Life Without a Coven
Photo by Amir Darafsheh
Why do some Wiccans choose to practice without the support of a coven or group structure? Sometimes the answer is simply due to lack of one being known to exist in the area where the practitioner lives. Other factors could include lack of a being able to meet specific entry requirements, lack of trust, unavailable mentor, or teacher to help the newcomer to acclimate, or simple logistics that prevent the person from getting to or, from scheduled meetings on time. A person who seeks to join a coven in the area where they live may not find one due to the secrecy that many Wiccan covens often still maintain.
Even some covens that discuss Paganism and politics openly on the internet, may not allow just anyone to join their group. Usually, those that do so operate as churches, and are an open, (public) 501-(c)(3) not for profit organizations, as recognized by the Internal Revenue Service. Many covens do not wish to be recognized as such, nor be forced to operate publicly, or to disclose their organizational operating budgets. For these reasons and more, such covens and groups remain private. Membership rosters within the groups, and how much or little they may contribute financially, are part of the more practical concerns of some of these covens. Maintaining a group identity that is vaguely mysterious, sometimes works as a lure to the curious. But, to others, it has the opposite affect especially when ignorance and religious paranoia combine.
Nearly all who practice Wicca in the U.S., except those from a family tradition, come to the religion by way of conversion from a different faith. This is sometimes a difficult and traumatic change of practice, that is rarely expected or well accepted by the person's family, or friends who still practice the former religion. Matters of faith and religion can tear at the fundamentals of any family when they are not discussed in an egalitarian, or understanding way. So, when preparing to change religions it behooves the soon to be, new Wiccan, to be capable of explaining the why of the change. This is almost the single most important factor for those not converting. The most important factor is being an adult with the capability to make the decision to convert, based on the merit of true depth of understanding. The capability of living without the aid or financial support of family who may simply oppose it should also be part of a truly responsible religious conversion.
The solitary practitioner sometimes has no choice about being alone in their religious practice of Wicca but, those who do, often find great freedom. While some persons feel the need to be told every detail of a religion by way of dogma, Wicca is without any. This fact may be troublesome for those who have need of religious dogma as an aspect of their practice. Wicca tends to leave many of the details to the individual. The very idea of an over-arching clergy, as defined within other faiths, is in opposition to the way the religion operates.
The different modalities that punctuate Wiccan rites, tends to show influences from the many cultures, and religions from which it borrows. In modern American culture, the trend toward a non-coven structure has become more evident in just the past decade. Again, this may be due in some part to the dependence of solitary practitioners who gain insights for their practice of Wicca from virtual covens that operate on the internet. Why fit a mold or orthodoxy of an existing tradition, when you could create one of your own? Coming to a coven is usually good for gaining, and maintaining structure of a practice by helping to define one's individual practice. This is also the same thing that will force it's stamp upon the individual, often by marking them through rituals dictated by a coven structure. The adoption, and continued practice of such rites tend to indicate the path a person has journeyed even after leaving a coven.
Good coven structure is great if it passes along the tradition while also encouraging a high level of personal responsibility, while allowing for personal and spiritual growth within the group dynamic. This is not always achieved, even by well trained mentors, or those who lead covens as a High Priestess or Priest. Without the aforementioned merits, that should be part of any good coven structure, the rate of attrition can be high. Some solitary practitioners can quickly identify such flaws, even if they can not quantify them specifically, and so they tend to leave the coven. Lone Wiccan practitioners are often referred to as "solitaires". This term is usually thought of as being neutral and simply used to identify a lone practitioner, or one who resides outside of a permanent coven structure no matter the reason.
