Infiltrates the Churches|
By Catherine Edwards
Feminist proponents of
Wicca, or modern-day witchcraft, now can be found within the clergy
promoting the cult of the Goddess in many mainline Christian
Ward Atchason left Wicca, or witchcraft, to join the Roman Catholic
Church she never dreamed she would encounter witchcraft wit-hin the
walls of Christendom. Atchason lives in Salem, Mass., and still
encounters practicing Wiccans in the community and on the street --
but in the church?
. . . . In fact,
Atchason positively identified for Insight a Wiccan practice gaining
currency in many churches. It is documented in two articles in
Wellsprings, a defunct journal for Methodist clergywomen. The
articles, "A Croning Ritual" and "Reflections from a New Crone,"
were written by the Rev. Nancy Webb, minister of education and
children's education at Foundry United Methodist Church in
Washington -- which the Clintons attend -- and by the Rev. Mary
Kraus of Dumbarton United Methodist Church in Washington. Webb and
Kraus provide details of the Wiccan croning ritual in the articles
from their own eyewitness accounts.
. . . .
"I am surprised that they are doing that," Atchason tells
Insight. "A croning ritual is a Wiccan rite of passage." According
to Atchason, "the Goddess" worshipped by Wiccans takes on three
forms: maiden, representing sexual ripeness; mother, representing
birth; and crone, representing old age.
. . .
. As recently noted by Insight, Wicca is becoming
increasingly popular in the culture (see "Wicca Casts Spell on
Teen-Age Girls," Oct. 25). Although Wiccans differ over semantics,
most agree that Wicca is a pagan, nature-focused mystery religion.
Most Wiccans worship a feminine deity called "the Goddess" and her
consort, "the horned God." According to Wiccan high priestess
Phyllis Currott, the goddess takes on many forms such as the
mythological Greek deities Artemis, Gaia and Sophia as well as
Roman, Celtic and Norse goddesses. Some Wiccans meet in groups
called covens or circles, while others prefer to practice Wiccan
rituals and cast spells alone.
. . . .
As the millennium approaches and Christians around the world
prepare to celebrate 2,000 years since Christ's birth, some in the
church are concerned that the Christmas message is being distorted
by pagan influences. As Wicca and goddess worship grow in popularity
in the culture, elements of the practice also are appearing in
. . . . Connie
Alt, a former Methodist cleric, is one of those concerned. Alt left
her church partly because of what she perceived to be a lack of
discernment in the matter of witchcraft by the church's leadership.
. . . . When Alt read the Wellsprings
article she telephoned Foundry Methodist to speak with Webb. Alt
tells Insight that Webb informed her that she found Northern
European practices of Wicca very helpful. She then recommended that
Alt read a book called The Spiral Dance, by a Wiccan high priestess
who calls herself Starhawk.
. . . .
Disturbed that a professing Christian and Methodist minister
would admit to any relationship with witchcraft, Alt called her
friend Karen Booth, pastor at Long Neck United Methodist Church in
Delaware. They had reason to believe that their bishop, Susan
Morrison, herself had taken part in the croning ritual. When
questioned, however, Booth tells Insight that Morrison said she
could "neither confirm nor deny having taken part in the croning
ritual, but that she had witnessed many croning rituals."
. . . . Although disturbed by this response,
Booth did not bring up the matter for several years until last fall
when she found out that one of her parishioners' daughters was
reading Teen Witch: Wicca for a New Generation, by a Wiccan high
priestess called Silver Ravenwolf. Alarmed that Wicca was
influencing young women in her own congregation, Booth, along with
Long Neck's lay leader, Elaine Wood, reluctantly filed charges
against Webb and Kraus for practicing a spirituality contrary to the
teaching of the Methodist church.
. . . .
In the spring of this year, Bishop Felton May of the
Baltimore-Washington conference acknowledged the charges in
accordance with the Methodist Book of Discipline and presided over
two meetings between the women and appropriate witnesses. Booth and
Wood tell Insight that Webb claimed that the croning ritual was just
a birthday party but grounded in paganism and Wiccan belief and
. . . . Of particular
concern to Booth was a blessing mentioned by Webb at the end of the
Wellsprings article which she noted bears a striking resemblance to
a blessing mentioned in Starhawk's The Spiral Dance, except that
Webb's blessing omits a line about "the Goddess." When May asked
Webb why she left this line out, says Booth, Webb told him she had
said the blessing from memory and she would have inserted the line
about the goddess had she remembered it.
