Tuesday, October 12, 2010

How Many Druids Does It Take to Screw in a Lightbulb?

Well, I was so busy doing my best to write up an unbiased report on the recent news coming out of the UK about The Druid Network being granted religious charitable status by the Charity Commission — and interviewing lots of folks (including some who are kind of like famous people now, you know, if you're a Druid) about their own thoughts and opinions on the news — and then collecting and organizing all the information I could about US and UK nonprofit law to write up an article on the process of seeking status as a church or religious organization for minority faiths — that I never did get around to writing about what I thought of the whole thing. And now it seems I may have missed the boat, or the wave, or the tide, or whatever water-related metaphor you want to use [insert plug for Blog Action Day 2010 on 15 October here]. But — to twist a trope that's also been making its way around the Pagan blogosphere — I'm a Druid, and I have opinions about stuff.

Of course, I'll be honest, most of those opinions are about other people's opinions. The run-down of my own initial reaction to the news, which I read about first on The Pagan and The Pen goes something like: Hey! That's fantastic! Good for them! Even though I'm not a member of TDN because (a) I don't agree completely with the definition of deity that Emma Restall Orr outlines in her book Living Druidry, and (b) it seems like the Network is mostly focused on the UK more than the US — I still very much respect the organization's leadership and the projects they promote. Plus, their anti-hierarchical anarchic tendencies are pretty cool, and Jeff and I really enjoyed doing the freely-available-on-their-website Perennial Course in Living Druidry over this past year. Maybe this news will help them grow and inspire more people to take a serious look at Druidry and what it can offer as a modern spiritual tradition. Whereupon I forwarded the news and link on to Jason at The Wild Hunt to perhaps be included in the regular "Pagan Community Notes" feature... because at that point, it was of note to our community, but not actual news.

Druid Ceremony at StonehengeThen it became actual news. Which.. is kind of weird. But you know the British. Druids are like their unofficial national mascot, kind of like how pilgrims and Indian braves are over here in the United States (especially around Thanksgiving). A strange mix of colonized, slowly-exterminated indigenous Noble Savages and stodgy old men in uncomfortable religious garb swinging sickles around and wearing funny hats. While we have ours all sit down together at a long mythical table of We're All Friends Here Sorry About the Smallpox Mmmm Turkey!... the Druids do double-duty in the British imagination, wearing both (funny-looking) hats at once.* So I can understand why the news of an omg-real-live-group-of-actual-Druids getting charitable status might translate in the collective media mind into, say, Druidry Officially Recognized as a Religion for the First Time in Thousands of Years.... even though that's not, technically, what happened. It's not even that surprising that in the mild frenzy that followed, one British writer who commonly spews her vitriol towards any target that presents itself decided to turn her vomit-gushing head in TDN's direction and those of us in the Pagan community got a little bit of prejudicial bile on our shoes. Ew.

But all of this is generally par for the course, and I have a hard time getting worked up about it when there are so many trees outside turning gorgeous shades of copper and gold. What bothered me more about the whole thing were the reactions I began to see from other Druids, many of them members of organizations that I belong to as well.

I tend to feel drawn towards Revival Druidry traditions, for their more tolerant (not to mention historically nuanced) attitude towards Christianity and for their roots in the British social clubs of the 18th and 19th centuries, which combined a certain countryside romanticism with the imperative to engage in civil society through fundraising and community service. Sure, these were originally quite hierarchical fraternal orders, and I'm not too keen on forgery or inaccurate scholarship either... But a modern Druidic tradition of earth-centered, Celtic-inspired spirituality which makes room for the romantic heart of the poet next to the somewhat drier academic mind of the archeologist, anthropologist and historian, and which nurtures the unique aesthetic/ecstatic work of the individual while tempering it with that old Christian influence of neighborly love and concern for the good of greater society — yeah, I can dig that.

