“No School is Being Told to Teach About Paganism” in Cornwall

Last week I deconstructed the Daily Mail’s sensationalist assertions regarding the teaching of Paganism in British religious education courses, specifically in Cornwall. I pointed out that there is no hard-and-fast mandate requiring schools to insert Pagan religions into their curriculum, and that the RE advisory council is exactly that, advisory. This didn’t stop conservative Catholic columnist Christina Odone from flying off the rails, using the story as a jumping-off point to rail against any who dare place non-Christian faiths on equal ground with Christianity.

“God, Gaia, whatever: school children are already as familiar with the solstice as with the sacraments. In pockets of Cornwall, children will point out a nun in her habit: “Look, a Druid!” Their parents will merely shrug — one set of belief is as good as another. How long before the end of term is marked by a Black Mass, with only Health and Safety preventing a human sacrifice?

So with the discourse on this non-event having sunk about as low as it could go, it was time for the journalistic grown-ups at the BBC to step in and set things to rights.

Sue Green, director of education, said Cornwall’s heritage was “quite unique” and must be celebrated. The director said the syllabus suggested if there was an important religious aspect of beliefs such as Paganism, teachers should “explore it”. “We must celebrate the spiritual and religious heritage for our children.” Ms Green said: “For many of our schools there will be children who come from Pagan families and we wouldn’t want those children to feel marginalised.” But she added, that “no school is being told to teach about Paganism”.

It should be noted that Sue Green is director of education for the Anglican Diocese of Truro, which serves Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, so not exactly a shill for the powerful (and largely imaginary) Cornwall Pagan lobby. Nor is Green the only prominent Cornish Christian to speak up in defense of the curriculum guidelines, a local paper in Cornwall interviews the Rev Mike Coles, pastor of Falmouth Evangelical Church, and chairman of Cornwall’s advisory body for religious education, about the council’s recommendations.

“It seems right to develop a distinctively Cornish element that included the early Celtic saints, the influence of John Wesley, and the history of Truro Cathedral, as well as the significance of pre-Christian sites.”

Rev. Coles is a conservative Baptist, again, not exactly a “rah rah Paganism” kind of guy. That paper also speaks with David Hampshire, RE adviser for Cornwall, who notes that the “option” (notice the word option and not “mandate”) was developed “in order to develop a ‘Curriculum Kernewek’ (Cornish curriculum),” and that Paganism would “not be a major feature” of the curriculum. Thus, yet another controversy constructed by The Daily Mail is laid to bed, though I’m sure critics will once again lash out at the BBC for being too “Pagan friendly” for daring to accurately report the news.

In a final note, only one news outlet bothered to get a statement from the local branch of the Pagan Federation, and that was the Huffington Post UK.

“Fiona MacDonald, co-ordinator of Cornwall’s Pagan Federation, said the group welcomed the decision to include Paganism on the curriculum. “We have been campaigning for schools to introduce it for the past 10 years,” she told The Huffington Post UK. “It is not a question of teaching children Paganism, rather teaching children about Paganism. “We are just normal human beings with different ideas,” she added.”

So here’s to HuffPo UK for actually asking local Pagans what they think about a story that affects their lives. It’s sad that they were the only ones to do so.

So, to wrap up, an advisory RE curriculum is advisory, not mandatory, local Christians and Pagans don’t seem to have a problem with the RE curriculum, children are not being indoctrinated by Pagans, and the Daily Mail is a terrible way to get your journalism and you should really stop reading and linking to it.

About Jason Pitzl-Waters
  • Obsidia

    Good for the Huffington Post (UK) for actually asking Pagans what they think of this!  Personally, I think that teaching about Pagan spiritual paths would be a wonderful subject for History.  

  • Kilmrnock

    I have to agree with Jason , this rag called Daily Mail is the lowest , worst form of journalism you can find , if it can even be called that . This thing is even lower than the Star and such publications we have on this side of the pond . We at least need to bouycott that rubbish, anyone else w/ a brain should as well.      Kilm

  • Amyhale93

    I still think there are some triumphs here worth noting.  The fact that these provisions exist at all indicate a particular visibility of Paganism and Pagans in Cornwall that is being respectfully acknowledged.  And many of us are delighted that a Curriculum Kernewek is being developed in the first place and that is so diverse in nature.  As I mentioned before, I believe this is as much an indication of how Cornwall is treated in the press as Paganism.

  • Malaz

    (to Daily Mail) “You’re news is bad! and you should feel bad!”

  • Richardthornthill957

    Did anyone else notice that Odone’s definition of “Christianity” – nuns, sacraments, … – is entirely Catholic?

