Conundrums and Connections
by Philip Carr-Gomm
In 1989 I gave a talk at the first Christians & Druids conference, held at Prinknash Abbey in Gloucestershire. You can read it here. Twenty-five years later, at Imbolc, I found myself at another Christians & Druids (and Pagans) meeting, this time convened at the Ammerdown Centre, near Radstock in Somerset. After a stimulating weekend of discussion amongst Christian priests and laity, Druids and Pagans, I have written up and elaborated on the talk I gave there:
DRUIDRY & CHRISTIANITY – CAN THESE TWO STREAMS OF SPIRITUAL TRADITION INFORM EACH OTHER AND EVEN PERHAPS BE COMBINED IN ONE PATH OR PRACTICE?
There are at least three reasons why the topic addressed in this article will yield no fruit – according to the skeptics. First, syncretism – the combining of traditions – is a bad idea. Second, the theologies of the two paths are too at variance. Christianity, for example, requires the centrality of the figure of Christ, whereas in Druidry he holds little or no significance. Thirdly, Christianity has proved such an oppressive and destructive force, no good will come from Druids going to bed with the Devil. (Or conversely, if you are a Christian, Paganism has been ‘diabolical’ and modern Pagans refuse the saving grace of Christ, and therefore any attempt at meeting is doomed to failure).
If I believed these arguments, this article would end here, but I don’t – and hence this essay, and my motive for attending various ‘Christians & Druids/Pagans’ conferences over the years: the first held at Prinknash Grange twenty-five years ago in 1989. I do not consider myself a Christian, but then, although this gives the closest definition, I am not sure it’s meaningful to call myself a Druid– I don’t like labels and find them restrictive. I just feel I am ‘a seeker on the Path’, and I try to appreciate the beauty and the sacredness of all religions and spiritual ways. I mention this to clarify at the outset that I do not have an agenda of wishing to convert the reader. I know that those who have been hurt by an oppressive, and often fundamentalist, Christianity can be concerned that someone is trying to secretly convert them. No! Instead I am writing this because I think we have moved into an era in which we can choose to follow the spiritual path that is just right for our unique soul. Perhaps each of us requires a different form of nourishment, and we live at a time where we can prepare our own meals - not to pick capriciously at the feast offered by the world’s religions, but to nourish ourselves on that which truly satisfies our soul-hunger.
I have met enough people by now who find that a combination of Christian and Druid inspiration feeds their soul to recognize that such a synthesis has validity. Bruce Stanley has written a book called ‘The Forest Church’ where he proposes Christian worship but out in the woods, with many of his ideas suggested by his experience of Nature and Druidry. An Amazon reviewer writes: “If you're like the author, drawn to both Christianity and the Old Religions, and are able to avoid questioning this mish-mash too deeply, you may find some degree of fulfilment in this path. I just can't see how it will work for any length of time as a mainstream tradition - there will be conflicts between the traditions & ultimately you'll have to choose - because despite the author's protestations, Christianity & Paganism are different traditions, driven by a different vision. The Divine is either essentially Transcendent or it’s immanent. Panentheism, advocated by the author, is a cop out (a 'Transcendent' God somehow 'inhabits' the physical universe so can be experienced 'in' things) - apart from the fact that technically it is a Heresy from the orthodox Christian viewpoint - comes across as an attempt to have your cake and eat it, and is another attempt on the author's part to force two ultimately incompatible things together to make a coherent whole. So, a fail in the end, but at the same time, for the psychological and ecological insights, a book worth reading. Just don't expect to find a new, excitingly different path. That said, if you're a Christian who wants to play at Paganism, or a Pagan who wants to play at Church, then this may be the book for you.”