But what's with all the worry, concern and even fear coming from Revival Druids over TDN's success? Yes, the mainstream media got it wrong in declaring Druidry "an official religion" — but let's not be wishy-washy. I realize that some folks out there have baggage about the word "religion" for a variety of reasons, and still others consider themselves Christian Druids, Atheist Druids, Buddhist Druids and so on (I was one of those for quite a while, remember), and so balk at the idea of the "Pagan" label getting too sticky and hard to shake. But responding to TDN's new status as a charity with disapproval or ambivalence, or at best only qualified congratulations couched in terms of "pros and cons"? Or having the leader of a major Order (which I belong to) note on his blog that the news came "out of the blue for us" — as though to quickly distance the Order from TDN's work while at the same time implying that TDN had some obligation to check in regularly like a kid out on a first date...? (Not to mention the fact that this leader was, in fact, consulted and informed, way back in 2007 when TDN was drafting the forward to their constitution.) I know I'm not sitting here in Pittsburgh sulking and thinking to myself, "Well, gosh, nobody asked me if I thought TDN deserved religious charitable status under English Charity Law." As a member of the Order in question, that certainly wasn't my first response to the news, but then, I don't think of myself as somebody particularly expert or special who might expect to be consulted.

These are my opinions on other people's opinions, mind you. It's barely a step above rumor-mongering, I know (but this is my blog, damn it!) — so take it with a grain of salt and a tall glass of clean, cool water. (Ahh.... see how refreshing?) But it seems to me that there were generally two types of less-than-congratulatory responses coming from (mostly Revival) Druids: one accusing TDN of drastically overstepping their role and attempting to shanghai the entire British Druid community into their version of religious Druidry, and another which responded to this first accusation by drastically downplaying exactly what it was TDN accomplished after four long years of legal finagling, and what the implications of that accomplishment might be, as a way of saying, "It doesn't apply to us and (therefore)/anyway, it's not a big deal." Both of these responses seem to come from a very similar place in the group psyche of modern Revival Druidry — that is, it seems to me, a desire to keep Druidry as a whole in the comfortable luke-warm waters of self-help-slash-enjoyable-hobby — and that's not something I'm particularly pleased about, obviously, as a Revival-ish Druid myself. (Perhaps I'm being a bit too harsh, too; these things happen.)

So let's clear some things up. The Druid Network, though modest in size, has a reasonably active membership that has been involved almost from its inception with numerous environmental, educational and cultural heritage advocacy projects. My impression, from visiting their website on several occasions over the years, is that they're quite politically minded and take seriously the archetype of the Druid as a wise adviser, counselor and peacemaker working on behalf of the larger society. Like I said, much of their advocacy and educational work seems to be focused in the UK and concerned with local politics on that side of the pond, so I've never felt compelled to join up, being as I am an American Girl (the citizen, not the doll). But all in all, I like their focus and support their desire to have that purpose recognized officially under English Charity Law, for the same reason I like Revival Druidry's legacy of social clubs, which a couple centuries ago acted in Britain as a kind of combined workers' union and community safety net for the less fortunate. Which leads me to wonder... why wouldn't Revival Druids be more in favor of TDN's charity status?

Phil Ryder, Chair of Trustees for TDN, noted in my interview with him that TDN was legally obligated to either register as a charity, or incorporate as a company limited by guarantee, which certainly makes TDN's accomplishment seem less like a sinister plot to convert all Druids to (::gasp!::) religious Paganism, and more like an honest attempt to comply with UK law. But it also brings up the question — which I haven't actually seen anyone ask — then what exactly is, for instance, OBOD's legal status under UK law? As a charity, TDN cannot distribute any of its earnings (via donation or member subscriptions) among its leaders or other members. Compared to the modest £10 yearly membership fee asked by TDN, OBOD's distance-learning course does look a bit expensive... and while OBOD addresses the question of price on their FAQ page, nowhere that I could find do they actually confront the issue of profits or the use of funds. In fact, I couldn't even find any information about how the Order is structured, beyond a brief description of who the current leaders are, nor any note as to how those leaders are chosen.