. . In the meetings Webb and Kraus maintained that the
croning ritual had been a private party and therefore should not be
subject to public scrutiny. Kraus told Booth and Wood that she
should be free to choose which ritual activities are meaningful to
. . . . Troubled by this line of
reasoning, Booth expressed her concern in a letter to May. "The same
argument could be made that private sexual conduct does not matter,"
she wrote, "or that one could be a member of the Ku Klux Klan on
private time as long as it does not impinge on public religious
. . . . "I understand we have
freedom of religion in this country," Booth tells Insight, "but this
is different. This woman is Methodist clergy and she also is in
charge of children's ministry at Foundry Methodist. I don't believe
that her private acts don't influence her public life."
. . . . In June of this year, before leaving
the country on sabbatical, May did not take disciplinary action, as
hoped by Booth and Wood, but instead recommended a mediator to
assist the parties in reaching a settlement. Both Webb and Kraus
remain at their jobs.
. . . . May was
out of the country and unavailable for comment, and Kraus did not
respond to Insight's requests for an interview. Webb tells Insight
that she would rather not comment on the situation, but maintains
that she did not take part in Wiccan rituals as a practice.
. . . . Much of the media attention about
goddess worship in churches first focused on an event held in
Minneapolis in 1993 called the Reimagining Conference, but
more-isolated incidents such as the "croning ritual" have not
received a great deal of coverage. Most mainline denominations
sponsored the Reimagining Conference, at which a group of Methodist
clergy, among others, encouraged participants to reject traditional
notions of Christ's death to atone for sin because "in light of
women's experience, such as slavery and female sexual abuse,
understandings of sacrifice, atonement and martyrdom are being
. . . . According to a
report by Methodist clergy who attended, as many as 2,200 conference
participants shared in a communion of milk and honey and recited a
feminist liturgy: "To our maker Sophia, we are women in your image,
with nectar between our thighs we invite a lover, we birth a child,
with our warm body fluids we remind the world of its pleasures and
sensations." Sophia was honored at the conference as "our creator
Sophia." "Sophia" is the Greek translation of the Old Testament word
for wisdom. Some feminist philosophers claim that wisdom is
portrayed as a woman in the book of Proverbs.
. . . . Most churches, except the United Church
of Christ, have withdrawn their funding of the continuing
Reimagining conferences, but many women from mainline denominations
still attend. The next conference is scheduled for October 2000. The
conference coordinator, Joan Regal, is Lutheran, and one member of
the coordinating committee is a retired Methodist pastor, Jeanne
Audrey Powers. But neither denomination is officially
. . . . And these are
not the only ones to reimagine God as female. In late October, a
conference titled "Jesus: A Feminist, Womanist Perspective" was held
in Hendersonville, N.C., at Kanuga, a retreat center affiliated with
the Episcopal Church since 1928. The noonday order of service was
Psalm 121 rewritten as "Godde, the Lady and Mother." Speakers at the
conference included Carter Heyward, a professor at Episcopal
Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., and author of Saving Jesus From
Those Who Are Right, and Delores Williams, a professor at Union
Theological Seminary who has cited other feminist scholars in her
work who call the crucifixion of Christ "divine child abuse."
Recommended reading for participants included She Who Is, by a
Catholic nun, Elizabeth Johnson, and books by radical Catholic
scholar Rosemary Radford Reuther, author of Gaia and God: An
Ecofeminist Theology Healing.
. . . .
Abigail Noll of the Washington-based Institute on Religion
and Democracy, an organization that seeks to monitor and reform
mainline-church denominations, attended the conference. She observed
that all the participants appeared sincere. Noll tells Insight,
however, that she was surprised by a song sung by conference
coordinator Rosemary Crow, called "You Can Be a Heretic, Too." Crow
views herself as a heretic because she promotes feminist theology,
standing against the structure of the church.
. . . . So why do observers say feminism and
goddess worship is growing in popularity in the church?
. . . . "Women are looking for empowerment and
a safe place to explore these things and a place to rebel against
God," explains Donna Hailson, author of the Goddess Revival and
visiting professor at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in
Hamilton, Mass., and Eastern Baptist Seminary in Philadelphia.
