime.” Those women bravely do what they wish and scoff at those who tell them that their plumbing makes them unfit; so do I.

Another argument has to do with placing more importance on the Divine Feminine (the Goddess) than on the Divine Masculine (the God). Women, we were told implicitly, are more in touch with the Goddess than men. (I still find it amusing that I have a whole collection of God and male shaman pendants given to me by female Wiccans, as if to say, “Oh, look, you both have penises.” I had to specifically ask for a pendant depicting the Goddess Saraswati.)

Maybe humans are naturally more in tune with the energies that match their physical form. But if the Masculine and the Feminine are equal—a point of some debate among Wiccans, I concede—why then favor the Feminine and exclude or downplay the Masculine?

Again, I was told that religions throughout history (or at least “patriarchal history”) had emphasized the Masculine and excluded the Feminine. The modern Wiccans were simply seeking to balance the scales.

Hmmm. The opposite of extremism is balance, not a rush to the opposite extreme. Let me use a parable to explain this.

There was a convent of nuns whose water heater broke down. For months, they had nothing but icy cold water with which to bathe and shower. Finally, one of them managed to fix the water heater. Thereafter, for months, they showered and bathed in scalding hot water that left painful burns on their flesh. When asked why they were doing this, they replied, “The water was too cold for so long that we must seek balance by making it too hot.”

Well, as any child knows, the reasonable thing to do is to mix the hot and cold water until they balance comfortably. Likewise, I seek to balance the influence and energy of the Goddess and the God within me.

All of these reasons I contemplated as I considered whether to join my teacher’s Tradition. In the end, I did join, and I received a wonderful experience of being in a coven with exceptional people, both male and female.

(As a side note, the women in the coven occasionally said that the other man and I in the group were exceptional men. While I appreciate a compliment, I fear there was an unspoken statement: “Only an exceptional man could live up to the standard expected of women.” Therefore, I usually pointed out that the women in the coven were exceptional women. In truth, I think any serious and devout spiritual seeker is an exceptional person, and I’d rather be called an exceptional human being than an exceptional man.)

Ultimately, though, membership in the Tradition became too much for me. It’s not that I wanted to lead a coven—I’ve been in charge of enough things that I really have no drive to be in charge of anything else. It’s not that I had a problem following the leadership of women—my past history, both professional and personal, proves that.

I had to leave that Tradition because I refuse to give my energy to a discriminatory organization. I would *never* have considered joining a religion or any other group that barred its female members from leadership solely based on their plumbing. I suspect that most of the Elders and teachers of that Tradition feel the same way. Therefore, it made no sense to continue my membership in a Tradition that bars certain people from leadership, simply because they incarnated with penises this time, instead of vaginas.

The Divine is a great Mystery, of which I have been blessed with tiny glimpses. No human mind can grasp its entirety, but one glimpse I have been given is this: “All gods are one God; all goddesses one Goddess; and Goddess and God are One.” The Divine is great enough to have the strengths of each gender while being ultimately beyond both.

If I have a Divine Spark within me, it is not because I have skin of a certain color, or birth in a certain nation, or gender of a certain nature—it is because the One who is beyond all these things has breathed sacred life into me.

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