Now, I don't want to act like this is all intrigue and underhanded dealings in a back room somewhere. After all, I signed up and paid my few hundred dollars for the Bardic correspondence course (and OBOD counts me as one of their eight-thousand members, though admittedly I'm not exactly active in the Order) — and I never thought to really ask these kinds of questions. I have a feeling most members of OBOD haven't, either. But this news about TDN prompts me to wonder about these things. Far more controversial than the idea that Druidry might be "religious" (OBOD's own list of "common beliefs among members" includes belief in a Spirit or God/dess and a belief in an afterlife of some kind, both of which sound pretty religious to me) is this idea that a Druidic organization can be officially recognized as a charity "for public benefit" under the law. That Druidry might be more than a path of self-empowerment and self-enlightenment... that it might be a path of service and social responsibility as well, and that we might be expected, whether as leaders or as everyday members of the Druid community, to actively and publicly involve ourselves not only in the promotion of and education about Druidry, but in activities with broader-reaching impact: these are some heavy implications, far heavier than whether or not some people want to take your philosophy and call it a "religion" (or take your religion and call it a "philosophy").

All I'm saying is that I'm pretty disappointed in the reactions of leaders in the Revival Druidry community. It does feel a bit like sleigh-of-hand, a kind of "look over here at this cause for concern, but then rest assured that it's not our concern" that doesn't seem to grasp the greater implications. I would have been far happier, for instance, if Philip Carr-Gomm had written a blog post that said something like, "You may be wondering, in light of the yay-worthy news of TDN's new status, how this affects us and what our own status is under UK law." (Granted, "yay-worthy" is perhaps not the phrase I would most readily expect coming from the venerable, curly-haired Chief.) Instead, there seemed to be a lot of passive-aggressive We're So Big We're The Biggest Order Around self-preening, and not a little self-congratulation for not falling into the trap of trying to actually say anything specific about anything in particular.

Druid ArchI don't expect all Druids to approach Druidry as a religious tradition... but I do. As a spiritual tradition, for me it is far more than a path to personal development — it is a calling and a challenge to seek the sacred infused and present in all things, even the ugly, the mundane, and the difficult. Druidry, for me, is not about how I can become a better person or the "best version" of myself — it is about transforming my very understanding of selfhood and community, and living in relationship with Spirit and the gods, perhaps in ways that might not always conform to my expectations of what that life will look like. I also appreciate the romanticism of Revival Druidry in the spirit of the original romantics, those poets of old English society who challenged the deadening, earth-conquering obsession with modern machinery, technology and science, who lived on the fringe striving for a more authentic life even in the face of social disapproval and who held to their strange ecstasies and tragico-prophetic visions as nourishing food essential for the undervalued soul.

What I don't like so much is when our romanticism becomes an excuse for glossing over the really tough questions about how we live our lives and interact in community with others, and instead gets treated as just another kind of anti-intellectualism masked in warm-fuzzy excursions to the countryside on weekends where we can all sit in drum-circle. What I don't like so much is when I feel pressure to shelve my own very serious commitment to Druidry as a religious tradition before involving myself in the larger Druidic community, just because some members of that community worry that Mr. Average Joe on the street will mistake my seriousness as a reflection on them.... because, umm, that would be a bad thing, I guess.

Do I feel pressure not to be religious? Before it hadn't occurred to me — but I do now, I have to admit, I definitely do now. I mean, don't you think we get enough eye-rolling from mainstream society? You think you guys, those of you non-Pagan and/or non-religious Druids out there, could cut us some slack and maybe act supportive? I'm not demanding that you join our club or change your lives — all I'm asking is that you chillax a bit and get some perspective on the whole thing... a perspective that doesn't include scoffing or snickering about how small and irrelevant TDN is, despite successfully challenging the very definition of "religion" in a rather influential British governmental regulatory body. We have enough snickering and misconceptions already, we don't need the Druid community itself to become just one more crab bucket.

But Ali, I hear you ask, how many Druids does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

Silly reader, Druids don't screw in lightbulbs. They screw in stone circles and sacred groves.

