The Pagan Awareness Network was in the news again today.


Today in her article entitled "Pagans stake claim to sacred site", religious affairs writer Linda Morris reported: "Sydney's pagans have been meeting at Rotaract Hill near Seven Hills railway station for 10 years and want to formalise their attachment by establishing it as a sacred site. The Pagan Awareness Network wants to apply for a grant to erect four stones representing the four points of the compass at the hill's pinnacle. If approved, the stone circle would become the first official place of pagan worship in Sydney."

Interestingly, the attempt by the writer to stir up controversy with Christians fell somewhat flat. When interviewed, Rob Forsythe, Anglican Bishop of South Sydney, told the Herald, "It is about idolatry but we believe in freedom of religion no matter how right or wrong the religion."

The attempt to stir controversy is going to fall flat with this Christian too. I have visited the Full Moon Circles as an observer on a number of occasions and have always found David Garland, Shannon and the others to be warm and friendly. Having observed their rituals I  would affirm that there is nothing that should concern Christians – at least nothing more than what would concern Christians about the rituals of other religions like Buddhism, Hindu or Jewish as well. There are no goat sacrifices as the last Herald report insinuated.

Douglas Ezzy's comments are worth taking note of as he is one whom I would regard as one of Australia's most reputable commentators on Paganism. I haven't heard back from David Garland yet on the last Herald article yet but here we have more to think on.

All in all I think what Christians should be focussing on is what we can learn from all this.

Thanks to Phil Johnson for the early heads up this morning. The blogging world may be interested to know that Phil has returned to the blogosphere with the purchase of a new PC.

4 thoughts on “Pagans stake claim to sacred site

  1. Matt asked if I cared to comment on this story. Like Matt, I don’t really see what all the fuss is about. I wish PAN the best of luck in establishing a permanent place of worship in Sydney. Having said that, there are some “conversation starters” regarding modern Paganism buried (and its relationship with Christianity) in this piece.
    1. I’m continually annoyed by the hack-journalism of finding an “opposing” (Christian) view for stories concerning modern Paganism when they aren’t directly called for. It places Christianity in the assumed role of religious “opponent” of modern Paganism, and creates a double-standard in news coverage (unless they are going to find a Pagan to interview every time Christians get covered by the media).
    2. While the Anglican Bishop has no real opposition to the Pagan acquisition of land, he does still trot out the world “idolatry”, an insulting characterization of polytheism that should really be dropped. I can’t think of a better way to quickly denigrate our theology than to shrink it down to its Biblical caricature.
    3. Would it make a difference if they did (humanely) sacrifice goats? Being a vegan it isn’t a practice I would partake in, but I dare say it would be more humane than the current meat-production industry (a sickening abomination IMHO).
    4. It is also worth noting that no Pagans were directly quoted in this piece. Can you imagine a story on a new Christian church opening and not one parishioner or minister is quoted?


  2. Jason, it is your last observation which was of particular concern to me here. I would like to hear more of what Pagans have to say for themselves. And your comment on the goat sacrifices is humbly noted. This angle did not occur to me at the time of writing but on reflection I thoroughly agree with you.


