Out of the broom closet: modern witches

by
22 February 2019

Abigail Frymann Rouch talks to modern witches, and those in the Church who are attempting to build bridges

ALAMY

Kiernan Shipka (centre) stars in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, on Netflix

Kiernan Shipka (centre) stars in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, on Netflix

THEY are photogenic, social-media savvy, feminist, vehemently anti-Trump — and they are witches. Wherever your childhood literature told you witches gathered, today a new wave of “influencers” are to be found pouting and posing on Instagram, offering “witchtips” and horoscopes to help their thousands of followers to navigate a demanding and misogynistic world.

An occult bookshop in New York encouraged Facebook users last October to join them in putting a curse on President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee (now Judge) Brett Kavanaugh, who had been accused by three women of sexual assault, as the #MeToo movement suddenly took on a spiritual angle.

The trend appears to have crossed the Pond, albeit in less politicised and attention-grabbing form. The industry monitor Nielsen Book Research says that UK sales of books on mythology and the occult have doubled in the past five years, while sales of books in its “Alternative Belief Systems” category have risen 13 per cent in the same period — double the growth of general book sales.

KATRINA BARTLAMMark Townsend presiding at an interfaith/Christian/Pagan blessing in a forest

The British-run magazine Sabat, which blends witchcraft and feminism, was launched in 2016 and has attracted almost half its readers from Britain (the other half from the United States). Treadwell’s Books, in London, runs three or four events a week — including a Young Urban Witches programme — many of which sell out far in advance. When the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Cornwall staged an exhibition in London in 2017, 3000 people turned up for the private view.

This does not mean that British witches resemble their American sisters. Geraldine Beskin, the owner of the esoteric Atlantis Bookshop, in London, who describes herself as a third-generation witch, says: “The Americans do have a slightly more hysterical view of life than we do.”

She has noticed an increase in younger female customers, but they are “genuinely . . . seeking an esoteric path through life”, which may also attract them to Buddhism, mysticism, and meditation more generally.

Beskin links this increase to Harry Potter and a lack of faith in authority figures. The bestselling fictional wizard “has made all sorts of things entirely legitimate now”, she suggests. “Once upon a time, parents didn’t want their kids coming into the shop; now, they’re entirely happy.

 

MANY witches, or Wiccans, are known as “solitary practitioners”, who meet for rituals, festivals, or moots (meetings). Jean Fowler, the softly spoken voluntary pagan chaplain at Edinburgh University, describes what solitary practice may entail: “Perhaps meditate, have a small altar with something that’s sacred to them, candles, incense, even music . . . It’s very much an individual path.

“And some people might get together in groups to make a sacred space that’s generally a circle, and have protection from the four quarters [elements]. They often ask for the protection of spirits that represent these elements to protect the sacred space they’re worshipping in.”

The Revd Paul Cudby, the Vicar of Tansworth and the Bishop of Birmingham’s Adviser for New Religious Movements, and author of The Shaken Path: A Christian priest’s exploration of modern pagan belief and practice (Books, 17 November 2017), says that teenage girls and young women with an interest in Wicca are increasingly opting for “self-initiation” rather than being initiated by a Wiccan priest, much to the annoyance of older pagans.

Ms Beskin complains that many of her young enquirers “haven’t yet understood [witchcraft] is a religion” with “a veneration for the God and the Goddess”, not “a service provider”. Dr Helen Berger, a sociologist at Brandeis University, near Boston, Massachusetts, estimates that “less than 20 per cent” of those who explore for a few months stay.

One “sweet, ethical” student whom she interviewed for the book she co-wrote, Teenage Witches: Magical youth and the search for self, became interested when looking for a spell that could turn an ex-boyfriend into a toad. “She found it didn’t work, but stayed for the spirituality.”

 

IT IS hard to quantify the rise in interest in Wicca and witchcraft, both of which are forms of paganism. The last Census in Britain was in 2011. Even then, increases in both were noticeable, however: the number of people in England and Wales identifying as Wiccans had risen almost two-thirds over the previous decade, to 13,042, concentrated among young people.

DIANA GREENFIELDThe Revd Diana Greenfield, the adviser on New Religious Movements and Alternative Spiritualities in the diocese of Bath and Wells, where she serves as a pioneer minister in Glastonbury

Dr Vivianne Crowley, a lecturer in the psychology department of NottinghamTrent University, specialising in contemporary paganism, believes that the true number could be much higher. She argues that young adults living with parents or in house shares may have felt too nervous to admit that they were pagans. (Insiders call it “coming out of the broom closet”.)

The Revd Steve Hollinghurst, a consultant and researcher in mission and contemporary culture and author of New Age, Paganism and Christian Mission, believes that there could be up to 150,000 pagans, putting them neck-and-neck with the Baptists.

