I feel pretty confident that if you had asked the members of this church at their centennial celebration whether the children’s lesson one Sunday a hundred years hence would involve casting a circle in celebration of the Spring Equinox they would have looked at you like you had lobsters crawling out of your ears. A lot has changed in just one generation.
In our tradition, Paganism traces its roots back to the feminist movement. A growing feminist awareness illuminated the fact that the imagery of Woman in our denomination was actually rather conservative, that our history and tradition were full of “unexamined patriarchal norms”. Back in 1977, the UUA General Assembly responded by passing the “Women and Religion” Resolution. calling “all individual UUs and UU organizations to examine and put aside sexist assumptions, attitudes, and language and to explore and eliminate religious roots of sexism in myths, traditions and beliefs.”
After the passage of the Women and Religion resolution, the Continental Women and Religion Committee was formed, and sponsored a Feminist Theology Convocation, for UUs from across the country in 1980. It was at this convocation that UUs celebrated their first Water communion, now a standard ingathering service in many UU churches. It also at this event was the earliest known organized UU Pagan worship, along with much discussion about the Goddess traditions and Wicca.
An Adult Religions Education curriculum called “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven” (whose title comes from a reference to the Goddess in Hebrew scriptures) was introduced in 1986, which deconstructed the role of patriarchy in western religion, and sought out female images of God both in the Judeo Christian tradition and in ancient religions from around the world. UUs around the country, including me, were transformed by the realization that God did not have to be male. Finding our own tradition stingy when it came to images of women in sacred text and story, we turned to ancient stories in which the feminine played a more dynamic role.
UUs drawn to the Neo Pagan tradition began organizing. What would later be the “Coven of UU Pagans” or “CUUPS” began organizing at the 1985 GA. Two years later in 1987 Margot Adler (a Beacon Press Author) gave a keynote speech called "A Pagan Spiritual View" at the General Assembly, bringing the dialogue into the mainstream consciousness of our movement. The following year (1988) at the GA in Palm Springs CUUPs received UUA independent affiliate status.
During the same time, there was a movement to manifest more fully our 7th principle, “respect for the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part.” In 1989 the “7th principle project” was formed, and in 1991 they created a “Green Sanctuary Handbook” which laid out a process by which congregations could incorporate environmental sustainability into the life of their community. [The 7th principle project changed it's name in recent years to "UU Ministry for the Earth."]
In 1993, when the silver hymnal “Sing the Living Tradition” was published, the changing face of our UU theology was represented. If you look in the index you will find both hymns and readings under the topics, under "Earth, “God, Goddess and Spirit” and Pagan."
In 1995 A Sixth Source became adopted by the General Assembly in Spokane, Washington after 6 years of work by proponents. It reads: "Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature." I was at the GA that year, and the debate was lively. Proponents wanted to bring earth-centered religion to the same institutional level as the other religious roots of Unitarian Universalism. The general argument against seemed to be fear that the addition of this source would change our identity too radically. I remember several speakers offered the argument that “isn’t this covered by the 7th principle already?” I was not sure how I felt about it at the time. But now I see that it is really quite powerful to say that along with our Judeo Christian tradition, along with humanism and science, along with the major world religions, we affirm as sources of our faith those traditions that are based not on the written word, but on the rhythms and cycles of nature. This includes the wisdom of the Iroquois who lived on this land long before the Europeans arrived, the wisdom of the Japanese Shinto tradition, or the contemporary American Neo-Pagan tradition. Most communities around the world historically have had local religions traditions based in their local ecosystems and these indigenous, populist religions were often marginalized by government sanctioned and centralized traditions. Not only are these traditions more earth-centered than the major world’s religions, but they also tend to be more inclusive of women and female imagery.
That summer the Youth Caucus of the GA stood in those long lines waiting for a turn at the microphone to come out in favor of the amendment to our sources. In fact, the youth were already using several pagan chants in worship, and if you stayed up until 10:00 at night to see the youth worship at GA, you would witness a style called “circle worship” where there is de-centralized leadership, and no sermons. It probably looks a lot more like Pagan ritual than like a UU Sunday morning service. UUA president John Burehns said later that “whatever the Youth Caucus officially supports always seems to pass.” And pass it did, in the only major amendment to our principles and purposes in the last 25 years.
