There are famously three main "denominations" of Witchcraft, that call themselves Wicca. Gardnerian Witchcraft (and its imitators) is the oldest. To oversimplify the other two slightly, Neopagan Witchcraft is the hippy science fiction eco-whatever version of Witchcraft, that borrowed as much from popular fiction as it did from Gardner. Diannic Witchcraft originally grew out of the feminist Consciousness Raising movement, and acquired the trappings of Wicca when they became available. Now, I bring this up here because when it comes to Gardnerian-style Wicca, the leadership issue is trivially disposed of -- Gardnerians don't claim that they don't have leadership. Since one of Gardner's Laws was that "Only a witch can make a witch," genuine Gardnerians can trace their lineage through initiation all the way back to Gardner. Now in theory once you've separated from your initiating coven and started a coven of your own, you're fully independent. But in practice, there's no way that nearly all Gardnerian-style Witches don't look up to their first priest or priestess, and even more so to the elders beyond them. What that really means is that in any country, a tiny handful of Gardnerian Witches have tremendous influence over what all Gardnerians do and say, especially what they do and say in public. Once they agree on something, it really only takes a few phone calls to reach the hyper-connectors, and from there word just oh-so-casually trickles down. At no point is anything phrased as an order. At very few points will the mid level people admit that they're passing on word that they heard from above them. No, the whole thing works by chains of respect for your spiritual elders ... but the result is exactly as if they had a rule that the small inner corps of highest elders was infallible when speaking ex-cathedra on matters of faith and doctrine. Actually, it's more so -- there are probably a higher percentage of openly dissident Catholics than there are dissident Gardnerians.
The other two denominations, on the other hand, have egalitarianism as one of their founding principles. No Neopagan or Diannic acknowledges that any other Neopagan or Diannic Witch has any rank, is in any position to give them orders. This, in particular, is the BS that I'm calling them on, because frankly, in these two denominations the actual power is concentrated even more densely than it is in Gardnerianism. There really are a tiny handful of people at the top of the combined denominations of Neopaganism and Diannic Witchcraft, and they pretty much always get their way. So far as I know, all of them could comfortably ride in the same sedan: Selena Fox, Pete Pathfinder, Starhawk, Z Budapest, and Morning Glory Ravenheart. Isaac Bonewits may still be a member of that inner circle, or he may have retired by now; he's had health issues. I suspect that Judy Harrow and Don Frew think that they have some say over what the inner circle says, but I'm pretty sure that they don't, and I know that they hew to the official line in public once the decision has been made. These are all people who know each other from way back, and when one or more of them feels a need to set policy on a national issue, it should not surprise you that they all talk about it on the phone. Thereafter, they all speak with one voice. And what few Diannics and only a minority of Neopagans know is that virtually every local elder, virtually every publishing house, virtually every festival organizer gets their marching orders from that tiny handful of people. Again, just as with the Gardnerians, very seldom is anything ever phrased as an out-right command, and those who are passing along the consensus decisions of those five people never say that they're acting under orders, that anybody told them what to think and say. But get out of line, and you'll find out just how centralized the control really is. I know. It happened to me.
Let me give you my example, but first some background. Some of you are too young to really remember the Satanic Ritual Abuse moral panic, but it started with a hoax in which a mentally ill woman claimed to remember, under hypnosis, that she had been sexually abused as a child by an entire coven of Satanic witches. Under further hypnosis, she "remembered" that nobody could stop them, because this coven was part of a nation-wide, probably even world-wide conspiracy: all of the police chiefs and judges and politicians were either in on it, or under orders from people who were. Her quack therapist published these bogus memories in a conspiracy theory called Michelle Remembers in 1981. By 1983, other therapists dealing with suspected victims of childhood sexual abuse had been questioning their patients under hypnosis, in effect asking them while in trance if specific incidents from the book had also happened to them; it should not surprise anybody who actually understands hypnosis that these women came out from under their trance convinced that they, too had been sodomized and tortured by a world-wide conspiracy of Satanic witches when they were children. So, armed with these accounts, child protective services members went looking for children who could, under coercive questioning, be made to testify that they were being molested and tortured by Satanic witches, and found a bunch of them in preschools in various places around America. Then Geraldo Rivera jumped in, and dedicated almost three months' worth of TV shows and specials in late 1988 to "Exposing Satan's Underground," and now a full fledged moral panic was in sway. Cops and social workers and judges and reporters were searching everywhere to try to find this awful conspiracy, root it out, and punish it.