*Important note: this may be an unfair, exaggerated and even possibly offensive portrayal of the idea of the Druid in British culture, because I'm writing mostly tongue-in-cheek about the whole thing. For a serious examination of the archetype, I definitely recommend Ronald Hutton's Druids: A History.


  1. After writing this post, Jeff decided to do some investigating, and stumbled upon this statement by Philip Carr-Gomm (which, though on the OBOD website, is not linked to from any "About the Order" pages and for some reason didn't come up in my site-wide search for information on the structure and organization of the Order). I'll admit, this essay makes me distinctly uncomfortable. In it, Carr-Gomm basically argues against the whole concept of a democracy as a feasible way of structuring and running an organization, and goes so far as to suggest that a hierarchical set-up in which a few self-selected leaders make all of the decisions for the group is actually more "feminine."

    He also claims that any attempt to elicit membership opinion would cause the group's progress to "grind to a halt"... So it's nice to see that The Druid Network, which has organized itself along anarchic principles of community participation and involvement at every level, is doing so well and making such progress, despite the obstacles that OBOD has found so difficult to navigate. Here in the United States, ADF too seems to be thriving despite its Constitution, committee meetings and regular elections for leadership positions.

    (Yes, I'm being snarky. Seriously, though, perhaps it's time for OBOD and other Revival Druidry groups to reevaluate? This statement by Carr-Gomm was written way back in 1995, when I was twelve years old. Maybe, among the other positive results of TDN's gaining charitable status, it might be the impetus we need to move our Druidic organizations into the 21st century.)

  2. I've been thinking about how Paganism has an issue with "religious Pagans" and also the idea that people who express an opinion in a public forum are somehow imposing their views or reflecting badly on others. It's an interesting phenomena. I'll have to read through this post again. Lots of food for thought here...

  3. In answer to your last question: "Thirteen. One Druid to hold the light bulb while the other twelve drinks until the room spins." Don't ask me where I got that one, but I saw it on a web page many moons ago.

    But seriously...

    I enjoyed this post, especially your paragraph about Druidry being a religious tradition for you. It is for me as well, and for many of the same reasons you've outlined so beautifully. What was also interesting to me was your comment: "What I don't like so much is when I feel pressure to shelve my own very serious commitment to Druidry as a religious tradition before involving myself in the larger Druidic community, just because some members of that community worry that Mr. Average Joe on the street will mistake my seriousness as a reflection on them..."

    I've been fortunate in that I've never felt the need to shelve my religion among other Druids here in Western Canada. For the past 3 years, we've held a Druid Gathering in Alberta and I'm amazed at how many of my fellow Druids also take a religious stance in their personal practice. There doesn't seem to be the same wariness about declaring Druidry one's religious or spiritual path that I have seen outside of Canada. No shame, no question, no problem.

    That's not to say that every Canadian Druid is a "religious Druid". Many do subscribe to the notion that Druidry is a philosophy and not so much a religion. No one seems to have an issue either way, which is good. In the end, it's about seeking that truth against the world.

    I've been a member of the Druid Network since 2003 and I have seen and been involved in much of the inner workings. I have seen it grow to what it is today and that would not have been possible without the hard work of so many dedicated people. I have truly been blessed by the people I've "met" online and in person since becoming a member. The Druid Network, to me, is anything but small and insignificant!

    They've become a recognized charity in the UK which makes them more accountable. That takes a lot of work and a lot of jumping through government hoops. I like that because I like to know how my meagre annual dues are being used. I like the fact that courses are offered online and for free no paper or postage is being used and people do not have to pay for the paper or postage. TDN lives by its ethics, but allows its affiliated Groves (mine is one) autonomy to define their own. One does not have to agree with Emma Restall-Orr's philosophies in "Living Druidry"... I don't agree with all of them and that's ok. TDN is not just about one person's ideals, it's the collective ideals, efforts and passion of the members which have built it.