  3. It seems to me that Linda Morris (the SMH journalist) may have been present at the gathering if the photograph is taken as evidence. Perhaps she did interview representatives of PAN but was unable to make use of PAN comments to suit the direction of the article. The other possibility is that the article is partly based on a PAN press release. No doubt David Garland could confirm if he was interviewed by Linda.
    I am delighted that Jason feels annoyed about the stereotypical portrait of contemporary Pagan vs Christian. It is rather reductionist and of course such a stereotype fits in to media discourses that socially construct and interpret stories on the basis of perceived conflict.
    May I echo the same kind of complaint? I would like to deepen the complaint somewhat by noting that there seems to be a short-list of clergy to whom journalists contact for public comments like those offered by Bishop Forsyth. It is easy I suppose for journalists to opt for a quick comment from Sydney Anglican Media, or to head to Hillsong for comments (or perhaps Rev Fred Nile too).
    The difficulty with this approach is that journalists constrict matters. The way discourses are constructed and then reported presupposes that a select number of clergy are conversant on a wide range of social and religious issues. It means then that other individuals who could offer informed and even different comments are not consulted.
    It is difficult to envisage the three aforementioned church sources as being sufficiently conversant with contemporary Pagan literature and who have actually had lengthy conversations with Pagan practitioners. It would be helpful, for example, if clergy in media were previously on record as having visited a PAN gathering or Magick Happens or ConFest. It would be helpful if the same clergy were known for making overtures to have dialogue (whether in public or private) with a coven leader.
    It would be good if the same clergy representatives could speak with some confidence based on having read books by Nevill Drury, Doug Ezzy, Margot Adler, Starhawk,Ray Buckland, Philip Carr-Gomm etc; or at least scholarly works like Lynne Hume, Graham Harvey, Sarah Pike and Ronald Hutton.
    Unfortunately such clergy media reps are unlikely to have done this kind of research. Thus journalists are liable to obtain comments from church representatives who lack the requisite knowledge on the subject. All we are delivered are summary impressions and unreflected comments made on the spot that perpetuate suspicion, misunderstanding and carry a whiff of strife.
    It is a pity then that there is no journalistic recognition that various Christians are striving to understand their Pagan neighbours through conversations, observing gatherings, reading primary source literature and so on.
    Dialogue that is built on mutual trust and respect, and yet grounded in astute recognition of faith differences can ensue and actually does ensue between Pagans and Christians.
    So the quick-fire comment uplifted from Bishop Forsyth overlooks the possibility and actuality of any genuine dialogue occurring. The quoted remarks from Bishop Forsyth of course are unlikely to be the entire substance of what he may have stated in a phone interview with Linda Morris.
    However his comment has been made and selected. The “idolatry” allusion does fit into a particular trajectory of thought in church history. However alluding to the term today makes little or no sense to the general public that is already alienated from church affiliations. Only an “insider” (or a Pagan who is familiar with bearing the brunt of theological criticism) would comprehend the word “idolatry”.
    As a Christian I fail to see how using the word can “break the ice” for friendly and challenging and meaningful dialogue with the Pagan community. I also believe that as the reading public that is neither Pagan or Christian is hardly being wooed to attend church. Instead they are made to feel even more remote by reading an “obscure” word. It is not exactly used much in daily conversation among the wider Australian public. Even if the Bishop is hoping to direct the public to reconsider church rather than Pagan ways, his quoted words are hardly the stuff of good public relations!
    So the ironic double-whammy here is the word “idolatry” speaks to “the church choir” (who understands it), but fails to meaningfully connect with the wider public who is uncommitted to either faith community. And of course it raises the ire of Pagans as Jason has noted. I rather hope that the quip about idolatry will not be taken as speaking for all Christians (hopefully it will be taken in much the same way as folks seem to have reacted to Peter Costello’s stern remarks about Kevin Rudd and the lurking presence of Mr Burke!).
    For media discourses “idolatry” is good enough — it “works” as a sound-byte for the purposes of supposed critical commentary in the article. The comments are at best dismissive and at worst a shallow form of patronising that conveys “we acknowledge in the public square religious diversity and a civil form of tolerance” but at the same time delivers a rebuke not built on any deep understanding of Pagan rituals, practices, beliefs and so on.
    A few years ago I tried to generate a bit of self-reflection on-line in my “Wiccans and Christians: Some Mutual Challenges” article. I know from some feedback that a few Christian readers have found that helpful in stimulating them to reassess their preconceptions and attitudes about witches and Pagans generally. Though I don’t think it has created any massive change in the climate of general church opinions (let alone been widely read in church contexts).
    At the moment I am co-writing a dialogue book with a US Pagan author and that will be published by a UK Christian publisher. The spirit of our dialogue belies the stereotype Jason noted, and I hope it also shows that while there remain distinctives and differences, there are also quite a few issues where Pagans and Christians can and do converge (e.g. ecology, animal issues, practical working spirituality, intuitions about Spirit in the natural realm etc).
    Anyway, I did not drop by to make a commercial plug for a book that is still not finished!
    I guess I want to register my irritation that on the anniversary of PAN’s activities (a network that has truly worked hard to erode misconceptions), that we are offered a predictable if not formulaic media discourse that is unhelpful for relationships between Pagan and Christian communities in Australia.


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