As early as 1983, before most people had even heard of Satanic Ritual Abuse, I had looked into the evidence for it. (I'm a conspiracy theory collector.) When I did, I quickly found out that unless you accept testimony given after guided hypnosis, there really wasn't any evidence at all. By comparison to so-called Satanic Ritual Abuse "survivors," so-called "UFO abductees" had better evidence and more plausible stories. What's more, by 1986 it was painfully obvious to anybody who even looked into this (for example, oh, the FBI) that when anybody checked to see if their was any evidence for these people's stories, they inevitably turned up rock solid physical evidence that their stories couldn't be true: buildings they described didn't exist, people they accused either didn't exist or weren't even in the same state at the time, events described violated basic laws of physics, and so on. That's why as early as late 1985 I had concluded that there simply was no such thing as a Satanic Ritual Abuse conspiracy. I was vindicated in 1989 when the FBI's own Supervisory Special Agent in charge of nationwide investigations of crimes against children, Ken Lanning, issued his famous "Lanning Report." After visiting the so-called crime scenes and interviewing the so-called victims, he also concluded that there simply was no such thing, and put it in writing, and released it for publication. Sean Carlson and the rest of the Committee for the Scientific Evaluation of claims of Religion (CSER) put out a book on the subject themselves also in 1989, Satanism in America: How the Devil Got Much More than His Due. Don Frew, past president of Covenant of the Goddess, the single largest ordaining body for Neopagan clergy in America, contributed to that book. But for all the impact that we had within the Wiccan community, we were pissing in the wind. Outside the Wiccan community, we had successfully planted the seeds of doubt. Reporters and courts and law enforcement began looking more critically at these accounts, and thanks to our efforts by early 1991 the scare was pretty much over.
However, every step of the way those of us trying to debunk this fallacy were fought tooth and nail by pretty much the entire Wiccan religion, from the very top to the very bottom. Our media campaigns, fund raising, and volunteer efforts were opposed, undermined and sabotaged at every step of the way, from one side of the country to another. Still, we fought on, stuck to our guns. But at every step of the way, everybody who came up to us said the very same things, in almost exactly the same words. "All of these women can't be lying, it doesn't if they are lying because society is going to kill every Satanist in America any day now, the Satanists brought this on themselves because whether or not they're guilty of this crime they're all bad people, and if you don't stop standing up for people accused of being Satanic Ritual Abusers then when they come to kill all the Satanists then every single Witch in America will die, and it'll be your fault for confusing the two in people's minds!" But since the evidence was on our side, and by that time the FBI was on our side, a few others and I saw no reason to change our story, despite a thorough and ongoing whispering campaign to demonize us personally within the Wiccan community. And that's when I got the phone call.
I've don't personally know Pete Pathfinder, of Aquarian Tabernacle Church up in Washington (state). I couldn't pull him out of a police lineup. We've never met. For all that we were both Neopagans, his part of the tradition branched off from my initiatory tradition long, long ago, long before I came in. The total impact that Pete Pathfinder had ever had on my life, the extent of our association up to that point, was that at one point I subscribed to his technical journal for magick-workers for a year or two. I wouldn't have been able to pull him out of a police lineup, and he didn't know me from Adam's off ox. That didn't stop him from calling me one night and chewing me out in no uncertain terms. (My phone number wasn't so hard to find.) He told me that the elders of the community had talked to each other on the phone about this long ago, and decided what the public line was going to be. He told me, word for word, what everybody had been telling me for over a year now, and told me that "all of the leaders of the Pagan community" were speaking with one voice on this issue. (I cited Don Frew, and he was dismissive, saying that he had no followers, so nobody cared what he thought. See what they think of you, Don?) I tired to lay out my factual case and was interrupted in mid-sentence. At that point, he stopped trying to phrase things as persuasion, and flatly told me that this was an order. People much higher than me had decided what was going to have to happen in order to save hundred of thousands of Wiccan lives, and I had three choices: comply, shut up, or have "the whole religion" turned against me. I told him that Neopagan Witchcraft was non-hierarchical, that he had no such authority to issue such an order to me or to anyone else. He told me I'd see. And I saw, all right. The order was given, and except among my personal friends, I was radioactive.
Christians who still follow the true gospel will recognize this campaign, because one just like it has been used against them for 40 years. The names change, the issues change, but the tactics of suppression are exactly the same. Officially, every Baptist church is independent of the others, has full freedom of conscience and autonomy, and every believer has a personal priesthood to decide moral and theological issues for themselves. In practice, a tiny handful of respected opinion leaders need only make a few phone calls, to people who never let on that they're acting under orders but who thereafter conform their public opinions to the orders they were given, and soon while everybody thinks that they made up their own mind, "everybody knows" what the central core leadership decided they would know. And Witchcraft is no different.
(Next: Why there aren't any classes after Wicca 101.)