Pagan Children & the Anglican Death Spiral

Photo: The Very Reverend Jane Hedges rides the 55-foot high “helter-skelter” inside Norwich Cathedral in England.1)While her official biography says she was ordained a “deaconess” in 1980, she was elevated to “priest” in 1994. You can’t say “priestess” in the Anglican church — evidently the word makes them think of filmy skirts, tambourines, and sex. If you want a sort of objective correlative for the church’s health today, there it is, a downward spiral. (BBC)

Be patient, I am coming at this the long away around.

I was raised in the American Episcopal Church, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, at the time. When I walked into an Anglican church in Canada or in Jamaica (where we lived for a couple of years) and picked up a prayer book, it obvious we were all in the same family, so to speak. There was an Anglican joke that referenced the church’s strength in all the former British colonies in Africa: “The Africans pray, the Americans pay, and the British make the rules.”

None of this is true anymore. In the United States, several different organizations compete for the allegiance of local Episcopal church parishes: the breakaway Anglican Church in North America,  the Anglican Church in America, the Church of Nigeria, and The Episcopal Church, the original body. And there are more. It’s very complicated and not germane at this point, except to say that the total membership of The (original) Episcopal Church is cratering.

In England, where the church was “established,” i.e., intertwined with the government as the official church of the nation, its piight is even worse, As columnist Rod Dreher (himself an Orthodox Christian) sneerlingly wrote, “Would the last Anglican left please remember to bring out the vestments? The Victoria & Albert Museum would no doubt like to preserve some evidence that there once was a thing called the Church of England.”

You can imagine his reaction to this article, in which clergy at a medieval cathedral defend their decision to (temporarily, they say) remove all the furnishings and replace them with amusement park rides and miniature golf:

The Reverend Canon Andy Bryant, from Norwich Cathedral, said he could see why people would be surprised to see the helter-skelter.

But in addition to showcasing the roof, he said it was “part of the cathedral’s mission to share the story of the Bible” and was a “creative and innovative way to do that”.

I don’t remember miniature golf (crazy golf) in the Bible, but maybe they are using a different translation.

I have two takeaways from this story.

For one, it is obvious that a lot of the Anglicans have “lost their contacts,” as the ceremonial magicians say.2)That is not the same as dropping a contact lens into the lavatory sink drain. In other words, their connection to their deity is not there anymore, there is no “juice,” and they are just trying to fill the void by social movements and entertainment.

For the second, at least within the liturgical churches there is a lot of learning for children. Not the hellfire part, but the importance of symbolic art, the transformative power of music (especially when you are doing the long chants yourself), some knowledge of sacred theater, exposure to ritual ways of dealing with birth, sickness, death, and everything else, and even a little about meditation and sacred reading.

I walked out the door myself at age 16. I was not mad at any one. No priest molested me or any of the altar boys that I knew about. I was not stewing about “adult hypocrisy” more than the average teenager might. I had just come to the conclusion that the church’s picture of the cosmos was not mine and that I could no longer accept its theology. So I spent the next five years as a “seeker” before someone showed Herself to me.

Now if I had a dollar for every Pagan who has said in my hearing “We won’t ‘push our religion’ on our children,” I could pay my fare to the American Academy of Religion meeting in San Diego next fall.

What I would like to say is, “If you don’t put something in that space, what are they going to fill it with?”  Digital nothings? People need forms for doing things. We need to be aware of other dimensions. I am no longer a Christian, but I do in retrospect thank the church for giving me a “vocabulary” of ritual and so forth — not the only ways of doing ritual, but at least some ways.

Of course, being Christian, all their focus was on the vertical axis — God up there, us down here. There was no significant “horizontal” engagement with the other-than-human world, aside from an occasional Blessing of the (domestic) Animals. Everything was put here for us to use, as described in Genesis. (The “stewardship” teaching is just watered-down domination.)

It delights me to see adult Pagans involving children in ritual and other “horizontal” engagements, giving them ways to think about relationships with other beings and ways to mark life’s changes. Memories made with the body and witch actions last longer than words and doctrines.

I am taking this quote from John Beckett’s blog out of context, but it fits. The topic is “sacrifice.”