My own acquaintance with neo-paganism followed a similar path as that of our UU tradition. After studying a feminist hermeneutic of the Hebrew scriptures in College, and signing up for Cakes for the Queen of Heaven at a local UU church, I began to free myself from those cartoon images of a male god with a long white beard, a God which had never reached me in a deep way. I too grew up in the UU Youth movement, accustomed to circle worship and ritual. I also tend to be a kinesthetic learner, so I was drawn to a ritual tradition which allows one to interact with objects and motion instead of just words on a page. I also was feeling a call to live in greater harmony with the earth, and a spirituality that would support more sustainable living, and so was attracted to the work of Starhawk who co-founded the reclaiming tradition of Wicca.
Starhawk was a professor at “Holy Names” College, which had open enrollment with my seminary Starr King School. She was living and teaching in the Bay Area while I was there, and has an understanding of the world that resonates well with a UU sensibility. She believes that paganism calls her to action on behalf of the earth, and in fact her career has turned more and more towards teaching permaculture and earth activism. She writes a blog about her activism, which is full of stories about using grounding techniques (like the one we did in our ritual this morning) at a protest of international farm policy or doing ritual on the front lines of a protest the treatment of Palestinians as an occupied people. This is my kind of witch. She co-wrote a beautiful and handy book called “Circle Round” which gives practical advice on doing ritual with children. The first time I sat down to use it to create a ritual with the kids at my church, encountered a description of a winter solstice ritual in which the children could bring all their favorite stuffed animals and action figures to the altar and set them around an image of the sun “in joy and amazement at the birth of the year.” (p. 97). Plastic dinosaurs on a solstice altar? This spoke to me in a deep way. It resonated with my growing sense that everyday things were sacred, and that I wanted worship and spiritual practices to reflected the sacred in the every day, and that was ritual was not something that could only be done by certified professionals using approved gear on Sunday mornings.
As we started our Paganism 101 class here a the church, I was a little nervous. Sure I’d been reading everything StarHawk had written for years, had made altars in my home and office had created rituals in celebration of the 8 Wiccan Sabbaths, but I felt I lacked the authority of an established tradition. Also, I lacked gear. I didn’t have an athame or a pentacle. As I prepared each moth for our class, I urgently set out to find altar cloths in the right colors, the right objects to use in worship. Finally I confessed at one class that I usually use objects from my own life which are special to me when I do ritual. Mary, who has done a lot more reading about these things then me, and has followed traditional proscriptions more closely, said “oh, you’re a kitchen witch.” And I felt much better. It turns out there are about as many kinds of Pagans and Witches as there are Christians. Some folks like High ritual, and follow tradition closely, and some folks use eclectic ritual. Some traditions have intense periods of training and initiation. Other traditions are more open and democratic.
As our little Pagan group here at the church began to meet, we learned about the broader context of Neo-Paganism. We learned about the archeological ambiguity of goddess worship through history, and read articles which suggested that there is very little proof that today’s pagans are in a direct lineage from pre-Christian pagans. We were challenged to ask ourselves- do these traditions and rituals mean less to us if we cannot prove through archeology and scholarship their direct link to ancient times? Can rituals that were created in the last generation or 2 have real power?
When I read articles and rituals of various pagan traditions, sometimes it feels very foreign to me. But when I was reading Starhawk’s most recent book “Earth Spirit” I wonder “what is the difference between what she is saying and Unitarian Universalism?” her belief system was so like mine. Then I realized- it is the practice that is different. The practice and goals of worship are different from our usual Sunday morning worship. Almost all pagan worship shares some elements with our ritual this morning. There is centering and grounding- preparing your mind to be fully present. Then the circle is cast, which is a way of defining the space for the ritual, a way of setting aside the time as special. We usually worship in this room, and so each time we come in the door we know we are here in a time and a place set aside for worship. But pagan rituals are often outside, and can be in a great variety of locations, so by drawing a circle, it helps keep focus and attention on what is happening inside that sacred space.
