Who Leads a Coven and How?
Photo by PaweÂ³ Windys Krakow Poland
Three things are typical of any well run coven. Tradition is being handed down to the practitioners in some form. The group and the individuals in it are striving toward a higher level of spiritual and personal growth, and there is usually a great amount of personal responsibility expected, that is foundational to the group dynamic of any such group. Though there is no official clergy, each tradition tends to govern itself according to a duality of female and male leadership, with emphasis on the feminine. Margaret Murry, brought the word "coven" into public and modern usage in the early 1920's. While claiming, erroneously, that Wicca was the continuation of an unbroken history of Goddess faiths into the modern era, she utilized the word "coven". later inspection of her anthropological evidence proved her ideas to be flawed. The word persisted, however, and to this day is accepted, beyond the vehicles of implied folkloric, and media hype tropes.
The very, idea of a coven being inclusive of only thirteen people, as Murray suggested is a bit quixotic especially when the internet is factored into things. Currently some covens exist only tangentially, or virtually, and have no actual physical location. Many are the adherents to Wicca who will, in fact never, by choice will meet physically with another practitioner, simply because they may not want to do so! In the past, due to secrecy and British laws that forbade the open practice of Witchcraft until the mid 1950's, it was nearly impossible for a coven to meet except secretly. The publicity and availability of Wicca on the web is one of astounding proportions when put into perspective of even 20 years ago. Secrecy is all but, gone from the more public adherents of this religious group.
Most covens actively maintain a public presence on the internet, and may even advertise certain celebratory rites, in local periodicals. The coven today may take several forms but, they all help to maintain the three goals mentioned earlier: The handing down of tradition, spiritual growth, and emphasis upon personal responsibility. Whether online or existing in person, nearly all covens boast a High Priestess. There may be, a High Priest, who acts as an assistant or consort to the High Priestess but, they are usually not the singular leader of a coven. The larger the coven, the more likely for other ranks, or different titles to exist but, they tend to boil down to a simple dynamic based upon knowledge.
The High Priestess, and Priest, if the coven boasts one, tend to lead based upon their knowledge of the tradition. Next in rank, are those who may have the same level of knowledge, or more but, no motivation to lead, or teach a coven. Others exist within a coven who may be thought of as comprising the rank and file but, this would be a narrow, and restricted definition, and one not properly encapsulating the depth of responsibilities expected of such persons. There are other identifications that are used to mark "in" or "out" of rank in a coven but, these are often contained in coven vernacular that may be quaint, peculiar, or completely unknown by people who are allowed to visit a coven only during public gatherings.
Leadership in modern covens tends to be more democratic with members voting for their choice of leader. Some traditions hold to the High Priestess choosing her successor, or that at a specified time, the High Preistess is directed to step aside for another likely successor, who has been groomed within the coven to take over for her. Some traditions allow only the eldest within the tradition to succeed to leadership when the time comes but, this does not mean the person is the best choice or most knowledgeable. Arrangements of this sort can lead to obvious problems for covens utilizing this method.
Basically the High Priestess, elders, and others are the shape of most covens. The leadership rank, by any name, may at times include a second-in-command by some title but, this is rare unless a coven is large. This secondary leader is often called upon to function in place of the leadership during, extended illness, absences, or lapses in leadership that could upset the core functioning of the group. This person becomes the leader only in extraordinary circumstances that could include, abdication, or death, They are usually not elected to their position but, chosen by the High Priestess at some point if, and when she feels the need for the help. This person may be the High Priest but, is often an elder who is temporarily called upon to fill the role as acting High Priestess, or to speak on behalf of the coven in some official capacity. The more mediagenic covens tend to place a higher priority upon publicity and a well chosen "seneshal" may even bring such a coven to fame.
The term "seneshal" has a type of dual meaning, as it speaks to the original Gothic meaning of a person who administers or dispenses justice, and it is inclusive of being a type of stand-in on behalf of another who is absent from their charge of authority. Although this term may seem oddly out of place when juxtaposed to such a new religion, one must consider again, the internet. Each forum often contains and administrator, and one or more moderators to enforce the administrators intended use within the forum. The second-in-command within a coven may easily be thought of in a similar way. A group of elders who is allowed to choose a second-in-command, may create a conflict or crisis of leadership by voting into place a person who might actually oppose the leadership. Whether this occurs openly or serripticiously, it is always disruptive, if not directly destructive to the group dynamic. This structure along with voting, is at times, put in place to help direct leadership toward moderation in online, or virtual covens but, it has no place in reality.
The authority vested in leadership at the level of High Priest or Priestess is all but, absolute. Those who are tasked with such responsibility are typically thought of with much respect, love, and understanding, because of the awesome power they wield through their knowledge of the mysteries. There are sometimes, rare lapses of judgment, abdication of authority, or abuse of power by Wiccan leadership but; in any such instances, the second-in-command is at hand to take charge and maintain order until the situation can be returned to order. Certain covens may use leadership that allows or restricts voting to a few individuals, and may exclude the High Priestess and or second-in-command from taking part in the vote. This is often indicative of covens that have a leader missing-in-action on the internet, or perhaps a leader whose vote may hold a type of veto ability similar to the political might of the President of the U.S.
One of the simplest leadership ideas is that of the coven being ruled and adjudicated from within, by all members, and with no single authority of any title. Some covens may utilize this method to democratize a group within a large coven just before allowing it to vote or appoint it's own leader. It may also be used to create a secondary group that is thought to be outside the authority of the accepted coven structure for some reason. Perhaps the group is meant to study privately or, act as a type of tribunal to bring justice to a person that may not fall under normal coven rules of the tradition. It may also be employed to help govern a group, within a larger coven that lacks a second-in-command, or does not want one in authority. Such a group might even precede the splitting of a coven in two, so as to allow the formation of another coven.
A well taught tradition that boasts good coven structure and exceptional leadership vested in a High Priestess is rare today, but they do exist. The internet has helped seekers to find covens, and to understand what they may offer before joining, so as not to be surprised later. Some offer their knowledge to those who seek as a way to bring income to the organization as a church. Others have a deeper goal to extend their tradition and knowledge base to a new generation so as to remain relevant as the leadership begins to mature. To some Wiccans the idea of combining the two goals seem simple and natural, while others believes that it cheapens their religion to sell their secrets. Each coven contains many such secrets, and the truth of the matter is muddied when a book or media savvy coven announces itself as the singular authority for a set price. That Wicca has no central authority allows those covens who wish to profit by publishing their secrets to do so with impunity, or so it seems.