We could get into a discussion about whether or not syncretism, defined as ‘the combining of different, often seemingly contradictory beliefs, while melding practices of various schools of thought,’ is a good idea. The reviewer, and those who criticise syncretism, feel it creates a ‘mish-mash.’ We could get into a discussion of whether Panentheism is a cop-out, or whether one of its greatest advocates, the theologian and initiator of the Creation Spirituality movement, Matthew Fox, could respond to that criticism effectively. But let’s by-pass these arguments and turn to the people themselves who seem satisfied by the ‘mish-mash’ and the ‘cop-out’. People like the novelist Barbara Erskine who writes: ‘When I discovered Druidry it was a homecoming into a philosophy which encompassed all that I held dear and it brought me into the western spiritual tradition, something which had been part of my soul without my realising it. My world was animistic. I had always prayed to the one God and all the gods, feeling that that expressed my true beliefs even though I was not comfortable with wholesale paganism. The last thing I expected was for my studies and meditations to illumine and rekindle my struggling Christian faith. Or that they would reconcile my certainties about a supernatural world of nature spirits, ghosts and energies which seemed to be unchristian, into a church which included angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.
Druidry acted as a change of focus; a personal reinterpretation; an altered attitude. It shone a beam of light into a monochrome landscape and reminded me of an ancient church where Celtic saints had called blessings onto rain-soaked hills, where St Kevin allowed a blackbird to nest on his hand, where Brighid was both goddess and saint, a church where Our Lady was also the Star of the Sea, a blessed feminine warmth which a more puritan faith had distanced. Ancient prayers took on deeper meanings for me. Now the Benedicite read like a Celtic hymn.
The druidical circle of seasons was there within the liturgy, sacred geometry was there, though forgotten by most, as were the healing energies of stone and stained glass and the mysticism of ancient words.
Historians and theologians may find the belief untenable but I like the idea of long-ago druids segueing neatly with the changing focus of the heavens into a Celtic Christianity. It feels right.
My practice of meditation evolved naturally back into one of regular prayer and though prayer can happen every- and any- where, I set up a small altar of my own again. In its centre I have a beautiful statue made by a friend, of the Blessed Virgin, not a meek, mild obedient role model, but Queen of Heaven, with crown and royal robes. On her knee is the Christ child. At the four corners of the altar I have put symbols of earth air fire and water. There is a Celtic cross there, and flowers. Sometimes I have incense. Sometimes meditation oils. Sometimes this is the centre of my druid rituals. I use it as a place to pray, to meditate and to listen. Unorthodox? Probably. But it makes perfect sense to me.’ Barbara Erskine
Is it not presumptuous of any of us to say that Barbara Erskine has succumbed to ‘woolly thinking’ or ‘theological error’? Bruce Stanley’s book has ignited the imaginations of many – it proposes an idea whose time has come, and within the space of a few years has given birth to over a dozen independent, autonomous ‘Forest Churches’.
Some books seem to come out of the Collective Unconscious, or from the Spirit of the Times. Perhaps one hardly needs to read the book - the title or core idea is all you need to light the fire. One such book was Elizabeth Pinkola Estes ‘Women Who Run with the Wolves.’ Many people never got through that brick of a tome, but the idea caught their imagination: ‘Women can be wild and free. I must release my wild woman!’ As soon as you say the words ‘Forest Church’ you get it: it is saying ‘Get out of those dark cold buildings - out into the magic of the trees and find your spirituality there!’
The term Forest Church succinctly conveys the idea of Christian Druidry. The word Druid comes, according to one etymology, from the roots ‘Dru’ – an oak – and ‘id’ – to know or be wise. And so a druid is an ‘oak sage’ – a ‘forest sage’ – someone for whom the forest is their church.
The thought that Christian and Druid practice might be combined is not new. Writing and discussion about this has been going on for over two hundred and fifty years. When an interest in Druidism emerged in the Druid Revival period in the eighteenth century, it was driven by Christian gentlemen, with an Anglican vicar, William Stukeley being one of the prime movers, and that strange trickster figure Iolo Morganwg being as active in promoting Unitarianism in Wales as he was in promoting Druidism. Fraternal Druidry, initiated in London in 1781, and the Druidry that fostered the Eisteddfod movement, were both promoted by those whose religious affiliations were Christian, not Pagan. Even modern-day Esoteric Druidism, by which I mean Druidry pursued as a spiritual path or magical system, which developed at the beginning of the 20th century, was driven by those who considered themselves Christian. George Watson MacGregor Reid, who was arguably the founder of modern spiritual Druidry, as opposed to its fraternal or cultural varieties, was an enthusiastic promoter of the Universalist Church, which later merged with the Unitarian Church. This particular strand of Druidry was given a boost to its development in the mid 20th century by Ross Nichols, who was also a Christian, although a questioning socialist Christian, who was ordained as an archdeacon in the Celtic Orthodox Church and performed their Celtic Mass once in the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey. In the collection of his writings ‘In the Grove of the Druids’ (Watkins, 2002) I’ve given a selection of his thoughts on Christianity with a commentary. These show that he was very critical towards the church, but felt a mystical connection with the heart of the religion.
