A Lakeside Hearth: Organized or Independent?

A Lakeside Hearth: Organized or Independent? August 31, 2016

Well, it has certainly been a turbulent few months since my last post. The world of Heathenry is, once again, tearing itself apart. Or at least it is in the Americas. A lot of groups have been coming out to stand for or against the AFA’s recent proclamation, and the groups I’m involved in are no different. But I’m not going to talk about that today. Lots of other people more senior and recognized in the community are already doing so. So instead, I’m going to talk about something else in the Heathen world. Sort of.

Another post recently talked about how no matter what in Heathenry, you’re doing it wrong. Whether it’s how you practice, who you are, or where you are. And she was absolutely right. Heathen practice is wide and varied in its “conventional” forms, never mind in the less common forms. In many ways, we’re treading the same terrain that our ancestors did, feeling our way along and trying to figure out what works for us as individuals and us as groups. It’s a natural evolution for any religious practice, but it’s not without its struggles and pitfalls.

a group of men seated and speaking to each other
Germanic thing, drawn after the depiction in a relief of the Column of Marcus Aurelius (AD 193) / Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

One of the greatest struggles we’re encountering now is the organized practice versus independent practice ideological battle. Now, to be clear here, I’m not talking about group versus solitary practice, which is a separate but related debate. What I’m talking about here is the local independent Kindred (I’ll be using that term for Heathen based worship groups) with no connections to larger organizations and those Kindreds who are. This is a greater argument than many give it credit for, particularly in Canada. The reason it’s a bigger deal here than in say, the USA, is because of how religions are recognized up here. It is much, much more difficult to gain official recognition from provincial authorities, and even harder at the federal level. To put it in perspective, only Wicca has succeeded in convincing a number of provincial and federal agencies that it is a religion.

So, where does that leave the argument in Canada? We live today in a society that is largely no longer accustomed to religious practice under the auspices of a larger organization. Church attendance has been dropping steadily for decades now, and even the venerable Church of England has come to recognize that it’s not attracting the numbers it needs to survive in the fashion they have become accustomed to. Combined with a lack of knowledge about how religions work in an official capacity, this means that a lot of new entrants don’t understand why there’s a fight at all. After all, isn’t religion a personal thing? Isn’t that’s what’s most important?

Well, to me, it is and it isn’t. On one hand, yes, your personal spirituality is one of the keys to your well-being and sense of self. On the flip side though, that only works well until you need or want official services that are recognized by the government as legitimate. Or until someone needs last rites.  I’ve run into many Heathens who have been genuinely surprised that the local Goði can’t officiate over a marriage. Or on the military side that their only options are “PAG”, “WIC”, or “OREL” on their ID discs. To me, this lack of recognition is what sways me towards the former in the argument.

In Canada, there is nothing to stop you and your friends and like-minded Heathens from forming your own Kindred and carrying out rituals to your heart’s content. But you can hold a blót every other week and never see it translate into official recognition. At this point though, many ask “Why do we need to be official? Why can’t we just carry on like we have?” To be fair, this is a free(ish) country, and nothing can stop you from doing just that. Many do, and take that mantra to heart as well. After all, even in Heathen practice, there’s still a streak of the anti-authoritarian Pagan counter-culture in the Heathen world, and it can especially pronounced in new Heathens who have come over from other Pagan paths.

Now, I’ll be honest, I was the same way when I was younger. I figured that religion was religion was religion, and that that was enough. But a few ramp ceremonies later, I started thinking about what would happen if that were me taking that flight home. Who would do my last rites and say words over my grave to seal me in the ground? Who would comfort my family? What if I got badly injured and had to be invalided out of service? Would the military and Veterans Affairs recognize my Goði as far as taking care of my spiritual and mental wellbeing during and after my recovery? All of a sudden, lack of recognition by my province and from my federal government for my faith became a very real problem. I made it home on one piece, but the idea that I would have been swinging in the spiritual breeze stuck with me.

Which brings me to my argument, which was prescient, I guess, in light of the national level organization issues happening the Americas now. Recognition and organization are going to be an inevitable and inexorable set of events. As is some degree of orthodoxy or orthopraxy. I’m not saying that because I’m a stick in the mud who loves uniformity and conformity. I’m saying that because that’s how religions develop. Look at any faith that has withstood the ages in the intensity of urbanized life and high social pressures, and they all walked this path. Now, before panic sets in, it doesn’t mean we’re going to end up a monolithic faith. Not by a long shot; there are lots of outcomes that allow for various sects/denominations/branches etc…, and it’s all perfectly healthy. But recognition is the key. And recognition means that, in Canada, we have to buckle a bit in our pride and zeal to come together under larger banners to gain the voice we need to be heard.

So, how does that pertain to Canada? Well, Canada has an explosively growing Pagan (and by extension, Heathen) population. Wiccans have had reasonable although not universal levels of recognition for years, which has been a huge leg up to them. This has been accomplished by the formation of provincial and national level organizations. As far as I know, the Heathen Freehold Society of BC is the only Heathen organization to achieve any level of official recognition by any government agency though. Just one group. Let that sink in for a moment. The most fractious, most solitary friendly, most anti-establishment Pagan faith out there has achieved what in theory is one of the most community minded, group oriented, limited hierarchy friendly faiths has not been able to do in Canada. And the result is that they can officially support their people in ways that we can only currently dream of.

So there it is. For years, we’ve galvanized around the local Kindred. We’ve built, lost, and rebuilt time and again, but always around the same foundations. We’ve matured past that point, but still we toil at the same plans, the same actions, and vainly hope for a different result. It’s comfortable. It’s easy. It doesn’t take a lot of effort. But ultimately, it gives us no voice, no mastery of our own destiny, we’re just leaves in a windstorm of religions, with no tree or branch to hold us. As it stands, we’re transient. Our Kindreds exist for a heartbeat, then fold. Forgotten save to those who were in them. That’s not a legacy. It’s not something to pass onto our children or our children’s children. We need to do better. We can do better. We have to do better.

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