Letting perfectly good food sit on an ancestor shrine was so foreign to my kids when our family began ancestor offerings. It smacked against their overculture, their appetites, their unawareness that physical objects are envelopes of intent.

If the parents are Wiccan, for example, will the kids be Wiccan? Who knows? But at least they will have a vocabulary for the sacred dimensions of life.

Miniature golf they can learn on their own.

Notes   [ + ]

1. While her official biography says she was ordained a “deaconess” in 1980, she was elevated to “priest” in 1994. You can’t say “priestess” in the Anglican church — evidently the word makes them think of filmy skirts, tambourines, and sex.
2. That is not the same as dropping a contact lens into the lavatory sink drain.

An Amber Alert from 1284 CE

The ratcatcher and the rats, part of a civic pageant in Hamelin today.

“Amber alert” defined for readers outside the USA.

In five days it will be the 733rd anniversary of the most famous missing children case in Western Europe. What happened to the children of Hamelin, a town (current population about 57,000) in what is today the German state of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen)?

A June 2010 article in the Fortean Times by Maria Cuervo summarized various possible explanations; Cuervo reprints it in a more readable format on her blog here.

Years ago I read a science-fiction story of explorers coming to another planet and finding a human community who built their houses in a vaguely medieval German style. Yes, they were the descendants of the children led away by the ratcatcher, through some kind of interdimensional portal. If you know the author and title, post them in the comments.

Looking at Your Polis as a Pagan

A Wiccan email list that I am on recently went through a discussion of teaching “theology” to children. It is one of the perennial questions among contemporary Pagans: teach the kids or let them make up their own minds as adults. Surprisingly, some discussants reported that said adult children-of-Pagans regretted their parents’ hands-off approach.

Perhaps because I am allergic to the word “theology,” I want to look at a different approach. (I cannot speak as a parent, because although that was not the plan, I ended up childless. So it goes.)

Talk of theology reminds me of some of the writings of the 17th-century Puritans, like the ones who founded Massachusetts Bay Colony, who worried that their children would never have the life-changing born-again experience that their parents did in that religiously tumultuous century. And even today among evangelical Protestants, you find teens worried that they have not been authentically “born again,” and so what is wrong with them?

Paganism should spread through experience and art, not theology. The theology comes later, if it comes.

Suppose it were the autumnal equinox — not a powerfully magical time in my experience, but worth noting. Here in my part of southern Colorado, I have a choice between a winery’s harvest festival in Cañon City and Pueblo’s Chile & Frijoles festival, now twenty years old.

Yes, both are commercial creations: the Chile & Frijoles [chile peppers and beans] festival is sponsored by Loaf ‘n Jug, i.e. the Kroger grocery chain, and it was created as part of a economic development-driven rebranding of the old multi-ethnic steel mill city on the Arkansas River. And the winery wants to sell wine.

Paganism is the religion of the tribe or of the polis, and selling stuff is part of what the polis is about. (In reflection, Pueblo counts as a polis, but Cañon City is probably too small — perhaps it is part of the city-state of Pueblo. They are in the same SMA.)

Even though Wicca was designed as a small-scale mystery religion for adults only, one can also bring its outlook to the life of the city. And as Raven Kaldera and Tannin Schwartzstein write in Urban Primitive, “City spirits are, not surprisingly, quite social creatures, and they love to be acknowledged, so it’s worth your while to learn to speak to them.” You do that, they continue, at the city’s “heart” or strongest location — and, coincidentally, that might well be the place where urban festivities are held!

Get creative. What’s the Pagan take on Mike the Headless Chicken Days, held in May in the little agricultural town of Fruita, Colo.? Or Nederland, Colo.’s Frozen Dead Guy Days, coming up in the March? That one should be easy.

Imagine the kid whose mental construct of Pagan identity includes not just structured ritual but the vendors’ food stalls on Pueblo’s Riverwalk and whatever mix of norteño and classic rock is coming from the bandstand, flavored by the scent of roasting chile peppers by the truckload? Living headless chickens? Well, you have to leave some space for the uncanny.

So it’s not officially Pagan? You can still live it as Pagan.