    If anything, TDN is one Druid organization that practices what it preaches in all respects. TDN achieved a great thing that might open the door for the public to see Druidry in a new light and for other groups to pursue similar status. Society can see that TDN is more than just a "neopagan" group... they're an entity that promotes service, environmental responsibility, social responsibility, honour and all of the things that many of us Druids, religious or not, hold true to. (I could also be biased given my involvement with TDN, but I really do mean what I say)

    It has certainly opened up dialogue amongst Druids around the world if nothing else, which is never a bad thing!

    I, of course am very supportive of TDN's big achievement! How could I not be?

    Congrats, TDN, on a job well done! I can't wait to see what happens next!

  4. Nice article Ali - again - I don't read blogs normally but I may just make a habit of reading this one :-)

    It was a good point made about not agreeing with all of Bobcat's words regarding deity, neither do I, but I do agree with her views on personal reposibility and that our Druidry is defined by our actions. One thing Bobcat has said and I constantly quote is; 'the sarcifice we must make in druidry is that of sacrificing our ignorance'. That can make the world a scary place - but it doesn't half make it an exciting one. And YES!!! Community! Druidry for me is making connections with Nature - many forget that the human community is an important part of that.
    Keep up the good work Ali :-)

  5. "it seems like the Network is mostly focused on the UK more than the US"

    I'd just like to mention (as both a trustee and a Texan) that it's not *supposed* to be that way. We have a large number of regions covering north America (http://druidnetwork.org/en/namerica/regions.html) yet currently not enough coordinators. More volunteers and more US members will always be welcomed. (http://druidnetwork.org/en/about/vacancies)

  6. Believe me, Ali ... if people agreed with me, I'd worry and change my mind!

  7. Wonderful words, Ali! :) Additionally important as you are using some great humour to make your point - that's enough to set some people off right there. 'Religion must be treated with respect, you can't pick fun'... uhhuh. We challenge ourselves all the time, and the various groups are now having to face up to that.

  8. Thank you all for your comments here, especially those of you who are members of The Druid Network. I'll admit, I woke up this morning a little bit worried that I had permanently stepped on some toes, so it's nice to check back and discover such a positive response.

    I'll also admit that my reasons for not pursuing membership in TDN seem to be slowly eroding the more I look into it! My conversation with Phil last week really piqued my interest, and though I usually tend to be slow to "join up," I will be keeping TDN in mind and pondering the possibility.... All told, I have been very impressed with what you all have accomplished, and how you've handled the media mini-storm that followed. :)

  9. Great article Ali. I too view druidry as a religious tradition, I've stopped calling myself a druid because I just didn't feel like I was represented. It is nice to know there are more people like me out there.

  10. Jason Dancingcrow10/13/2010 6:33 PM

    I liked the placing of your revelation to the reader that your approach to Druidry is a religious one: next to the revelation of a picture of you just when a new picture was needed.
    Actually, I feel my Druidry to be a faith: you don't often hear that word in Druid circles. Faith is often denigrated as something you have to have 'blind'; Druidry, however, teaches us to 'see' as much as possible but, I never really see everything, so in the end: I have faith.

  11. Thanks, Jason, though I should point out that that's not actually a picture of me (both pictures are courtesy of Flickr.com). I did like the two contrasting images, though, one of the classic Stonehenge scene of robed Druids among the stones, and the other of a modern-looking woman on her own contemplating the natural rock formation known as the "Druids Arch." :) And admittedly, the woman does look somewhat like me... a little... maybe. Anyway, I'm glad you liked them!

    And yes, I like your idea of "faith," too. A very interesting idea...

  12. A well-thought-out article to be sure. One thing that stands out for me on my second read-through is this:

    'Do I feel pressure not to be religious? Before it hadn't occurred to me — but I do now, I have to admit, I definitely do now. I mean, don't you think we get enough eye-rolling from mainstream society?'

    Funny that you should say that, because one of the things that has made me shy away from using the term 'Druid' is that I now feel very much under pressure to either 1) be religious and believe stuff I don't agree with, or 2) not be a Druid.

    Oh well, funny how different people respond differently to things.