    Cornwall IS one of the parts of the UK where Paganism is most popular (for various reasons – lots of stone circles, etc., dramatic coastal landscapes, and a longstanding popularity with artists and bohemians). However, Cornwall’s religious tradition was predominantly one of Nonconformist Protestantism (Methodists, Baptists and Quakers), which Odone doesn’t even mention.

    Odone isn’t merely a conservative Catholic bigot, she’s also the worst kind of Londonocentric elitist. Her background, upbringing and career history are Continental, academic and media-based, exactly like the sort of metrosexual, liberal elitists she professes to despise.

    • ziarah

      Given the number of stone circles and monoliths/dolmens in Cornwall, I don’t know where you get the idea that “Cornwall’s religious tradition was predominantly one of nonconformist Protestantism.”

      • Rombald

        Cornwall, like parts of Wales and northern England, but distinct from the English mainstream, had, and to some extent still has, a strong tradition of types of Protestantism that reject the Church of England.

        I noted that it does have a lot of modern Paganism, more than most of the UK, but that is a numerically minor part of its make-up.

        I know there are lots of megalithic remains, but I was talking about current and recent religious tradition – sorry if I didn’t make that clear.

        • ziarah

          My point is less about modern pagans, more about the fact that the very earliest people in Cornwall appear to ALSO have been pagans. That’s significant, and worth teaching broadly and extensively. It is, in fact, Cornwall’s “traditional” religion. 

          • Gareth

            What’s you point? The very earliest people everywhere would have been pagan. I don’t think you quite understand what  Richardthornthill957 is saying.

        • http://profiles.google.com/celticelk Scott Martin

          …and before there was a Protestant tradition rejecting the Catholic Church, Cornwall’s flavour of Christianity would have been Catholic, just like the rest of the West. Obviously you don’t want to dismiss the very real influence of Methodism and other non-Anglican Protestantism in Cornish history, but Catholicism has a historical place as well.

      • http://entdinglichung.wordpress.com Entdinglichung

        Cornwall had its own (mainly Methodist) revivalist movements among the poor (fishermen, tin miners) during the 18th and 19th centuries, e.g. the Bible Christians … there are no accurate religious statistics for
        this period but from the 1851 census and the marriage statistics in the
        registrar general reports, you can see that Methodism was a mass
        movement in Cornwall which strongly declined during the 20th century

  • Thelettuceman

    This is an interesting counterpoint to Tennessee’s decision to allow the teaching of “Controversial” Origins theories.  

  • Brandon1978

    I’m not a fan of any sort of religious education funded by tax dollars, but if I had to pick, I’d love learning about paganism in Cornwall.

  • A.C. Fisher Aldag

    While I don’t think that religion should be taught in public schools, this is a vital part of British history.  And may I point out that the Paganism of Cornwall is, in many instances and locations, one of those living, unbroken, continuous, historic, folkloric, Pagan traditions that scholars  say does not exist?

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=601178231 Jason Mankey

      Scholars would happily say such things exist if there was evidence to back up the claim.  I have a unicorn in my backyard, but you aren’t allowed to see it.     

      • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

        Jason Mankey: “Scholars would happily say such things exist if there was evidence to back up the claim.”

        I don’t know about the specific case of Cornwall, but the general case has been decided in favor of Pagan continuity. In a recent interview (link) none other than Ronald Hutton stated flatly that :

        “ever since I first began to write about paganism, in my Pagan Religions book, I have emphasised that there is a direct line of transmission between the ancient and modern kinds [of Paganism], though the medium of ritual magic … rooted firmly in the orthodox attitudes to religion and magic taken in ancient Egypt. Not only does it represent a demonstrable continuity, text to text and person to person, across the centuries, but Egyptian magical texts contain the clearest parallels to the beliefs and practices of modern Pagan witchcraft in the ancient world.”

        So, can we once and for all quit all this nonsense about there being no continuity between ancient and modern Paganism? Hmmm?

        • http://profiles.google.com/celticelk Scott Martin

          When you can demonstrate that the pagan community at large understands the difference between Hutton’s position and AC’s given above.

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

            Actually, Scott, I once collected together a number of “data points” on just this question: 21st Century Pagans on the Old Religion.

            Most Pagans, I would venture very cautiously to say, take the same position that Gerald Gardner took in Witchcraft Today and the Meaning of Witchcraft: that modern Paganism represents a genuine continuation of pre-Christian religious traditions, albeit with a variety of influences from a wide variety of cultures, continents and historical periods, including material that is of modern origin.  I have personally never met a Pagan who claimed anything like the straw-man position of a “pure” unchanged, seamless continuity with the Stone Age (a position that Gardner explicitly rejected, although he at the same time admits that he did hold that position at one time).