Pagan chaplains are to be found in some universities, hospitals, and prisons. In 2009, the Police Pagan Association was formed to support pagan officers and counter stereotypes. The Pagan Federation was admitted to the UK Inter Faith Network in 2014, shortly after joining the Religious Education Council of England and Wales.

Paganism has also gained legitimacy from academic attention. “Young women have always been interested in how to control their lives and find meaning,” Dr Dawn Llewellyn says. She is senior lecturer in Christian studies and deputy director of the Institute of Gender Studies at the University of Chester.

While notions of the feminine sacred re-emerged in the 1970s, she notes that today’s teenagers are “deliberately targeted” by shows such as the American TV series The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (the reboot of Sabrina the Teenage Witch), and reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The Harry Potter series, and the female characters in Terry Pratchett’s novels present individuals who are able to overcome their problems through magic.

Young people, Dr Llewellyn says, are fascinated by these shows’ blend of empowerment with concern for the environment, “acting justly, not doing harm to others, and a liberal approach to LGBTQI issues”. The age of medieval witches is long gone, but she believes that a witchcraft that celebrates women’s bodies, and experiences such as pregnancy, childbirth, and the menopause, still attracts women, because it offers them more agency.

“From the gender pay-gap to taboos around menstruation, there are still prescribed ways around how women are expected to behave. So women harnessing their own power sounds a bit dangerous to a world that’s still largely structured by patriarchal norms.”

None the less, many of those interviewed were keen to emphasise that most contemporary Western witches did not go around cursing political leaders. They mentioned the rule of three: a belief that if you put evil into the world, it comes back to you three-fold. “Most common early magical practices of most of those who enter this are healing rituals, and most often for other people . . . things people commonly pray for,” Dr Berger says. “Later, people continue to do those, but also do rituals for finding work, doing well in exams, finding a place to live . . . or even finding a parking place.”

 

NOT all pagans reject Jesus. Mark Townsend, who left the priesthood in the Anglican Church in 2010 (Interviews 31 July 2017), now places himself between Christianity and druidism. His website home page refers to him as “Revd” and a “independent priest”, and he is shown wearing a clerical collar and black cassock. He says that, while researching his book Jesus Through Pagan Eyes, he found three views of Jesus: “the humble, wandering-troubadour-like figure who seemed to be on the side of the marginalised, [who is] compassionate and slightly motherly at times; the cosmic Christ, the universal consciousness, a picture of God within all matter.

” But what [pagans] find difficult is Jesus Christ the Church’s Christ, who says, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life,’ which seems to be exclusive rather than inclusive.”

Mr Cudby, one of the C of E’s five active New Religious Movements advisers, says: “There are an awful lot of people called Christian witches — [who practise] a more or less orthodox faith, but they believe they have spell-crafting gifts.” Would these not be identified as prophetic gifts by parts of the Church? “It’s difficult to say.”

Why do some people leave Christianity for witchcraft? “Partly, I think it’s a failure in the Church,” Mr Cudby says. “A lot of the people I’ve met left either because they were simply not allowed to ask questions or because they just found church very dry and unspiritual.”

He believes that the Church needs to develop “a willingness to explore Christ rather than teach ‘This is what you’ve got to know.’ We seem to have all these evangelistic plans that are about getting people to come to church. This generation aren’t into big institutions. . . People don’t want to be told what to believe: they want to explore it for themselves.”

 

TO THIS end, Mr Cudby co-founded Forest Church in 2012 to provide a contemplative outdoor space for people who prefer to worship God through creation. Meetings take place in England, Wales, and Scotland (Features, 4 October 2013). “We meet once a month, whatever the weather,” he explains. “We have prayers; I normally give people a meditation, then send people off for ten minutes to engage with the world around us in terms of the question that I’ve set; then we come back together, talk about it; then we go down the pub for an hour. It’s much less dogmatic; you won’t find a creed, but it’s definitely Christ-centred.”

One former pagan who is considering ordination and asked to be named in this article only as May encountered Christianity at university where mutual curiosity created “a lot of overlap” between the memberships of the pagan social group and the Christian Union. Now a funeral minister who identifies as a High Anglican, May says she has “blended” her beliefs with her old beliefs rather than leaving them all behind.

Her studies of religions led her to conclude that “the stories within them follow a very similar form, of death and chaos, and resurrection and the restoration of order. Jesus lived out a myth that already existed . . . and he was living it out in reality, and in so doing, brought the whole world into this already existing divine myth; he brought the whole world into holiness.”

