Lorna Smithers’ comments about Druid Orders on the last post, “Facing a Critique,” have revolved fruitfully in my thoughts for the last couple of days. I have to laugh at finding myself, if not defending groups and organizations, at least examining their virtues as evenhandedly as possible, given that I’m not much of a “joiner” either, though I’m a member of OBOD.
It was my preconceptions about the middleclassness and conservatism of Druidry that made me steer well clear of it until a couple of years ago until Phil Ryder of The Druid Network gave a talk at my local pagan society, voicing that it isn’t all about robes, ceremony and tradition but forming relationships with the land and communities in which we live. Which identifies it more with radical ecology and grass roots movements than middle class conservatism.
Many people instinctively shy from joining groups for the reasons Smithers gives: they’re confining to the person who wants and needs to do more than follow convention and the group-think that too often can arise from, and mar, such organizations. To many people, the energy and effort required to acclimate to a group don’t equal the advantages that come with belonging. And there are definite advantages, which I’ll talk about later.
Druid groups are of course no more exempt from these weaknesses than any other human institution. And for a number of secular Druid groups, some of the satisfactions of belonging are indeed the “robes, ceremony and tradition.” The Welsh, Cornish and Breton gorseddau (the Welsh plural of gorsedd “gathering”) are specifically intended to promote poetry, music and scholarship, and the annual public gatherings are rich with ceremony and symbolism — and robes.
I’ve never been able to bring myself to join an Order such as OBOD and pay for their tuition because I don’t want my relationship with nature and the divine to be determined by anybody else’s structure, and I believe one’s local land and community, its spirits and deities are the greatest teachers.
If ever there was a succinct manifesto not just for the solitary Druid, but for all Druids, there it is: “one’s local land and community, its spirits and deities are the greatest teachers.”
Yet we need some kind of structure, even if it’s free-form: a shape for our journeying, a cairn along the forest path. Where to find it? William Blake is credited with saying, “I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man’s.” Sexist pronouns aside, his words ring true. The challenge for the solitary is to be open and receptive enough to perceive what she is being taught, to catch the lessons of the spirits and deities and local land and community. Orders can help in teaching techniques of openness. And the community of the like-minded, of one’s fellows, or of a more formal Order is often the leaven that forms in us an opening to new experience. We catch awen from others’ inspiration, we take flame from neighboring fires.
In my experience, a good half of spirituality is “caught” not “taught.” Or the teaching simply says listen! In the presence of others, human and non-human, we find what we seek when we inhabit fully our ears and eyes and tongues and noses and skins. What we need, to quote Moses at his most Druidic, is right here: “It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, ‘Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?’ No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.”* To obey is to listen and then to heed what we have heard, to follow what we know in our hearts, what we recognize is present to guide and heal and inspire us.
Emma Restall Orr, for a decade the joint chief of the British Druid Order (BDO), has pondered deeply some of the challenges of identity, authority, hierarchy and freedom in and outside formal “orders.” Her several short articles in the excellent BDO booklet Druidry: Rekindling the Sacred Fire deserve repeated reading. Here in “So What is the BDO?” she pinpoints the issues:
In keeping with so much of modern Druidry, the BDO exists as a paradox. And like modern Druidry, it is rather difficult to describe. A good place to begin might be to declare that the BDO exists largely as a concept: a means by which things get done, an organized non-organization. Druidry is sometimes easier to define through what it is not, and so is the BDO. It is not a source of teaching for an ancient faith or culture reconstructed. It is not aiming to proclaim a definitive Druidry, be it 3000 years old, 200 or 10. We have a mailing list of subscribers who receive our journal and various other leaves of information, then there are others who belong to our groves but do not subscribe, and many more who attend our affiliated gorseddau [gatherings]. Essentially these are the members and friends of the British Druid Order. Yet the ‘membership’ exists only in this personal way. It is horrifying the number of people, Druid chiefs to media men, who ask what is the membership of the BDO in order to judge its influence and validity. For us, the very existence of a ‘membership’ brings up connotations of an organization to which some people belong and others don’t. And once we find ourselves with an organization with this list of people attached, each one of them investing their energy and their loyalty, those who run the organization begin to find themselves taking responsibility for — and, the gods forbid, speaking on behalf of — that membership, who in turn on some level look to the organizers, and before you know it people are defining positions, and the great confusion of hierarchy and politics ensues. The whole problem of who does represent the membership quickly arises and next comes the democracy or dictatorship debate … Such political considerations are not part of the spiritual tradition that the BDO encourages or practices (65).**
The anti-authoritarian tone of Orr’s words finds a sympathetic reception on both sides of the Atlantic; if anything, Orders like ADF are every bit as structured as OBOD, and many people prefer to remain solitary or at least unaffiliated. John Michael Greer, a member of both orders, and head of a third, AODA, is uniquely positioned to comment about structures and hierarchies. In an article on the ADF website, he notes:
Each type of organization has its advantages and disadvantages. The minimalist approach followed by OBOD has resulted in a streamlined and efficient structure that needs to devote very little time to organizational matters, and has played a large part in helping OBOD go from the edge of extinction to become the largest Druid order in the world in only ten years. On the other hand, its success depends almost entirely on the personal qualities of the Chosen Chief, and members who are dissatisfied with OBOD policies have very few options other than voting with their feet. By contrast, ADF has achieved impressive organizational continuity and has extensive checks and balances in place to prevent malfeasance; this has been paid for by a need for so much involvement in organizational issues that many other matters have had to be neglected for years running.
What this means for actual practice, and what Druids can do whom the land calls and who divine that Orders are not for them, are among the things I’ll tackle in Part 2.
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*Deut. 30:12-14; New International Version.
**The British Druid Order. Druidry: Rekindling the Sacred Fire. Peterborough: Express Printing, 2002.
Updated/edited 20 October 2013