Nichols’s friend, Gerald Gardner, who promoted and almost certainly invented the religion of Wicca, was also ordained in an obscure church, and the Christian influences on the system he developed are clear. Joanne Pearson’s fascinating book ‘Wicca and the Christian Heritage: Ritual, Sex and Magic’ (Routledge 2007) goes into great detail about the influence of Christianity on the evolution of Wicca and only goes to strengthen any case for the value of syncretism.
Gardner and Nichols were busy developing their complementary approaches at a time when Dion Fortune's work was well known. And her work too was informed by Christianity. The path she laid out wove three strands together: ceremonial magic, nature mysticism and a mystical Christianity. Dion Fortune’s work, together with the influence of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, with its central mythos of Christian Rosenkreuz, enables us to say that modern Wicca and Druidry evolved out of a background and culture of Christianity that was essential to their development.
I’ve pointed all this out simply to stress the fact that the idea of combining Druidry and Christianity is not new or even unlikely. For most of its modern history it always was combined, and a strictly Pagan form of Druidry has only really been practiced in the modern era from the 1970s onward. The argument that the reviewer of Bruce Stanley’s book gives, which is that an approach that combines Druidry, or Paganism, with Christianity would only give ‘some degree of fulfilment’ is redundant, and reminds me of some critics who state categorically that Druidry cannot be a valid spiritual path. I imagine myself announcing this to the thousands of people whose lives have been profoundly changed for the better, and who espouse Druidry as their path. Flying in the face of the evidence, it would feel like King Canute telling the sea it had no power to come near him.
Isaac Bonewits, the founder of the largest American Druid Group, the ADF, has divided the history of Druidry into Paleo-Pagan, Meso-Pagan, and Neo-Pagan phases. The first phase represents original, ancient, pre-Christian Druidry; the Meso-Pagan phase represents the Druidry of the Revival Period that attempted a combination of Christianity and Druidry; the Neo-Pagan phase represents the time of the contemporary ‘Druid Renaissance’ in which many feel the urge to ‘slough off’ the artificial and restrictive influences of Christianity on a practice that is essentially Pagan, Animistic and Shamanic.
Isaac presented this idea in the 1970s – over forty years ago now. I believe he thought that Meso-Paganism was an aberration which would gradually die out as scholarship progressed. Instead, what has happened is that Pagan Druidry has grown and flourished, but so have other expressions of Druidry, including Christian Druidry.
The Meso-pagan phase of the Druid revival involved a good deal of compromise - of trying to fit round pegs into square holes, of hiding the wildness, the Paganism, inherent in Druidry which was embarrassing to Christian gentlemen of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The last forty or so years of Druid history, in which it has reconnected with its pre-Christian origins, has meant a refreshing of Druidry at its roots. But now we're seeing something interesting. Movements and ideas evolve through a process of differentiation and integration. Druidry, I believe, needed to differentiate itself from other approaches to the spiritual. It has now done this - it is different. It can stand apart from Christianity. And now, perhaps, those who wish can attempt an integration more successfully, because this differentiation has occurred. Theirs need not be an apologetic for Druidry, as it often seemed in the writings of Revival Druids, but can instead represent a genuine fusion of inspiration.
Fusion cooking doesn't appeal to everyone. So the following observations will probably dismay some and excite others. You decide! Does the list that follows represent a mish-mash or an interesting blend?
I’ve surveyed the rites of two Forest Churches (remember each is autonomous and independent) and noted the influences of Druidry, Wicca, Paganism or the Western Magical Tradition on their essentially Christian worship:
• They meet outside in Nature – ideally a forest – standing in a circle, not in rows, as one does in a church.