Solitaires may actually make up the largest number of practitioners within Wicca at this time though getting any accurate count is believed by some to not be possible since, they are prone to secrecy like many others within Wicca. There are solitaires who even join in or participate fully with other religions and faith groups. This is not antithetical to Wicca, though it may seem counter-intuitive to those within either faith who do not understand why. Wicca is inclusive rather than exclusive in many instances yet, the exclusivity that does exist, usually is confined to the groups, and covens that may form under it's banner. Thus, a Dianic coven that may only accept females as active members, students, or clergy might still boast members who participate in another religion as well. This is sometimes the case where inter-faith relationships exist and, the non-Wiccan partner is forbidden to participate in any other religion according to their faiths religious edicts.
Without a coven, or pre-existing group dynamic to operate from, the possibilities for creation of rituals, study, counsel, and feedback from peers may be scarce for a solitaire. Online resources can not provide intimate, nor immediate focus upon an individual that are sometimes required where matters of faith are concerned. Crisis counseling is one area where this is especially true. Wicca as a faith has practitioners that are quite self-reliant yet, there may be a need for special real-life contact, like when a personal or professional intervention needs to take place to save life or prevent serious injury. Publicly, there is very little that exists to answer such needs, but within the group dynamic of a coven, there are often people who act to help fill this gap in some way.
Being alone does not require that a person should be expected to look for or reach out to others in their community of faith within Wicca, but the seasoned elder, crone or sage that may be approached for their insight should be approached with discretion. Perhaps they do not wish to be noted publicly as a Wiccan. They may simply value their privacy and singular practice with little need to be bothered, by those who might seek their counsel. They may have been banned or shunned from a coven perhaps. Or, it is likely that more general, and daily mundane concerns simply would not allow them to be a valuable member of a group because of time constraints. Whatever the cause of a solitaire practicing alone, they are usually a welcome addition to many a coven's public gatherings, and in some cases provided invitation to attend private functions as well. Solitaires, depending upon their prior experience, training, reputation, and knowledge may also be good auxillary members to some covens, since they might make capable teachers or mentors.
Covens and solitaires each have much to gain or lose when bargaining with each other, and trust is the coin of that realm. Solitaires who bring others like themselves to a coven could be a good or bad thing depending upon all the factors, and more, as previously noted. An experienced mentor, who becomes a teacher within a coven has the potential to create a future generation of better trained coven members, but of course, the reverse is also possible. A solitaire that chooses to help a coven but, without becoming an actual member can create problems besides those already mentioned as well. The group dynamic of a coven, can break down if the non-member is providing a service or good the coven needs but will not be able to get if the person leaves suddenly. Membership may not cement any better relationship in actuality but again, there is the issue of trust. It is the thing upon which much depends.
Covens often offer membership to certain persons only after many tests of faith, and trust so that the person who may eventually be offered a chance to join will already have been given chances to prove their abilities, and trustworthiness. These sorts of tests often include tasks that, though usually small, or seemingly inconsequential, are very telling in many ways that may be crucial to the functioning of the coven. An example of such a test might be an elder coven member alerting a solitaire to a private gathering on behalf of the High Priestess but, purposely omitting certain logistical details.
If the solitaire makes further contact with the coven, it is expected, though not made implicit, that the gathering may include guests upon request, and by permission of the elders, or High Priestess. If the solitaire is so rude as to attend the private gathering, and bring uninvited guests, they may all be in for a surprise. The solitaire who unwittingly failed this simple test, would definitely receive a less than favorable review from the coven for being without discretion. Private means private, and that such a fool invited others, would be little tolerated, as it also reflects poorly upon the judgment of the persons who may have extended the invitation.
Rarely might an individual solitaire have the knowledge or resources to invite or host a coven but, when this does occur, the solitaire is usually thought of quite highly. Covens expect hospitality in kind and similar measure from other covens, even those that are not beholden to theirs, but, for a solitaire to do the same is grand indeed. When this takes place, it shows, that the solitaire has no need of the coven but, is done as a show of respect, trust, and magnanimity. Elders within a Pagan community that have been, or may be the last of a former coven, sometimes invite coven elders, High Priestess, and Priest as a show of respect, especially if the coven is new, or the leaders have just come into their authority recently.
