On an otherwise entirely normal Saturday in July 2014, a group of several dozen Pagans travelled from across the UK to join together in creating something which had never been attempted before.
The Pagan Symposium was a meeting in London of representatives from Pagan groups, organised from an idea by Mike Stygal, President of the UK Pagan Federation. The goals were kept deliberately vague, but at heart, the hope was that each group would be able to come together to share their experiences, skills and wishes to assist the wider Pagan community across the country.
The challenge of such ventures, of course, is that no single group can ever accurately represent all Pagans; also, the natural reluctance of many Pagans to affiliate with any group, when our paths contain such a strong core of individuality. In the past, strong egos have been an issue, or vastly differing ideologies. The analogy of ‘herding cats’ was mentioned, but with the happy conclusion that this had somehow now been achieved!
Because from the first moments as everyone arrived, the prevalent attitude was positive. Smiles and greetings, hugs between friends and new introductions – everyone was glad to be present, and tentatively hopeful that this might actually work!
As the day went on, the smiles grew wider and the laughter louder. So many ideas were shared, it was hard to get a word in sometimes, but there was no negativity or argument, simply discussion and extremely creative sharing of plans.
The many differing groups were introduced, to give an idea of the variety of voices to be heard. Druids, Witches, Heathens and simply independent Pagans, an extremely broad cross-section of the community in its differing forms.
The function of the group on this day was discussed: acknowledgement of the need to serve a diverse community, but without over-structuring or dictating. Even names for the group were suggested, before being discarded as unnecessary – we all are our own groups, and this gathering simply united us! There was no wish to create some sort of ‘Pagan Parliament’, but all agreed that it has been suggested for some time that the voice of Pagans in the UK needs to be heard, between each other and with the secular and non-Pagan world (notably English Heritage, Emergency Services and suchlike).
Since the discussions over the Census and the PaganDASH project, there has been a need for cohesive voices and a mature approach to the representation of Pagans across the country, as many of our international fellows are already doing. We would try to accomplish this, as individuals and within groups sharing identities and diverse beliefs under the Pagan umbrella. Even just for today, to see if it worked… these few hours would be a test, of sorts.
Many topics were discussed. The challenges presented by setting up Pagan facilities for public use, from private temples to public areas such as Moonhenge. The need for responsibility and awareness, but also the difficulty of obtaining backing and support, dealing with the media, and other effects of ‘public’ Pagan activities… but which could be extremely beneficial when approached effectively. If projects are undertaken successfully, they can inspire others to bring their dreams to fruition, and the support would be there from this wider community.
Recent achievements were mentioned, including the Blue Plaques placed for Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente by the Centre for Pagan Studies; also the continued success of Pagan Pride and the Children of Artemis‘ gatherings. The OBOD 50th Anniversary celebrations were mentioned, and the progress of Pagan workers within the Police and Prison Services.
A central News hub was suggested, to compile updates on what’s going on in our immediate community – a sort of ‘Pagan Reuters’ from which the national Media could then use information which had been confirmed as accurate, to avoid any misrepresentation. This was, of course, raised as a constant issue (notably recent coverage of the Stonehenge Solstice and litter problem), but what was not mentioned in the Press was the subsequent cleanup of the Stones by local Pagan groups. It was agreed that such work is certainly worth publicising, to demonstrate the wider story beyond the sensational headlines. Pagan Radio was also discussed as valuable potential resource.
As the day went on, the potential contained within even just those groups represented in person was realized to be far-reaching. Meeting attendees had been limited due to the experimental nature of the event and size of the space, but other groups were remembered and achievements noted. While fund-raising to get things done is always important, the capacity within the Pagan community to share information, support, skills and knowledge is far wider than we might have supposed. And the key, of course, is that we are all willing. Repeatedly, it was remarked that the ‘time seems right’ – that we might be ready for this, as never before.
Even if individual Pagans are not actively part of the wider community, there will still be those working to help them, providing services, space and facilities that they might wish to use or call upon if ever needed. From event management to IT advice, mental health support and education, we are all members of this society, looking to aid others who share our spirituality. Even a mention of an event in a newsletter can mean so much, with very little effort.
Differences were mentioned, of course, particularly with those who chose not to identify specifically as ‘Pagan’, preferring their own path name – but such identity could still be recognised, certainly not rejected or ignored. Historic disputes needed to be put behind us and those differences acknowledged but allowed for. There really is no group like Pagans, after all, even when that word isn’t sufficient to cover activities and beliefs!
It’s been quite hard to sum up the day, as so much went on in those few hours. The key word that keeps coming back to me is ‘enthusiasm’. We were all so keen, so full of ideas – but not just dreams, real practical and achievable plans. From the basic hope to have Pagans working together, that spark ignited, and very tangibly so. We all felt the excitement, that history was being made right now… and our responsibility within that.
By the close of the meeting, the main question was ‘What next?’ – and arrangements have been made to continue the discussion via online communication, with future meetings to be planned that will hopefully include even more group members. Everyone present will be keeping in touch to support each other as needed, see how projects come to fruition and plans develop. Each group has its own priorities and needs, but a sense of shared community was inspiring as a foundation for those, to keep us supported (even in a ‘hands-off’ way), and allow Paganism in the UK to realize its potential as we moved forward into the future.
Mike Stygal opened the meeting with part of a similar introduction by Doreen Valiente, from the inaugural Beltane meeting of the ‘Pagan Front’ in 1971 (which only became the Pagan Federation in 1980). We were all struck by the continued relevance of her words:
‘Unity is strength, and I welcome the fraternal unity of all sincere people of goodwill who follow the pagan path. We may not always agree with each other, but we must support each other, in our struggle for our right to follow the religion and life-style of our choice in the modern world.’
Addendum. No one particular group claimed precedence over any other at this meeting, and all present were satisfied with the equal representation of their groups and paths. It was actively decided to work to positively promote group unity, and avoid unnecessary cynicism or dwelling on historical matters (fact or hearsay) which bore no relevance to the issues under discussion. Subsequently, no offence was intended to anyone, nor was any taken. I would suggest that this was a notable factor in making the day such a success.
On request, those groups in attendance/represented were (in no particular order):
The Pagan Federation (including Publications, Prison Ministry and International)
Glastonbury Goddess Temple & Associated Orchard Community
The Centre for Pagan Studies/Doreen Valiente Foundation
The Dolmen Grove
Pagan Pride UK
Order of Bards, Ovates & Druids
Children of Artemis
Kith of Yggdrasil
The Druid Network
The Police Pagan Association
The Fellowship of Isis