• They greet the directions, calling out ‘Hail & Welcome! And Hail and Farewell!’
• They use the terms ‘So Mote it be!’ from the Western Magical Tradition, or ‘Blessed Be!’ from Wicca.
• In the East Midlands Forest Church Creation Eucharist, the leaflet makes use of the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot image for the Ace of Cups: the dove of the Holy Spirit descending into the Holy Grail.
• And the bread and wine of the eucharist are paraded around the circle three times, the bread sunwise, the wine moonwise, before being brought into the circle.
• In the Ancient Arden Forest Church Winter Solstice ceremony there is a Bard, and a circle is cast while all chant: “We cast our circle in the name of the Sacred Three. We cast our circle in the name of the Peaceful Christ.”
On reading this, some Pagans may feel that Christians are ‘stealing’ aspects of their tradition, while some Christians might no doubt feel horrified that fellow Christians have started casting circles and calling the directions. But for some people, this is just what they feel they need!
Around us in Sussex we have some lovely churches – built beside old barrows, standing on ancient pre-Christian sites. When I occasionally visit and sit in them in a service, I love looking at the old stone, the stained glass, sensing the history and heritage that this place represents. But when the service begins, I have a strong sense that I am partaking in a historical re-enactment of an activity that was at its most alive centuries ago. And so I can understand the impulse behind the Forest Church movement to break out of that and commune outside amongst the trees.
The great composer and spiritual seeker Sir John Tavener, before he died recently, suggested that all religions have reached a state of maturity and therefore decay, and perhaps that’s what’s happening. Perhaps much of established Christianity is dying now.
Druidry disappeared for a thousand years because it died and it was then reborn with the Druid Revival. It is now radically different from how it used to be. It has a youthfulness, a relevance, as a result.
In reality I suspect that the process of dying and being reborn, of shedding skins and growing new ones is constantly occurring. After all there have always been renewal movements in the history of every religion, and initiatives such as the Forest Church represents one of many attempts at rebirth.
Druidry and Christianity are two entirely self-contained, self-sufficient approaches and many - indeed the majority - of Christians and Druids will have no interest in combining them. But imagine the Vesica Piscis which brings two self-contained circles together to create a fish-like symbol where they overlap. This is a place of Mystery, of the vulva of the Goddess in some interpretations: a place of fertility and birth. Let’s follow that image and see what sort of birth might be suggested.
The fish is a symbol of Christ. But in Druidry it is also symbolic of our goal: the Salmon of Wisdom, the primordial Oldest Creature in the world. We taste three drops of the salmon’s liquor to gain wisdom, as told to us in the Irish tale of the Boyhood Deeds of Fionn mac Cumhaill. These are the three drops of Awen that come from the cauldron of the Goddess, according to the Welsh Tale of Taliesin, and we are reborn, through the Vesica Piscis of Ceridwen. But first we have to be chased as little Gwion Bach and be turned into a grain of wheat. That grain of wheat turns us into Taliesin, the god-child born of the Goddess - the grain of wheat that stands at the heart of Christianity when it is baked into bread and eaten as the body of God, just as Ceridwen eats the wheat that is Gwion. Taliesin is a Risen One as much as Christ, but for many Druids he will seem more acceptable, more identifiable with, because he is associated solely with creativity - with poetry and song - and carries none of the sacrificial lamb associations which seem so alien to many people now.
A baby is central in much of modern Druidry (Taliesin) and of course so is a baby in Christianity (Jesus). Grace hopefully comes to the Christian, as Awen to the Druid. Christians and Druids celebrate the same festival times, and yet in different ways, with usually a very different understanding of what they are doing.
For Pagans a baby reborn as a poet is quite acceptable and doesn’t occupy centre-stage in their world-view or spiritual practice, and in fact some Druids may not even be touched by the Taliesin story. They certainly don’t think it really happened - the ‘virgin pregnancy’ of Ceridwen, and every other detail - whereas of course most Christians do believe in the historical reality of their central baby story. And that is what makes it hard for many Pagans, Druids, or simply those of no fixed abode spiritually, to cope with Christianity: the baby grows up to be a figure who is utterly central. If he’s not particularly meaningful to you, you can hardly be a Christian. He also becomes the elephant in the room that inhibits any kind of equal synthesis of influence from another path, such as Druidism.
