Paganism, on the surface, seems like a retreat from the challenges posed by organized religion. Our great, mostly-pentacle-shaped umbrella, under which all shades, shapes and sizes of earth loving, god or goddess invoking creatures rest, looks to the untrained eye like a respite from bureaucracy, miscommunication, and any of the other ills of “The Church.”
It just isn’t so.
When people gather, organize and commit to being in relationship with one another, conflicts arise. This is an inevitability. The question is: how do we respond when those conflicts occur?
When I was a child, I attended an Episcopal church in Englewood, Colorado called St. George’s. The church was small, but it was a home to me and my mother. She married my father in that little church, she had me baptized in that little church, and she struggled through a divorce in that little church, all with the aid of a kind, soft-spoken priest named Father Welsh.
I loved St. George’s. I was an acolyte, a regular at the Sunday hot-breakfast after service, and I felt completely at home inside that house of worship.
But then there was a conflict within the congregation; some political squabble I was later told. Father Welsh was making the church open to AA meetings in the basement, and that made many of the parishioners uncomfortable. Father Welsh was a recovering alcoholic, clean for years, but accusations were made against him to the bishop. They said he was drinking again.
My mother assured me these accusations were not true. She said that this was just politics. She said these tight-wad people didn’t want the dirty alcoholics to be sullying up their clean church, and that this was some way to live like Christians.
In time, and while my mom and I were away for the summer, my priest was removed from the parish. Father Welsh left the state, and we never went back to St. George’s.
I don’t suppose the people who took their complaints to the bishop considered the impact that their choice would have on me. I also don’t know if their grievances were founded on the truth. He could have been drinking. I don’t know.
But I do know that the removal of a priest from his congregation is no small affair. The ramifications are great, and extend outward in ways that are unpredictable. The repercussions might not always be “bad,” but they will always be uncertain.
But What About In Pagan Communities?
This situation at St. George’s could have just as easily happened within a Pagan organization. I imagine that something like this may have happened in the groves, covens or organized groups to which some of you belong.
When we’re faced with this kind of situation, especially one that has yet to be completely resolved, we have good cause to refrain from snap judgement, and to hold space. “Holding space” may be a useful way for Pagans to practice discernment, for by holding space I mean waiting, listening, keeping in kind thoughts all the parties involved.
Our partisanship does not always contribute to the resolution of political conflicts. It often exacerbates it. The quick creation of an “Us v.s. Them” mentality makes it very difficult to consider all of the information with a clear head and without bias.
I’m not sure my mother was unbiased. She didn’t want for our priest to leave. He was an important man in our lives. I’m also not sure that the accusers were lying. I’d like to think they were, because that allows me to side with the victim (and in some ways, make the victim the ethical hero). But I was never given the opportunity to consider all sides of the story, and I really only wanted to believe one side.
In religious community, regardless of your cosmology, (poly)theology, or creed (if you have one), conflicts create opportunities to respond to one another with compassion; to hold space for the accuser and the accused, until such a time that you are able to learn the fullness of the truth. Exercising compassion in moments of conflict is a natural and necessary component of a healthy religious life, I think.
So I invite your compassion. When there is conflict, may your heart soften. May you be willing to listen clearly, without prejudice, and with a willingness to hold space for all those involved.
Feel free to share instances where you’ve been faced with conflict within your religious community (and please withhold the names and specifics in order to respect the privacy of those involved). If your response was one of compassion, was that challenging? If compassion was not your response, why?
If you are involved in a conflict at this time, I ask that you not air your grievances here, but rather take this opportunity to hold space and practice compassion.