Customarily it is the solitaire who stands to gain from such a gathering but, a new coven, or it's leadership may find a capable, generous, experienced ally who has ties to lineage and tradition that extends well beyond themselves,and their sacred space. These are the persons who at times, may quietly fill the coffers of the under-funded, covens near them. Donations, in the form of special books, magical tools, and time may also be provided by such a willing ally if they deem the coven worthy. And though a great many of the current generation of net savvy, hyper-literate, Wiccan solitaires are unaware of older forms of etiquette; they often make up for this by being a proactive and functioning member of the general popular culture by having embraced the fundamentals of the Wiccan faith as a lifestyle.
The youth culture in the U.S. has absorbed the look of Wicca via urban primitivism and its focus has been sustained through the media's continuing fascination with what it deems as noteworthy within the subculture of modern, urban, Paganism. Solitaires will continue to exist even if covens do not because they have become part of the fabric of society at large. The art, and language, of Wicca has been brought up to date by youngsters who, though perhaps only interested in the surface of the religion at first, later carried bits they have adopted to other places by simply being themselves. For example, if tattoos may be thought of as a rite of passage, in modern American society; then the future of Wicca will be carried forward by art. Etched into the bodies of the faithful, and more often some who just like the symbols, are various Wiccan designs, that convey beautiful testimonials, emblematic of the growing power, reach, and appeal of Wicca in the United States. Many Wiccans choose to show their faith in this manner.
Those who choose to look beneath the surface a bit, are mostly rewarded with a broader perspective of why they should delve more deeply. Solitaires, are in certain respects, the most potent force of Wicca because of their ability to speak out, or blend in, and remain hidden within society as they may choose. This forces them to be strong-willed individuals, who make better choices and by doing so, benefit from having leveled their scrutiny upon things in their path. A young intern may find that being open about their choice of religion at work could harm their chances at promotion, and so choose to remain private about it. Another person on the same path may decide that they should become clergy, and serve their community by teaching the religion in public at a college perhaps. The arc may be vary different in each case but, the religion is still being absorbed into society as others interact with each of these faithful.
Certain Wiccan's opt to remain apart from most Wiccan religious society in general, as they practice their own form of Pagan gnosticism. These solitaires have little to gain by joining, or re-joining any coven, and are usually old enough to have gained an insight into the petty politics that exists within even the best of covens. Motivated by a deeper urge for spiritual enlightenment than what may be easily found within a large group, this type of person is often a quiet, contemplative, and capable individual where spiritual matters are concerned. Life without a coven does little to stifle this type of seeker.
This person will reach their own level of practice, set spiritual boundaries for themselves, of which others may never become fully aware, and hopefully act in accordance with the ethics of the faith while observing the Wiccan Rede. Life without a coven does not mean a life without accountability but, sometimes the lone solitaire can become ascetic, obssessive, or pedantic, and miss the very point of the religious, or spiritual life of which they are in pursuit. This insular approach to the faith may limit a practitioner, or liberate them beyond the barriers that sometimes exists within group dynamics inherent in covens. The flaw with this approach is that the solitaire will be hard pressed to recognize when, or if, either of these things has happened since they have no exterior checkpoint from which to gain a balanced perspective.
Lastly, being a solitaire does not mean that the person is lonely, just because they may choose to practice their religion without a group. If one is to believe faithfully, this person is making a direct connection to the divine. Their will, and understanding of the Wiccan faith is employed to help them set focus upon the goal of practicing the religion as they know it. If nothing else, they are undertaking a purposeful journey that is perhaps meaningful to them because it is private. Any intimacy that may exist between the faithful practitioner, and anything that may be thought of as divine, is as real, and functioning as the power behind the belief. There are no others bringing disconsolation in the form of doubt, scrutiny, or skepticizm as the solitaire crafts their practice alone. The performance of ritual, combined with study of the sacred, in a safe environment, will allow for a spiritual self actualization that is not easily gained within a coven. This is the path of the solitaire.