Another way the Church is responding to people who have been attracted to witchcraft is by answering the many queries that roll in. The Church of England’s National Adviser for Mission Theology, New Religious Movements and Alternative Spiritualities, Dr Anne Richards, says that she receives around three enquiries a day, often from teenagers on social media, who say they are unhappy with their experience of what she calls “cultural witchcraft” (i.e. linked to popular culture).

JEAN FOWLERJean Fowler, Honorary Pagan Chaplain for Edinburgh University

Typically, “they are fed up with it and want to move on, or they’ve got some problems with it.” She advises that if they look for a mentor online — “like Buffy has a mentor, somebody who’s going to guide them into something a bit riskier, something a bit more scary, but also a bit more exciting” — they put themselves at risk of cyber exploitation, psychological dependency, or simply being scammed.

She also worries they could get into “something that’s going to frighten you very badly and do you a lot of damage, like Ouija boards and Charlie-Charlie, and these other types of ‘games’ where you lose control and all sorts of things can happen in your mind that you’re not prepared for.”

Dr Richards links the rise in interest in paganism to secularisation. “If churchgoing declines and people fall away from the rhythms of the Church and its narratives, that creates a void that something has to fill. . . It’s very easy to fill today because you can just go on the net, have a Google, and meet some people who are also searching.”

She regrets that more dioceses do not fund advisers. Such appointments require considerable expertise, and few clergy are interested in reaching out to people attracted by these spiritualities.

The Revd Diana Greenfield, adviser in the diocese of Bath & Wells, where she serves as a pioneer minister in Glastonbury, attends pagan festivals as a form of outreach, and even added a few carefully considered pagan elements to a Christian funeral she conducted in her church. The Rural Dean of Glastonbury, the Revd David MacGeoch, has encouraged the use of a blue pilgrims’ candle at civic services to promote tolerance and dialogue between Glastonbury’s 76 different spiritualities, and last November hosted a Festival of Death and Dying at his church. “I did a Grave Talk each day and there were people who sat at tables saying, ‘I’m pagan and I’ve come to hear and discuss.’ That was extremely helpful.”

 

CHRISTIANS continue to be cautious about witchcraft, even fearful. Dr Richards is critical of those who distance themselves from it. “There’s a kneejerk reaction to the word ‘witch’ or ‘witchcraft’ in certain circles . . . Some Christians say, ‘I don’t want to find out that because it might contaminate me.’” She believes that some Christians misinterpret what pagans do. “I have had to talk to vicars and churches where they’re very upset by pagan activity and cursing: it is usually just anti-social behaviour.”

Church House asked the Church Times not to use several of her comments, including a reference to a specific parish that had experienced problems, in case it reignited tensions with local pagans. A priest in an area with pagan activity declined to be interviewed for the same reason.

Mr MacGeoch gave a warning against embarking on dialogue without considering what kind of conversation you are having, with whom and why, asking yourself: “Am I putting myself in any spiritual danger or not?” If [the dialogue] is to compare beliefs, “fine. If it’s more than that, be wary.”

One problem is a lack of clarity on whether there is a line to be drawn between “safe” and “dangerous” practices. In Britain the term “witchcraft” is also linked to concepts such as ritual child killings. Several interviewees defended pagans, distinguishing them from Satanists. But Mr MacGeoch suggested that the picture was more nuanced. Dr Berger believes that a distinction can be made, based on intent: does a practice boost confidence and mental health? She adds, however, that magic “can slide into the more nasty forms”.

And she says not everyone agrees with the distinction: she cites a witch based in Salem, a hub for US witchcraft, who said: “If a witch can’t curse, they can’t heal.”

”They would say it’s the same magic.”

Dr Richards draws a line between groups who follow established pagan pathways based on Celtic practices, and individuals that try DIY cultural witchcraft. Ultimately, she says: “I can’t say that anything is okay, to be honest, because absolutely anything has the potential to get you in contact with the wrong sort of people. I’m not against exploration . . . but in today’s world we have to be as careful as we would with any other kind of exploration, particularly online.”

Mike Stygal, vice-president of the Pagan Federation, told the Church Times: “Anything deeply spiritual has the potential to be dangerous. . . We don’t have a pagan clergy, doctrine, and scripture; so there is an element of DIY. [But] we try to make sure . . . there are people around who can advise from their own experiences.” Mr Stygal, whose wife is a Christian, said that one of the Federation’s current priorities was safeguarding. He was critical of the few pagans who targeted churches, which he put down to “historical bad blood” or immaturity.

Several other pagans declined to speak to the Church Times for this article. One interviewee said that this was not surprising, given their history of persecution by the Church. Increasingly, however, Christians find themselves in sympathy with young witches’ complaints of the Church’s sexism and its ambivalence towards creation.

anne.richards@churchofengland.org

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