A Druid form of Christianity or a Christian Druidry has to have the central figure of Christ in it, as far as I can see, and so it will surely always be Christianity primarily and Druidry secondarily, and could not be vice versa. Perhaps this explains why I have managed to find a flourishing Christian Druid community in existence, but no Druid community that is also inspired to a degree by Christianity.
What if Druidry had something to offer Christianity in its search for rebirth? What if Christianity had something to offer Druidry: a certain experience, a particular sense of a relationship with the Divine?
We could talk about what these mutual gifts might be, about how a relationship, or even a fusion, of these two paths might look in theory – in the future, if anyone ever attempted this project.
We could imagine, for example, a religious community who identified themselves as both Druids and Christians, who had developed a sustainable way of living, generating their own power off the grid, growing their own food, raising bees, drawing water from their own well, burying their dead naturally in woodland, celebrating the Eucharist every day but communing with the trees that surround them, the plants they grow, the creatures around them.
In reality this is not just wishful thinking about something that might occur in the future - such a community already exists.
In the year before I first met my Druid teacher Ross Nichols, in 1964, he had been ordained as an Archdeacon in a ‘Celtic church’ in Brittany that had been started by someone who was also a Druid - now known as St.Tugdual. This church died with the death of its founder, but it was reborn in 1977 when a small group, who were members of a Druid college, were inspired to start a religious community inspired by the ideals of St.Francis. They call it the Celtic Orthodox Church.
I first visited the church, its monastery and retreat house in 2010, and I was struck at once by a strong feeling of sacredness. The monastery is called St.Presence because St.Tugdual wrote, “In these woods I feel the very real presence of the Being without name.” And yes – whenever I am there I feel as if I am closer to that ‘Being without name’. There is a real Presence there, and it is a mystery to me and a source of great inspiration.
It is clear how the Celtic Orthodox Church works both with Christianity and an environmentalism inspired by Franciscan ideals and the modern environmental movement. But where is the influence of Druidry? Until recently they have been cautious in declaring their interest. You only really discovered it when talking to them personally, although you could spot hints in the Druid Awen symbol by the graveyard, or above one of the saints’ icons in the church. They conduct Christian services not Druid rituals. They read from Christian books, not Druid ones and so on. But in the last year they have begun to mention in their annual eco-conference, held around St.Francis day every October, that they are interested in Druidry. Even so, they are clearly Christians above all, with their Druidry in second-place, or perhaps in the ground of their spiritual world-view.
A friend once took a retreat run by an Emmaus House nun, who told her that in her experience those with the strongest faith were informed by more than one spiritual path, the different paths compared to the warp and weave in a cloth. Perhaps we don’t need to look for equality of influence in a fusion. Perhaps thinking in terms of a ‘marriage’ of two traditions, where both parties have equal influence, is unhelpful. Perhaps, as in Jung’s Personality typology, in which one function predominates but another companions it as a secondary function, is a more helpful way of viewing these things. It’s not about two becoming one but about two or more streams of inspiration informing us in their own ways – the weft and warp.
Maybe we don’t need to fuse or blend traditions and can instead follow both at the same time. A path analogy suggests this is impractical, but use an analogy from hydrology and the idea makes sense: to obtain water you must often drill in at least two places. That’s certainly what my Druid teacher did: attending services in St Alban’s Cathedral when he was at his Naturist resort in Hertfordshire, and performing Druid rites at the festival times.
There is an inspiring Ceile De teacher called Fionn Tullach (Fiona Davidson), who combines Christian and Druidic teachings in her work, and whose chants are used by the Forest Church and were sung at the most recent Christians and Druids/Pagans conference held on Imbolc 2014 at Ammerdown, near Bath. Her song ‘Treasures of Darkness’ begins: “Since people began, there have been people who would travel, all across this sweet green Earth, in love with mystery, not seeking answers, for truth is a treasure of darkness and the wilder places.”
I’m going to take her hint and not try to offer answers here. Far more potent I think, for us to hold these resonances, conundrums and connections - to see what inspirations they bring.