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Discretion or the Lack Thereof

by Brigantia Stone

Gardnerian Witches make a big issue of secrecy, partly because of our own training, partly because of peer pressure, and largely because we've seen the negative consequences of failure to keep a secret. Perhaps it is inconceivable to a public Witch -- such people certainly do exist -- but there are some among us who have very good reasons for keeping their identity secret.

Consider the public expectation made of physicians or school-teachers or structural engineers. We place a great deal of trust in them. Consider how we as Witches would feel if the physicians, teachers or engineers were filled with a burning fervour to tell the world about their particular brand of Christianity or Islam? While having a conversion experience certainly doesn't disqualify a person from being a teacher, most intelligent people would agree that the public-school teacher's job does not include indoctrinating all of their students into the teacher's own religion.

This is not an idle speculation:

In Canada in the past ten years, there have been several cases of teachers being discharged from their posts for teaching that the Nazi Holocaust never took place. Given the immediacy of the historical persecution of European Jews, one would have to be very callous indeed to tolerate the teaching of its non-existence.

Witches, who have their own historical stories of frightful persecution, ought surely to understand why this issue is important to our Jewish neighbours.

The Law and its Loopholes

As it turns out, Canada has very strong laws against the promulgation of hatred but, curiously enough, religious groups are exempted from these laws. Therefore it is perfectly legal to do what a Catholic group from Quebec did in the autumn of 1993: publish a tabloid paper attacking a supposed international conspiracy of Jewish bankers, who, according to the writers, proposed to use credit cards to mark us all with the Number of the Beast. Now this sounds very silly, but the underlying arguments are based upon Biblical texts, most notably the Revelation of Saint John.

Canadian civil law, which is intended to be applied to everyone equally, will not allow my neighbour, as an ordinary Canadian citizen, to publish slanderous broadsides against Witches. However, my neighbour's church may do just that and indeed some churches regularly do.

We have three courses of action open to us:

Each of these approaches can work for some of the Wicca some of the time. None of them can work for all of the Wicca all of the time.

Going underground worked out well for members of minority groups facing Hitler's armies during the Second World War. It was against the backdrop of that war that the Craft saw its great revival in Britain. Our forebear, Gerald Gardner, whose writings at least some Witches take seriously, advocated that covens keep strict secrecy along the lines of the French Resistance. Fortunately, Britain never was invaded, so Gardner's notion of underground cells of Witches was never tested in battle.

Sad to say, nowadays the Wicca are usually most likely to be threatened by their fellow Witches, or by non-Wiccan Pagans who are hostile to us. It is very difficult to protect yourself from malevolent disclosure of your identity by a disgruntled acquaintance.

This is not a theoretical consideration:

During the summer and autumn of 1993 alone, I heard of three nasty cases in North America, wherein the legal names and other identifying details of Craft elders were widely published by other Witches who were seeking to continue a vendetta against them. I assure you that I am not the only elder to receive a steady trickle of denunciations directed against Witches by other Witches. I've even heard the most remarkable tales, directed at myself under an Outer Court name, that have come to me via correspondents who are unaware of my identity.

Mind you, the Wicca are not the only folks who suffer internal spiritual strife. In British Columbia, most notably in the case of Sikh temple politics, assorted religious feuds and vendettas have led to bombings, bludgeoning and kidnappings -- all supposedly in aid of the free exercise of their respective faiths. In Ulster, Catholic gangsters have been murdering honest hard-working Protestants at just about the same horrific rate that Protestant gangsters have been murdering honest hard-working Catholics, for the past seventy years. It is perhaps to the credit of the Wicca (or perhaps merely a sign that we are practising an immature religion?) that I can recall no murders or attempted murders of Witches by other Witches, for reasons of faith or otherwise.

The Political Whipsaw

Some angry Pagans have chosen to publicly violate the secrecy of Witches or to threaten to do so as a means of pressuring them to take particular political stands.

Consider the following recent example:

A publicly-active Pagan evangelist (and yes, they do exist) threatened unspecified persons with exposure if they failed to show appropriate support for the evangelist's cause. One might suppose that an appropriate level of support might consist of a fifty dollar cheque or some other equivalent 'donation', which could be given discretely. This would 'protect' everyone concerned. I happen to be in favour of multicultural communication but surely we could borrow a better idea than the protection racket from our friendly neighbourhood Cosa Nostra. At least the Mob don't issue tax receipts.

Remember our hypothetical physician, school-teacher or engineer? Faced with the presence of outspoken Pagan evangelists in their neighbourhoods, what do you suppose their likely course of action is going to be? Pay up, shut up, or sandbag their windows?