The “Horse Boy” and the Shamans

If you saw the 2009  documentary The Horse Boy, about Rowan, the autistic boy who is helped somewhat by horseback riding and by Mongolian shamans, there is more to the story. (There is also a book, The Horse Boy: A Memoir of Healing, published in 2010.)

Before it was released as a DVD, the local university sponsored a showing of The Horse Boy. I called my friend Hal, whose autistic son is now about nine, and asked him if he was interested in seeing it. This boy too enjoys riding horses and donkeys, which he is able to do at home and on trail rides into the Sangre de Cristo Range.

Hal writes eloquently about life with an autistic son, but my suggestion hit a wall. I brought it up again —  same reaction. So I shut up. I am not the one with the autistic son, he is. Maybe he does not like the idea of magic. Maybe a trip to Mongolia just seems impossible.

Meanwhile, Rowan’s father, Rupert Isaacson, a widely traveled man whose parents came from southern Africa, was himself born in London and now lives with his family in Texas, has kept on taking his son to shamanic healers in Africa and on the Navajo reservation in Arizona.

This is not without controversy. As he writes in the Daily Mail,

So many people thought we were mad, deluded. One friend said: ‘All those shamans. It’s like you’re going to some spiritual supermarket!’

The publication of The Horse Boy was met with a torrent of hate mail accusing us of giving false hope, of abandoning established methods. (In fact, we had continued to follow the orthodox treatments).

But there was one group that did support us: parents. Much of the motivation for telling the story had been my own despair at Rowan’s diagnosis.

If, back then, there had been some story of hope, of autism as an adventure rather than a catastrophe, I would have taken heart sooner, despaired less, and most likely found solutions more quickly.

And the only things that had worked for Rowan in any positive way were the horse riding and the shamans.

The Isaacsons have set up their own therapeutic system, the Horse Boy Method: “We let the children use the horses like a couch, to allow all the physical and emotional discomfort to fall away, and the intellect come to the fore.” I think my friend Hal has developed something similar on his own, although his son goes to special-education classes too.

Pentagram Pizza: It’s Revived Again

pentagrampizza¶ At Pagan Square, Rebecca Buchanan rounds up children’s books featuring Norse gods and heroes.

Bright Spiral is an online comic about occult initiation. Trippy and complex.

¶ “Chilled-out multitasking hipster psychics don’t seem so eccentric anymore” and “We are in the middle of an occult revival.” Again.

Green Egg is back as a print magazine. And don’t forget the “Best of” anthology, for which I wrote a bunch of chapter intros.

Adolescent Rebellion as “Mental Illness”

At Vice, Molly Crabapple gives an ex-goth girl’s take on “Shooter Boys and At-Risk Girls.”

Only she does not really explain the school-shooter phenomenon, though she tries to transition into it at the end. Still, the rest of the essay is excellent.

In the post-Sandy Hook rage to blame anything (guns, video games, internet-addicted youth) the easiest thing to blame is always the kid who fails at the blankly inoffensive ideals of childhood. This 16-year-old drew a glove shooting flames. The police searched his house. They found the sort of gutted machines that hint at a proclivity for engineering. He was arrested on December 18, and was still in juvenile hall when papers ran the story on the 28th.

A few weeks later, 17-year-old Courtni Webb was thrown out of school in California. A teacher searched her bag, and found a poem she had written for herself, that showed too much empathy for Adam Lanza. When you’re underage, your property isn’t private. Neither are your thoughts.

I think of these kids because I was one of them . . . .

Like many smart kids, I had age dysmorphia. In my head, I was ready for adventures. In the world, I couldn’t hang out alone at Starbucks. What the guidance councilor didn’t want to remember is that childhood is helplessness. Schools, sometimes benevolently, sometimes not, have power over their students that most American adults will never experience unless they are in a hospital, old age home, institution or prison.

And there is a Wicca reference too, in a 1990s pop-cultural context. Read the rest.

Last Yuletide News Bits

Re-purposed Santa figure, Pueblo, Colorado

• This is your brain. This is your brain on Christmas.

• “How the Lawyers Stole Winter”  — are we raising kids who can’t cope? No, it’s not Yule-related, directly. Indirectly, yes, I would argue. You have to embrace all of the wheel.

