The question of unity

Recently, I’ve seen a couple of email lists get active again, talking about the issues of building Pagan community and unity. I’ve got mixed feelings about many of these – and I want to take a little bit of time to explain why.

What got me started:

There are two things that got me started thinking about this in more detail. The first is my work with Twin Cities Pagan Pride (where I’ve been programming chair since early 2006, and vice president of the organisation since late 2007.)

The other is that my day job is working for an independent (non-religious) school in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. That school has made a big push toward addressing issues of privilege throughout the school. Part of that has involved some ongoing discussion about the differences between unity and pluralism.

Unity and pluralism:

Unity sounds good – but fundamentally, it’s about everyone agreeing to do the same thing, or to work for the same cause, or to value the same things. The problem with it is that when people *don’t* agree on something, everything gets stuck – and many people will start feeling ignored, mislead, or defensive, none of which is very helpful in actually getting things done that make the world better.

Pluralism, on the other hand, is listening to others, and understanding that sometimes we’re going to want different things, or will want to do something differently, or will have different values – and then figuring out ways to support our different work, while coming together to talk about the things we do, in fact share. (You might be interested in reading the entry about the lecture that got me thinking about this in detail in the first place.)

Pluralism’s ultimately more flexible and – I think – far more realistic. But it’s also a lot more work.

Some Pagan examples:

Like a number of people who have been around the Pagan community for a while, I’m a little wary of unity movements. In my personal experience, many of the people pushing for unity want me to do what *they* think I should want, rather than what actually works for me.

Often, I think their overall goal is worthwhile. But sometimes, it’s just not a significant focus for me right now. Sometimes, their choices in scheduling just don’t work for me. At other times, I disagree with the approach they’re using, and rather than spend time frustrated and butting heads, I’d rather go do something else I care about.

But here, let me give some examples.

Example one: bringing the community together

Imagine that you’re part of a local community where there’s been some distrust or discomfort. It doesn’t really matter what the reason is – but you’d like to bring people together. You might have a specific local goal – or you might just want to get people talking to each other.

What might you try?

Ritual: A unity model might suggest a ritual everyone could participate in – but here’s where we hit problems.

  • What model for ritual do you use? Many public ritual default to a Wiccan-based model (casting circle, calling quarters, male and female deity) but this leaves out a number of other Pagan paths.
  • Some people may not feel it’s appropriate to step into ritual space with those they have significant issues with.
  • Others will not go to rituals unless they’re reasonably sure the leaders are competent (by whatever standards they use), and that the ritual will be ethical, accessible to participants, and well-handled.
  • And some people will feel that the best solution to community issues needs to happen on a smaller scale first (where people can talk one on one), rather than a large public group setting

So, is a ritual really a good place to start? Many times, no – there are too many other issues that come into play, and the very idea starts by presuming a kind of unity that isn’t actually present.

Conversation is an easier place to start – but it still has a lot of challenges. Why should people show up for this conversation? What’s in it for them? Who’s facilitating the event? Do they have a particular agenda?

Sometimes, I see announcements for events (all over the country) where someone appears to sincerely want to encourage greater conversation and cooperation. But they sometimes seem to be pushing a particular point of view, or goal – and that’s going to put off a number of people.

Some people may think the general idea is a good one – but they have some concerns about a particular piece of it. Others may be focusing on other areas of change right now, and don’t want to feel pressured into committing time and energy when they’re already stretched thing.

People who attend also generally need to feel that it’s going to be worth their time – that things will run reasonably efficiently, the goals of the gathering are clear in advance, and so on. One of my own frustrations is that people often schedule these things with relatively little warning: I’m often already booked 3-4 weeks in advance, so if someone gives me less warning than that, I’m unlikely to be able to make it without shifting other commitments and plans.

A pluralistic approach:

So what does pluralism look like here? Well, to start with, you probably want to have different kinds of events, to appeal to people with different interests and schedules. For example, if I wanted to focus heavily on getting the community talking to each other, I’d probably look at a combination of events.

1) Create community spaces for conversation. Note the plural: a pluralistic approach will recognisethat people will have different needs for meaningful discussion.

  • Some online discussion: email lists or online forums.
  • Smaller gatherings (so that everyone there might share ideas and participate in the conversation.)
  • Different times and nights, well announced in advance, over a month or three (so that people with busy calendars can find the best time.)
  • Casual coffee-shop conversations.
  • More structured conversations (a particular focus, or with a facilitator, or trying to brainstorm ideas for a specific event or possible solution.)