One of the first lessons taught in the school of hard knocks is that having once paid off a bully, one must continue to pay. School children do not have the option of dropping out of sight. But some Gardnerians in positions of public trust do exercise that option.

Bear in mind is that we expect our neighbours, the hard-working physicians, teachers and engineers, to be devoted to their work, good at what they do, and absolutely trustworthy. We do not normally go to our family doctors for religious instruction, be it Baptist, Hasidic or Gardnerian, nor do we expect our children's teachers to come on the school intercom with a lunch-time invocation to their Gods (unless we happen to have sent our children to a Catholic parochial school, an option that some Witches have indeed taken up.) In a country of many cultures, we expect our public functionaries, at least within their public role, to display equal respect for all faiths. So, if any of these people happen to be Witches, it behoves them not to make an egregious issue of their faith.

After all, we have similar expectations of professionals who follow other paths. When I started working for the government, one of the memoranda that I found in my in-box on my first day at work was a reminder, signed by the department head, reminding us all that we were to refrain from proselytising in the workplace.

This is one of several reasons why many Gardnerians may not wish to display a pentacle or otherwise draw attention to their religious lives. Here, today, in the world of time-clocks and tram-cars, being known to be a Witch is an issue for some of us. To not make an issue of our faith, we may need to leave it off the table entirely.

As my friend Maggie Mountain Lion would say, "it's all about respect." As Witches we must respect the choices made by our fellow Witches in matters such as secrecy of identity. We do not have the right to choose for them how private they wish to be about their religious leanings. Nor may they choose for us.

Time Brings Changes

A Witch's need for secrecy or discretion in any matter may change with time. Let me tell you one last story:

A quarter-century ago, when I was a college student in wild, woolly Vancouver, I had very little to lose by being outspoken about my faith. As time has gone by and I have become more practised in my chosen profession, I have considerably more to lose if my employers take offence concerning my religious beliefs. There is always the nagging suspicion that, if I told my day-job bosses that my night-job as a priestess involved running around naked by candle-light with a bunch of Witches, they might begin to question my professional judgement. Therefore, I would feel deep regret and great anger if some 'loose canon' were to identify me publicly as a Witch.

That is why I use a pseudonym in my religious writing (I do occasionally change it as well, but that's for magical reasons, not out of paranoia.) That is also why some of my fellow Witches who are in positions of leadership choose a name other than the one on their drivers' licenses.

To carefully selected neighbours and friends, I do disclose my religion. We have rollicking discussions of the viewpoints of our respective faiths. Sometimes this constitutes a discreet form of public relations for the Craft, but more often it simply forms part of the mutual sharing of who we are that leads us to become friends. I have learned a lot from my friend, Sister Eileen, in whose convent I used to attend Interfaith meetings. But, as time goes on and I have more to lose, I reveal less and less about myself to non-Witches.

To be honest, some of my desire for privacy stems from agoraphobia, which runs in my family. I believe that every Witch has to work out for her ownself just where the balance lies between public exercise of our fundamental human rights and the private devotions of the hidden children of the Goddess. I urge you to make your choices wisely, for they affect others both within and beyond your own coven.

Three Cheers for the Brave Ones!

I have great respect for my colleagues, including my own beloved working partner, who have chosen to make their faith a matter of public record, insofar as their membership in the faith brings it credit. On the other hand, I have little respect for those people who choose to publicise their Craft as a means of obtaining political power or influence -- or making a quick dollar. That is not to say that I believe that Witches should not enter the political arena but, should they choose to do so, I sincerely hope they will not claim to speak for all of us for we, like all people, have widely varied political beliefs.

The clock-world's millennium is approaching. Perhaps as some devout Christians hope, it will bring Armageddon, followed by the return of the Messiah. It is more likely that the millennium will bring political upheavals of a more ordinary sort. I do not believe that my neighbours, or anyone else for that matter, will come a-gunning for me because I happen to be a Gardnerian priestess. I do, however, worry about being caught in the crossfire of political battles or commercial rivalries amongst my fellow Witches. To that end, I sincerely hope that they will respect my choice in matters of secrecy. I also hope, for their well-being, that they will respect each other's choices.

revised by Brigantia Stone, October, 1998.
updated: October 15, 1998
document GARDSEC1 © 1997; 1998 Beaufort House Association

You may return to:

Introductory essays on the Gardnerian Tradition in Canada and America.
The Beaufort House Index of English Craft Traditions.