The 4 directions are called, each direction representing one of the 4 elements common in western ritual. Earth, Air, Fire and Water represent body, emotion, intellect and the ego. The reason the 4 elements are invoked, and present on these 4 altars in a very concrete way, is to represent the different aspects of our lives, of our psyches, of our world. Having all 4 elements present in ritual encourages us to notice which elements are missing or challenging in our lives, and invites us to create a harmonious balance of all the elements. Then the goddess and or gods of the season are invited into worship. Because this is a UU worship, we light a chalice today instead of making those invocations. Some Neo-Pagan traditions are explicitly feminist, like those of Z. Budapest or StarHawk. They focus explicitly on the female aspect of the divine because western religion has been focused on male images of the divine for so long. As Starhawk says “you can’t change the balance on a teeter-totter by standing in the middle.” Those pagans who call both goddess and god are wanting to embody that balance, believing with the Juingians that all people have aspects of male and female in themselves, and we want to encourage balance and harmony between them.
Then, after some good energy has been raised, magic can be done. Now what do I mean by magic? Dion Fortune defines it as "the art of changing consciousness at will." In Spiral Dance Starhawk writes “ A spell in a symbolic act done … in order to cause a desired change. To cast a spell is to project energy through a symbol. But the symbols are too often mistake for the spell. ‘Burn a green candle to attract money,’ we are told. The candle itself, however, does nothing. It is merely a lens, an object of focus, a mnemonic devise, the ‘thing’ that embodies our idea. Props may be useful but it is the mind that works magic.” or as Louise Bunn, the author of our Paganism 101 curriculum says “Magic is the art of manipulating symbols in order to affect a change in consciousness – to achieve results that are substantially psychological in nature.” We did that with our bulbs this morning, using them as a concrete reminder of change we want to see in our lives. Now not every time a pagan casts a circle are they planning to do magic. Some Pagans only do ritual to celebrate Pagans also celebrate the cycles and seasons. They celebrate the cycles of the moon, the cycles of life and the changing of the seasons marked by the 8 Sabbaths.
The pagan calendar focuses on the cycles of the sun. The winter and summer solstice, the fall and spring equinox, and the 4 holidays that celebrate the halfway points between solstice and equinox called the “cross-quarters” Halloween is one such cross-quarter holiday. When I wanted to explore paganism more deeply, the first thing I did was to put all the Sabbaths on my calendar, and make an attempt to have a seasonal altar for each of the 8 holidays, and to observe each even if at was only in a minor way. StarHawk, in her newest book “The Earth Path” recommends a practice I love- just carefully noticing the change of the seasons, and noticing how the seasons vary year to year. So, for example, each of us could take a moment today outside to look, listen, smell, feel all the changes spring equinox has brought this year. This is a wonderful way to celebrate the Sabbath. As a person who comes to paganism through a desire to feel closer to the earth, this has been a powerful practice to me. Each year as the cycle comes round again, I feel like I learn something new about the seasons. We celebrated Spring Equinox with crocuses and bulbs, because this is the reality of this place, this season; there are crocuses splashing color all over our dismal landscape right at this very moment. And now is the time of first planting, so we will plant these Gladiola bulbs which can go into the ground while it is still cold and not be destroyed by a late frost and which we hope will bring color to our church as the seasons change.
After the central celebration of the ritual is finished, pagans ground the extra energy they have raised back into the earth. You can do this by touching the ground to send it back, or some do it by eating and drinking together. Then very carefully you say a respectful goodbye to all those you have invited into your circle, so there is a lovely symmetry to the ritual.
Now it warns on the CUUPS website, that UU pagans are not quite like other pagans. We are, at the heart, Unitarian Universalists. And within this movement, Pagans are a minority tradition. Some UU churches are open to paganism, and some UUs are afraid that Paganism seems superstitious. We are a movement that is so based in reason, so grounded in science and logic, that some have trouble imaging how paganism could harmonize with our tradition. But all our UU congregations have as a source of our living tradition the "Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature." There are many sources of wisdom that we can call upon in our search for truth and meaning, that we call on to help us lead lives of justice equity and compassion, and we are “grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understating and expand our vision.” May we be open to all the earth centered traditions that offer some new insight or balance in our own lives, or some new inspiration for living in right relationship with our world.