Ritual limits: plans that can help

Last post in this three post series on ritual limits and some ways to handle them thoughtfully, caringly, and meaningfully.

Again, I do not claim to have all the answers: just a few things that might be of help. Mostly, this post is about policies and forms.

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Ritual limits: role of the event planner

A comment from a friend about my last post brought up some excellent questions about the role of a larger organisational body in the question of ritual or workshop or whatever limits. (As, in the case in question, when a ritual is taking place at a larger event.)

I didn’t talk about this in the previous post, both for length reasons, and because the event organiser side is a bit more complicated for me to talk about clearly, but my friend made some excellent points that I do want to talk about more.

Background and disclaimer:

This is my personal blog, and here I am speaking only for me, and not for any organization I’ve volunteered with, either currently or in the past. All clear? Good.

That said, my experiences shape my opinions: and you might want to know where that experience comes from.

I’ve thought about many of these issues (and the more general question of how to make public and large scale events more accessible to more people) a great deal in part because of my time on the board of Twin Cities Pagan Pride since 2005, running both the fall Pagan Pride event (a two-day event in 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010, though we’re planning on going back to one day in 2011 to find a space with better walk-through/casual traffic) and our new project, Paganicon, (taking place later this month), which is a weekend hotel-based conference (albeit much smaller than Pantheacon: we’re likely to have somewhere between 100 and 150 people this year, which is just fine.)

I’ve also attended a small invite only Pagan festival for several years, and ran and helped with some other community focused events in the Society for Creative Anachronism and in science fiction fandom over the years, both places I’ve learned some things I apply to my current Pagan focus. Reasonably varied experience, basically but I haven’t seen and done everything, either.

I’ve got a particular interest for various reasons in overall accessibility of events – not just mobility needs or food allergies or identity limits, but things ranging from choices in accessibility tools (i.e. lipreading seats vs. ASL interpreters vs. real-time transcription options for those with hearing impairment) to looking at things like learning style differences, scheduling, and other details.

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Responsible ritual announcing

I’ve been thinking a lot about conversations around a ritual at last week’s Pantheacon that turned away both transgender women and men at the door without previously making it clear that it was a limited-access ritual. (Two posts with background and links to additional comments can be found here and here.)

[It’s worth noting that other rituals at the event were somewhat more explicit about limitations: my quick count through the program found 4 rituals identified as for women only, 2 identified as for men only, a couple with age limitations, and one ritual with additional limitations: all-white clothing and that participants not be bleeding (either via menstruation or cuts/scrapes)]

My thoughts on this are complex, both because of some of my own deeply held beliefs about ritual, and because I’ve had several years of doing Pagan event organizing. And also because of the knowledge that gender identity, the creation of women-only spaces (and how one defines who can participate in them) are both complex topics, and ones where there’s a lot of history, and many people on various angles of the conversation who have strong feelings, many of whom have felt hurt, left out, or otherwise not listened to at various points in the debates on the topic.

My first belief is that when we are talking about participatory religious ritual, that touches about transformation of the self, vulnerability within community or before the Gods, or anything else of that kind, that a fundamental right of the potential participants is to decide whether or not to participate in that ritual at that time. That means providing sufficient information to make an informed decision.

My second belief is the idea of religious group practice as a haptocracy, a word I coined from the Greek hapto or ‘to work’. In other words, the idea that the people doing the largest work to make something happen get the most say in how it happens. The people doing the work to plan and facilitate the ritual don’t stop being participants because they’re planning the thing: they still get to decide if there are circumstances in which they would not be comfortable participating.

Based on these two principles, I do clearly believe that if a group of people want to put on the effort of a ritual, they get to decide who can come. Those choices have a wide variety of consequences and results – but they still get to choose.

Likewise, people who might be interested in attending get to decide if they want to be in that space in that way, given the stated limits, requirements, or other description.

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Twin Cities Pagan Pride 2008

It’s Monday. I spent all weekend helping run this year’s Twin Cities Pagan Pride event. This is my third year on the board (Programming, plus picking up some other stuff – most of the work on the website is mine, for example, after getting info/data from the appropriate chairs.)

I’m really pleased with this year’s event. We had 24 programming items for adults, a kids track, a teens track, many talented and amazing entertainment performances, and a sizeable dealer’s room. We had a few minor glitches, but nothing major (for example, someone turning off the sodium lights in the gym/vendor space – they take a few minutes to come back on because they have to heat up.)

We also had some great conversations. Over this year, it became clear that one of the things we really wanted to talk about was community – and what the next step looks like for us.

Instead of a keynote speaker, we instead had a keynote panel, where we asked representatives from groups who are working to build community beyond individual paths and public rituals (both of which are fine and wonderful things, but we’ve talked about those in the past, and there’s also quite a few of them, which would make a more challenging discussion).