Recognise you’re not going to meet everyone’s needs or wants. You will have people who:

  • Those who think the general goal is a good idea, but there’s an issue with a particular aspect or approach.
  • Those who are focusing on other areas of change right now and this just isn’t on the top of their lists.
  • Would otherwise be interested, but their life doesn’t allow for additional commitments right now.

For example – my life is very busy right now (I’m working a lot, and my free time is committed to my coven and seeing my friends occasionally). I’m not very likely to be able to make evening events. However, I’d be interested (and able) to participate in an online conversation that lead to in-person conversation down the road (when I could adjust my schedule around it.)

2) Listen to what you’re actually hearing – maybe the rest of the community doesn’t see the same issue that you do. If that’s the case, maybe you should scale back plans, or focus somewhere else, at least for the time being.

3) Figure out what the next – concrete – steps are toward the goal.

In this case, you might not want a ritual – but you might plan a series of occasional community events that help bring people together. Based on feedback from those interested, this might be casual social events (a park picnic), they might be focused on a topic of interest (legal or practical issues that affect many people in the community), or they might combine the two.

Again, you’d want to make your plans attentive to the needs of the community. Look at major ritual dates, other likely conflicts, and plan to avoid them as much as feasible (and provide alternates that don’t hit those conflictsd accordingly. Events every 2-3 months may be a good spacing, as they allow people to participate when they have time, without adding a significant additional commitment to busy lives.

Example 2: Introductory experiences

One common thing in many areas is a set of introductory classes or public rituals. A unity model, again, suggests that one group is the main focus for planning and putting on these events – so that the perspective you get is whatever they include. Or, alternately, that a group comes together to present one set of classes, rather than many classes throughout the community.

Sometimes this works very well – there are a number of groups who give a good idea of their own practices, while also clearly communicating other common ways to do something, or other common practices in the community. Sometimes it doesn’t, though – there are people who will present very biased information, or who don’t make it clear what other approaches are reasonably common in their area.

Likewise, if only one group is putting on public rituals, people will only get a sense of one kind of practice or approach. Or, alternately, you might see the following:

  • Having ritual planners limit themselves to common elements that are regularly used in the broader community.
  • Planning by committee – the ritual planners hash it all out, and come up with something they can all agree with.
  • Borrowing elements from each of the paths of the ritual planners and combining them.

All of these have problems.

  • The end product reflects the planners – but not necessarily the rest of the community.
  • Some methods/ritual techniques may not fit well together.
  • Ritual planners may not agree with each other about what is most important, or how things ‘should’ work.
  • These methods may leave out, ignore, or do things in a way contrary to the practices of other subgroups in the broader community.

In particular, the unity model often assumes a more or less Wiccan-based ritual format (circle, calling quarters, male and female deity) which can leave out people from reconstructionist or other paths. People from a specific Wiccan or Wiccan-based path may also have concerns about specific ritual techniques (how energy is handled, which deities, etc.) that may limit their participation, or questions about the specific working/ritual structure/etc. that may not be clear from the ritual announcements or public information.

In both cases, you’re making decisions that will affect who shows up – and who’s part of the actual ‘unity’ of the ritual. That’s fine – but it’s good to be very aware of what that means.

A pluralistic model, on the other hand, has some different options.

  • A series of different rituals. For example, different groups taking a particular Sabbat or festival, and doing a ritual in their own path’s style.
  • Avoid large community public ritual entirely. In this case, individual groups would coordinate and provide a general schedule of rituals open to the public or guests, and make it easy for those who are interested to find out about a wide range of ritual practices (through a shared community calendar, announcement list, etc.)
  • Designing a ritual that uses approaches from more than one path – but with careful explanation in advance (invitations, and pre-ritual) so that even newcomers to that technique can be informed participants.

The pluralistic model’s a good bit more complicated – but in each case, you’re basically treating each separate path (by self-identification) as independent, and focusing on the ways to share the work (of having public ritual that provides an introduction to those curious about different Pagan paths)

Likewise, with introductory classes, it would be good if people offering different classes coordinated a bit (maybe with different groups syncing up when their classes are offered, so that there’s variation but not too much competition for times in a given month or season. But offering multiple sets of classes – from different perspectives – encourages diversity in the community and gives seekers a lot more options if they don’t click with one particular group.

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  • A very nice article. I like the pluralistic approach much better than just watering down everyone’s path by throwing them all in the same bucket. I am going to take some of your suggestions and apply them to my involvement with the Pagan community in my own town.