• No matter how “imagistic” it may be, Iraqi Christians are afraid to celebrate Midnight Mass. The current bunch of Islamists may succeed after 1,400 years of effort in chasing the last Arab Christians out of the Middle East. Expect them all in North America soon. (I have already met Egyptian Christians in a tiny town near me.)

• I was watching a re-run show hosted by travel writer Burt Wolf in which he reported that Christmas trees were promoted by 16th-century German Protestants who considered images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and the saints to be idolatrous and who wanted to replace them with something else. That is counter-intuitive enough that it might be right, and it matches what was going on elsewhere, such as England in the time of the boy king Edward VI. In that case, the Christmas tree does not qualify as a “Pagan survival,” at least not directly.

• And don’t forget Krampus coming to town.

What Was Ancient Roman Childhood?

Historian Peter Thonemann reviews books on childhood in the Roman republic and empire in the TLS.

A lot is about trying to uncover the Romans’ balance between sentimentality and utility, particularly in the upper classes:

House-reared slaves, as Beryl Rawson shows in Children, Memory, and Family Identity in Roman Culture, could play a variety of roles in the Roman elite family, from surrogate son to erotic plaything. What is difficult for us to deal with is the notion that, as in the case of Statius’s beloved boy, they might have played both roles simultaneously.

And the inevitable problem:

Needless to say, both of the books under review see Roman children through the eyes of their parents and owners. How could it be otherwise? Aside from the odd cheeky remark about enjoying Cicero, the voices of ancient children are lost for good. A rare exception comes from the temple of Sarapis at Memphis in Egypt, where, in the mid-second century BC, an eccentric recluse called Ptolemaios faithfully recorded the dreams of two little Egyptian twin girls, Thaues and Taous: “The dream that the girl Thaues saw on the 17th of the month Pachon. I seemed in my dream to be walking down the street, counting nine houses. I wanted to turn back. I said, ‘All this is at most nine.’ They say, ‘Well, you are free to go.’ I said, ‘It is too late for me’.” It is salutary to be reminded quite how little we really know or understand about the experience of childhood in antiquity.

Read the rest.

 

Five Childhood Archetypes You Don’t See in the Movies

Cracked, now Cracked.com, is better now than when I was in the snarky 13-year-old demographic.

Consider this article. Sample:

This wasn’t a normal, here’s-my-little-kid-arsenal-that-I-keep-under-the-bed-in-case-of-ninja-attack; the Psychopath had real, honest to God weapons, and nobody knows where or how he got them. He owned swords, small caliber pistols and knives — oh, so many knives. He would happily explain why he needed each one — here’s a skinning knife, this one’s a deboner (tee hee), this here is a Bowie, better for slashing, and that’s a stiletto, mostly for stabbing — but there was only ever one real reason: His dad died in the army and his mom couldn’t afford therapy. Or maybe she just drank, or maybe it was his older brother that died; totaled his Trans-Am in a drag-racing accident. There were logical reasons for his behavior, but somehow, looking in Mickey’s eyes, you just kind of knew that he was born a little off.

Pagan Family Website Seeks Writers

From Sarah Whedon at Pagan Families:

Pagan Families seeks carefully written contributions on all aspects of Pagan pregnancy and childbirth. Examples of the kind of writing we are seeking include: scripts for conception rituals; theological essays on the ethics of reproduction; prayers to mother goddesses; Pagan sensitivity guides for birth professionals; personal essays on the experience of spiritual practice during pregnancy; reviews of Pagan-friendly birth resources; and Pagan birth stories. This list is by no means exhaustive. Pagan Families will publish in a blog format, using tags to organize content into categories so frazzled parents can easily research a particular topic.

The subtitle is “resources for Pagan pregnancy and birth,” but she adds,

The site is called Pagan Families because that name gives us lots of room to grow. I have two visions for the future growth of Pagan Families.  The first is to amass enough thoughtful and inspiring material to publish a book on Paganism and the childbearing year.  The second is to expand the site to cover other aspects of Pagan families, such as parenting and partnering.

She already has some good posts up—check it out.