            And speaking of Gardner, he placed special emphasis on the Hellenic (slash-Egyptian) traditions that Hutton also zeroes in on, although Hutton over-emphasize the Egyptian-ness of these influences, when in fact Platonism and Pythagoreanism are of at least comparable importance as anything that is specifically Egyptian.

          • http://profiles.google.com/celticelk Scott Martin

            “I have personally never met a Pagan…”: Anecdotes are not data.  And I think your use of “data points” in quotes is completely appropriate here: you don’t even have enough quotes for a statistically significant sampling of Pagan *authors*, let alone the Pagan population as a whole.

            Like it or not, AP, when modern Pagans talk about “the Old Religion,” the vast majority of the time they’re talking about the sort of belief that A.C. declared above: a continuous (not necessarily “unchanged”) lineage of belief and practice descending from pre-Christian times. (That is, in fact, the position that Zimmerman and Gleason take in the quote you provided, and it’s strongly implied in the quotes from Forrest and from Holland.)  You can’t seriously believe that A.C. had Platonism and Pythagoreanism in mind when she was talking about Pagan survivals in Cornwall, for example.  Or that Plato and Pythagoras had any significant influence on local practices in Cornwall *before* Christianization, come to that, or on Cornish folk practices after Christianization.  It really feels like you’re grasping at straws here to try to “prove” that Hutton has now come around to your position on “Pagan survival,” and that your definition of “the Old Religion” is in fact the one that the majority of modern Pagans use.  I’m not convinced by either argument.

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

            Scott, your “analysis” of the quotes I provided is deeply flawed. For example, Zimmerman and Gleason claim nothing more than the following: (1) that the religious persecutions of the Middle Ages and the Early Modern period were aimed at (perhaps in addition to aims) eradicating surviving Pagan practices and beliefs in Europe, and (2) that the Inquisition, Witch-Hunts, etc, did not succeed in wiping out every single last vestige of surviving Pagan beliefs and practices. Neither of those positions is at all unreasonable, and neither posits anything that is not supported by the work of numerous scholars.

        • Gareth

          Hutton’s statement only really applies to modern Pagan witchcraft not Paganism in general. I’m all in favour of Wicca/modern Pagan witchcraft but I’ not a Wiccan or a witch and if find it irritating when the two are conflated. 

          • Henry

            heh, I’m a witch and I find it irritating when the craft and paganism are conflated as well.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=601178231 Jason Mankey

          No one has ever argued against the existence of cunning-craft, or the grimoire tradition or a whole host of things that have contributed to Modern Paganism.  The problem are the AC type comments which hint at a “secret knowledge” or the idea that there’s this unchanged 600 year old tradition being practiced in remote English villages.  

          Modern Paganism is a collection of many separate strands, and many of those strands are quite old.  However, one piece of fiber does not make a shirt.  Modern Pagan Traditions tend to be a combination of many strands.  

          • Henry

            “However, one piece of fiber does not make a shirt. ”
             true enough, yet neither does a few synthetic fibers make the whole shirt synthetic.
            Modern Paganism and Modern Witchcraft  aside, lets look at the strand of craft whether one calls it cunning or witch craft.
            We’re talking about methods and practices here, not religion.
            For the most part we’re talking plain folk traditions of charms, remedies etc, and their use. There’s plenty of proof these exist and have been passed down trhough generations and in some cases hereditarily. So the question really is not ” did pre christian religion come down to modern times in an ubroken chain?” but rather ” Did prechristian magical practices come down to modern times in an unbroken chain?” And folk lore and tradition shows they did indeed. Then ask is it possible that some pre christian religious beliefs accompanied those practices. Not necessarily ‘Pagan’ unless we’re including simple animistic theology, I.e. that regardless of the gods that may be above, there are spirits here below, in the land, sea and air and under the land. So we’re talking about localised organic religion, in the sense of re connection to the land and it’s other beings.
            Nor is it any secret knowledge being withheld, it a matter of just not asking the right questions.
            As far as evidence, one has to consider we’re talking about an oral tradition, so there won’t be any documentary evidence until the oral history is first written down.
            heh it’s like saying, indigenous practices and methods only existed from the time the first anthropologist documented them, and doubting that they were passed down from generations prior, because ‘yeah right, you learned it from your grandfather, where’s the proof”?

          • http://profiles.google.com/celticelk Scott Martin

            In that case, the anthropologist would be justified in accepting that the informant had received the tradition from her grandfather, but would not be justified in claiming that the grandfather was practicing that tradition in the same way that *his* grandfather had practiced it without further evidence.  The anthropologist would have absolutely no grounds to state on that basis that this was a tradition that was centuries or millennia old.  Even our sketchy records of folk customs of Europe provide ample evidence that “traditional” practices can undergo pretty significant change in a few decades, let alone a few centuries.