Hailson tells Insight she does not believe that God is female, but
beyond gender. Hailson does acknowledge that the church has not
always behaved in ways that are honoring to women. "But that does
not mean that we should reimagine God!" she says.
. . . . "Many feminists claim that men have
interpreted Scripture throughout the centuries in a way that
subordinates women and that women should have the chance to change
things to better suit their experience. Sadly, this plays into the
myth that women are feeling creatures and not thinking creatures,"
Hailson tells Insight.
. . . . Much of
the feminist literature focuses on the environment, the arts and new
spiritual practices such as goddess worship. "This should all serve
as a wake-up call to the church to reclaim the arts, to care about
the environment and to show that church is not just a Sunday-morning
. . . . Evidence of this can
be found in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), or PCUSA, which also
has sponsored goddess worship. At the PCUSA-owned Ghost Ranch
retreat center in New Mexico last fall, women were invited to
"celebrate the sacred feminine goddess in the land of enchantment
with art, movement, ritual and song. Honor the goddess within each
woman. Tell your Herstory with art, voice, dance ritual. Walk a Hopi
labyrinth. Create art with your symbolic Goddess language. ... Dance
at the temple of the Living Goddess. Connect us with a sacred circle
with very special women for mutual transformation. Share the
. . . . Concerned that such
programs encouraging goddess worship were incompatible with the
Bible, Sylvia Dooling, wife of a Presbyterian pastor, founded Voices
for Orthodox Women, or VOW.
. . . .
Its goal is to try and influence the Presbyterian Church to
be more orthodox through the proper channels of the church. "We have
grown from twelve members two years ago to 1,000 members today,"
Dooling tells Insight. "Presbyterian women are concerned about
. . . . Mary Hunt is a
feminist who does not share Dooling's concern and is pleased with
the growth of feminist philosophy in the Christian church. Hunt is a
Roman Catholic and codirector of the Women's Alliance for Theology,
Ethics and Ritual, or WATER. An editorial on the front page of
Waterwheel, WATER's quarterly newsletter, reads, "Starhawk gets it
right in her new introduction to the twentieth-anniversary edition
of The Spiral Dance, the book that launched Goddess religion into
the contemporary mainstream. 'How do I learn this ... how do I pass
this on?' "
. . . . Hunt tells Insight
that while her newsletter quotes Starhawk, a Wiccan high priestess,
that she and codirector Diann Neu consider themselves to be
Catholic, although WATER is not affiliated officially with the Roman
Catholic Church. "We seek to influence it however and receive
funding from some Catholic bishops," she says.
. . . . One issue of the newsletter features a
liturgy for All Saint's Day, honoring the gracious Mother Goddess,
"Wisdom -- Sophia," written by Neu. Participation of a young woman,
a middle-aged woman and a crone are required.
. . . . "This liturgy is a resource for others
to use on their own or in their denomination. We are not promoting
Wicca," says Hunt, "but it is certainly something that is a
. . . . Hunt and Neu hope to
transform the church by inducing it to have a more feminist agenda.
They hold workshops and sponsor events on such issues as
spirituality, sexuality and anti-racism.
. . Yet the church to which they profess to belong does not
agree. "The Catholic catechism forbids divination, sorcery and magic
as a mortal sin against the first commandment -- and that includes
Wicca," explains the Rev. Mitch Pacwa, a Roman Catholic professor at
the University of Dallas and author of Catholics and the New
. . . . Atchason says that she
fears that women who practice goddess worship and Wicca in church
are uninformed and don't know what they are doing. "They think they
are celebrating their womanhood, but there are darker associations
and they should understand what they are dealing with." Atchason
tells Insight that there are some pagans and Wiccans who practice
with similar naïveté and are what she terms "nominal witches." She
and another ex-witch in Salem, Mass., Paula Keene, aver that
witchcraft is dangerous and real. Keene left Wicca in favor of
Catholicism in the 1980s and warns, "Magic is real and it
. . . . Keene tells Insight
she left Wicca because of negative experiences too frightening to
describe over the phone. But Atchason and Keene maintain friendships
with Wiccans and now share the truth of their own passage with all
who will listen.
. . . . "These women
in the church do not have the discernment we do from the experiences
we had," warns Atchason. "They must be informed. It's like the
warning on a pack of cigarettes. Wicca is dangerous and could be
hazardous to your health."