This past weekend, I went to my 18th Gathering for Life on Earth. There were rituals, and swimming, and workshops, and feasting, but best of all, there were juicy conversations. One of my favourite people to talk to every year is a brilliant woman who runs a local Pagan choir and who does a sung devotional ritual every year. She is so thoughtful in how she approaches ritual, and how she sets a tone and guides without controlling… her rituals inspire me on several levels.
Naturally, she leads devotional rituals because she is a polytheist, which I am not. This year, we touched on this briefly in our meandering theological discussion, and I mentioned the four centres of Paganism theory. Though we agreed that people may be centred in multiple areas or may slip between them, she did identify primarily as deity-centred and I as community-centred. We discussed how non-deity-centred public ritual leaders should be cognizant of not offending those for whom the gods and spirits are literal. It isn’t that hard, and seems mostly common sense: don’t invoke gods if you don’t know at least a little about them, lest you offend them; don’t invoke gods together who are enemies; don’t call on spirits unless the literal energy is what is desired. Basically, it seemed all good practices to me anyway: avoiding cognitive dissonance amongst knowledgeable or conscientious non-believers, not offending believers, and not making a fool of yourself by parading your ignorance around the circle.
A good ritual leader wants everyone to get something out of their ritual. That’s a challenge in a public or semi-public setting where people could be from any of the centres, and be any of the kinds of deism as well.* Making a ritual that works for everyone is a big challenge, but it isn’t a bad start to figure out what responsibility you have as a leader to each of the four centres. Here are just some ideas to get us all started; feel free to add more in the comments:
To the deity-centre, you have the responsibility to use respectful language and actions towards the gods and spirits, as discussed above.
To the nature-centre, you have the responsibility to be conscience in your choice of materials and tools, avoiding plastics and waste and being aware of the kind of offerings being made and their impact on the plants and animals. You would also want to be aware of the actual environment of your ritual (and not, for example, turning your back on a lake in order to invoke Water in the West), know your science if you are going to be using natural concepts (and not, for example, calling on a non-local bird as your spirit in the East), and being careful in your language around grounding (really, stop dumping all your negative energy into the earth) and elevating or privileging people over nature.
To the inner-centre,** you have the responsibility to not preach or lecture, and not to imply that lack of belief in external, literal gods makes someone a bad Pagan, or that lack of faith will drive one mad. It is also important that your ritual have a coherent theme and that the components make psychological sense in how they come together and build towards something. I think this is also the centre that would most want to know what words mean when chanting or invoking in another language, since intent is so important to many inner-centred traditions. Providing context and translation would be crucial to their comfort and involvement.
To the community-centre, you have the responsibility to offer opportunities for people to participate together; to offer opportunities and activities that someone could not experience on their own. From the comfort of our homes, we can watch videos of liturgy being recited, we can listen to recordings of talented singers, we can mediate and pray – what we want from group ritual is that which we can’t get any other way. Being asked to merely witness is usually not sufficient for this centre, except where community witnessing is the whole point, as in a handfasting.
Following these guidelines won’t guarantee that everyone will grok or even enjoy your ritual, but it does mean that people won’t be put off or jolted out of the experience you are trying to create by something that offends their fundamental beliefs. If you want to offer rituals to the Pagan community, especially in public or semi-public settings like festivals or Pagan Pride events, it is important to recognize that you are responsible to the whole community, not just the centres you are most familiar with. A public ritual is about more than your own practice, or even presenting your tradition to a larger audience; it is about engaging your community – your whole community – in something spiritual, religious, and meaningful.
I suspect some people will fear that in trying to please everyone, you will end up with a mess of compromises that pleases no one, but I think that reading over the points above makes it pretty clear that it is possible to make a ritual that fills at least the basic needs of all the centres without losing meaning or purpose. It is a great gift to the community to offer a ritual, but only if it is offered with respect and love for everyone.
* I think there might be a future article in how these two ways of sub-dividing Paganism may interact.
** I prefer this to the “Self-centre” in the original articles because there’s just no way to say that out loud without needing a diverting discussion about how it isn’t about being the bad kind of self-centred.