            None of this, of course, is proof that pagan beliefs did not in fact survive in folk tradition for centuries, but I think it raises enough questions that curious skepticism ought to be our default position.

            “We’re talking about methods and practices here, not religion.”

            Then call it “the Old Methods and Practices” instead of “the Old Religion.”  The fact that people do in fact still refer to “the Old Religion” suggests that either they’re sloppy about their terminology, or that they do in fact believe in the survival of pagan *religious beliefs* (as opposed to a few operational-magic techniques) from the old days.

          • Henry

            in reply to Scott, since ther is no reply link at the bottom of his recent.
            yes on the claim, and there is no justification in claiming it wasn’t., and as you say more evidenece is needed, no argument there. What I am pointing out is  when it comes to craft practice these types of claims are usually dismissed without further investigation.

            Sure, practices evolve over time and so do ‘theologies’.
            In regards to calling them old practices, that I do. I also look at the folk belief behind the practices. I’m talking about a methodology, as I mentioned in my original, look for a continuity of practice THEN look to a continuity of belief behind the practice.
             Folks still use apotropaic and pylacteric charms and supplication rituals and offerings in forms that haven’t changed much at all in centuries. The practice hasn’t changed nor really has the basic rationale behind their use.
             What is ‘the Old Religion’? The general theory of souls and spiritual beings pervading all things, and that we can iteract with them, and that it is beneficial to do so. It’s that basic, and doesn’t take a lot of academic and theological wiseacring to see that continuity. It’s the root of magic and “religion”.

          • http://egregores.blogspot.com Apuleius Platonicus

            Jason Mankey: ” Modern Pagan Traditions tend to be a combination of many strands”

            But this is true for all currently existing (“modern”) religious traditions. It is highly misleading to emphasize this with respect to Paganism with the implication that it is not equally true for all of the various sects making up Christianity, as well as for Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.

            All religious traditions are constantly changing and there are no “pure” religious traditions untainted by “outside” influences, any more than there are “pure” languages, cultures, etc. Nor is there any objective metric for distinguishing different religious traditions based on “how pure” they are compared to other traditions.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Agreed on that last point, Apuleius. Traditions rifle one another’s contents incessantly.

        • Boris

          What is an unbroken tradition? Living traditions are always adding new elements and leaving out old ones. Even the most fundamentalistic religions are changing, albeit slowly.In Dutch, there is an expression De duivel slaat zijn wijf “The devil is beating his wife” said when the sun is shining and thunder is heard at the same time. Similar expressions exist in German (Der Teufel schlägt seine Mutter / Großmutter “The devil is beating his mother / grandmother”) and in French (Le diable bat sa femme “The devil is beating his wife”). At some time there must have been a story about the devil or some pagan god who did beat or scourge a goddess. This strongly resembles an episode from Gardner’s myth of the Descent of the Goddess. The story must heve been widely known in Western Europe. At present, it has been forgotten, but the proverb survived (at least in rural areas, modern city dwellers probably never have heard them; I remember the Dutch version from the fifties). Gardner probably did not know the Dutch, French of German expressions (or else he would have mentioned them in his books), but he probably contacted an Englisch group that knew a version of the myth, and that used it in its rituals. Consequently, the use of the scourge is not just a quirk of Gardner’s, but a part of an old tradition. Modern Wiccan groups tend to leave out the scourging part, but they grew organically from this same tradition. I would say they are part of the same tradition.
          In Dutch, there is an expression De duivel slaat zijn wijf “The devil is beating his wife” said when the sun is shining and thunder is heard at the same time. Similar expressions exist in German (Der Teufel schlägt seine Mutter / Großmutter “The devil is beating his mother / grandmother”) and in French (Le diable bat sa femme “The devil is beating his wife”). At some time there must have been a story about the devil or some pagan god who did beat or scourge a goddess. This strongly resembles an episode from Gardner’s myth of the Descent of the Goddess. The story must heve been widely known in Western Europe. At present, it has been forgotten, but the proverb survived (at least in rural areas, modern city dwellers probably never have heard them; I remember the Dutch version from the fifties).
          Gardner probably did not know the Dutch, French of German expressions (or else he would have mentioned them in his books), but he probably contacted an Englisch group that knew a version of the myth, and that used it in its rituals. Consequently, the use of the scourge is not just a quirk of Gardner’s, but a part of an old tradition. Modern Wiccan groups tend to leave out the scourging part, but they grew organically from this same tradition. I would say they are part of the same tradition.

    • Autumn Hazelhewn

      I am of the opposite feeling as I believe all religions should be taught in schools. From a historical standpoint and cultural, I believe the more people learn about other beliefs and societies the closer we can get to an amicable world.


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