We had representatives from Twin Cities Pagan Pride, Earth House (looking to build sustainable community space), the Upper Midwest Pagan Alliance (activism and education), Harmony Tribe (a 9 day festival in southern Minnesota) and the couple who are trying to get a teen/youth group going. The conversation spent quite a lot of time on the generational issues, but also talked a lot about acceptance in the broader community (with some really great stories) and about different kinds of service and community projects that are getting underway.

After the lunch break, we had our traditional “Meet the Pagans” panel, where anyone who shows up gets a couple of minutes to speak about their group if they wish. (Upcoming events and announcements, etc.) It’s a lovely way to see all that’s going on in our area.

After that, it was into other panels. I didn’t get a chance to see much, except for a bit of the chant panel late in the afternoon (and of course, the class I taught on Sunday morning.) but by and large everyone seemed to have a good time. I know of only one panel that cancelled itself due to lack of attendees – otherwise, discussions ranged between two (mine!) and about 25, with most in the 8-13 person range.

But overall – I think people had a really good time. I saw a lot of people smiling, talking, having conversations with random people they wandered by. I know I had a couple of great conversations in between other things. That’s a great goodness in such an event, and it was totally a success from that point of view.

Next year:

One thing I continue to struggle with is how many programming items. We did actually cut down a bit this year (from about 32 to 24) but we still had 3 programming rooms going full blast. That means we have smaller attendance at each item – this year, one panel had 0 (my apologies for that!) to about 25 in one room, with most items in the 5-15 range.

I actually don’t think that’s a huge problem in some ways (smaller groups help people make more focused connections and networking) but I know it can also be frustrating for teachers. One of the things I want to look at for next year is what the optimum balance looks like. (There will be surveys! Up later today, probably, for folks who are local.)

I also wish we’d had a better balance of witchcraft-related items (Wicca and other forms of religious witchcraft) versus other strands of Paganism. This is something I’ve really tried to do in my time here, but it seems like we go in waves. Last year had many items from Heathen, Druid, and reconstructionist groups, and few that were specifically witchcraft focused. This year was the opposite (due to some scheduling and internal group demands from various groups.) I’d like to have a more event balance – and maybe try to get a panel together talking about different strands of Paganism.

All of this said: people learned things. They had meaningful conversations. Teachers got to try some new things out. We went away thinking. Those are all fabulous things, even if we have some new ideas for the next time round.

Speaking of which: it’s a tradition that the opening ritual is done by the Twin Cities Pagan Pride board. I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t time to end this tradition. Several of our board members strongly prefer not to participate in public ritual or do not wish to take roles in leading it. (Naturally, of course, we are choosing people for board positions based on their ability to do a particular task – not for their ritual skills!) Those of who don’t mind the idea in general are stressed, harried, and trying to juggle eight other things already – definitely not the best way to do meaningful ritual. Maybe we should stop trying to make this work.

One other option we’ve talked about is having a TCPP chaplain, so to speak – who would be responsible for making sure that each board member got appropriate support (not so much in a religious sense, but someone to check in with if they needed to vent confidentially, or who could help mediate with specific issues.) And who would also have specific responsibility for planning our opening ritual and making it work. Board members could participate if they wanted, but they wouldn’t be trying to juggle the planning and set-up in the same way.

Incidentally, I’m beating up on myself here: absent another option, opening ritual is a programming duty, and thus firmly in my sphere. The opening ritual I put together this year is not the worst I’ve ever done, but I found it quite unsatisfying and nervewracking in a couple of ways, and … I’d like to not do that again. I don’t think it does anyone any good. (Plus, I hate doing less than really good work in that kind of public setting.)

Closing ritual, which I planned in a more personal role with a friend and former TCPPD member, was a lot more successful for me, in part because I had a chance to breathe and focus beforehand in a way that it’s impossible to do at the beginning of the event and also because we’d had a specific concept we’d wanted to work with.

But either way, most of my ritual design work is done in a very different context (small group, well-known participants, specific expectations, and using a standard structure.) The further I get away from that, the more work it is – and the less I can just rely on my trained instincts and experience. They’re different sets of skills – small, known group vs. large public event, and I’m not nearly as good at the latter as I’d like to be, at least with these kind of planning demands and other pressures.


I am feeling very tired (and I called in sick to work last night when it was getting painful to walk.) Sleeping over 10 hours (from about 10 last night to 8:30 this morning) seems to have helped a lot, but I still have a headache and other minor signs that my body definitely needs rest.

I was joking this weekend about the Pagan Pride exercise program – do laps around the programming space upstairs checking on people for walking, climb stairs for cardio, lift and move tables for strength training, bend to put down colored tape on the floors. (The last because the building we’ve been using is a community center and former city school. It’s a little confusing to find things. We use colored tape on the floors for directions.)

But I’m now off to make all sorts of updates on the TCPPD website to reflect the fact the event is over. And to put up surveys. And email all my lovely programming presenters with thanks and a link to a survey.