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The Challenges of Large Public Rituals

Teo Bishop has a new blog post titled “I Felt Ashamed At Pagan Pride.” He went to the Denver Pagan Pride celebration in a large downtown park. The main ritual was Wiccanish and as such it included a circle casting – which had the effect of excluding the public. Go read the essay and at least skim through the comments: it’s attracted responses from some pretty knowledgeable Pagans, including Phaedra Bonewits, Thorn Coyle, Alison Lilly and Themon the Bard.

At some point I want to talk about circle casting: why we do it, when it needs to be done and when it doesn’t. But that needs to be a post all its own.

As for this ritual, I wasn’t there, I didn’t see it, and I don’t know the people who led it. But I’ve been to plenty of large public rituals and to be painfully honest, most of them haven’t been very good. What happens is that people who are used to planning rituals for groups of 10 or 20 people of the same tradition try to do the same things with a group of 80 or 100 people of differing traditions. And it doesn’t work.

I gave this example in a previous post on avoiding common ritual errors.

I once attended a public ritual with about 80 people in attendance. The leader smudged everyone before they entered the circle, then later walked around the circle personally handing a charged object to every participant. I’m sure this was a ritual the leader had done before in an intimate gathering, but in this setting the result was that people spent a lot of time standing around with nothing to do.

When you begin planning any ritual of any size, the first question is “what do you want to accomplish?” In a private ritual or an open ritual in a private setting, a frequent goal is to strengthen the bonds between members of the “in-group.” This is a valid goal – it can be argued that it is the only goal of tribal religions. But in a public setting, the goal needs to change – there are non-members who need to be considered. The heart of Teo’s complaint is “we created an out there by casting this circle. We closed them off from us, shut them out.” While I don’t know any of the people involved, I can’t imagine that was their intention – but it was what they did.

Denton CUUPS Egyptian Summer Solstice 2009

For a public ritual in a public park, a good goal might be to honor the Earth or to raise environmental awareness. It might be to worship one or more of the old gods or goddesses or simply to celebrate the current season. Any of those – if done well – could be meaningful for the in-group while still being accessible to the general public.

A key to any successful ritual is a common understanding of the liturgy. In most groups the regulars already understand the liturgy. Give newcomers a short briefing and they can pick up what they need to know, particularly if they have some knowledge of the tradition. But in a public setting, you’re likely to have an assembly of Wiccans and Druids and Hellenics, various eclectic and solitary practitioners, and passers-by who know nothing about Paganism.

This means things need to be kept simple – this isn’t a time to do something deep and mystical. You can do some pre-ritual explanation, but it’s best if your ritual makes use of commonly understood symbols and practices. Singing, dancing, making offerings – these things can easily be understood by anyone. The larger the gathering, the harder it is to be participative, so the greater the need to think about what you’re doing and how to keep people engaged.

Large rituals have their own set of logistics issues. Wiccan ceremony was designed to be done around a 9-foot circle. Do it around a 90-foot circle and you have to worry about whether or not everyone can hear and see what’s going on (hint – do two or three smaller, concentric circles or semicircles. Or forget the whole circle idea and put people in rows).

I love guided meditations, but they’re very hard to do in a large outdoor setting. Do you want to serve a Simple Feast? Fine – but if you’ve got 100 people in the circle, it may take 15 minutes to serve everyone (hint – use four sets of servers, one set for each quarter). There are many other logistical considerations, depending on the size and setting. Make sure you’re aware of them and plan for them.

Denton CUUPS Egyptian Summer Solstice 2009

The largest ritual I helped plan was the 2009 Egyptian Summer Solstice at White Rock Lake. We had about 140 people there. It worked well because it was very visual – you’re not used to seeing a bunch of people in white tunics and head dresses in Dallas’ most popular public park! We had a procession, a choir, and a play with a staged fight – it was easy to follow along. The priests and players had strong speaking voices – projection wasn’t a problem.

It wasn’t very participative, but it didn’t have to be – Egyptian temple rituals weren’t participative affairs. The public left understanding that yes, people really do still worship Osiris, Isis and Horus, and with a few images and ideas about them.

If you’re going to be doing public rituals of any kind, I highly recommend Isaac Bonewits’ Neopagan Rites: A Guide to Creating Public Rituals that Work. Isaac was one of the best ritualists I’ve come across and this book is a distillation of his wide experience. As I’ve gotten more experienced with ritual myself, I occasionally (not often, but occasionally) find myself disagreeing with Isaac’s theories or his priorities. I’ve yet to find one of his techniques that didn’t work. Read this book and refer to it often, particularly if you’re planning a size or type of ritual you haven’t done before.

I feel bad for the organizers of the Denver Pagan Pride ritual – I’d hate to have one of my rituals dissected on the internet. But good intentions only go so far. To borrow one of Isaac’s phrases, “enthusiasm is no substitute for competence.”

Large public rituals are no more difficult than small private rituals, but they are very different animals. Plan accordingly.

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.


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