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The PSA and Ritual: Solutions to an Ever-Changing Group

Full Moon after Lughnassah, 2001

-Michael J Dangler

The Pagan Student Association has been, since our inception in 1997, “to provide Pagan students and students interested in alternative religions a forum for discussing and learning as well as a social atmosphere." Basically, we’ve said that ritual is not a primary objective of the PSA, nor is it an integral part of our being.

In our first full (academic) year, we did two rituals: Imbolc and Beltaine. I’m not qualified to speak of the latter, since I was not present, but for Imbolc I was. The ritual went well, and we all learned from it. For several of us, that was our first ritual in a group, and we enjoyed ourselves. The ritual was held in conjunction with a party, which was extremely fortunate.

Attending the meeting at which the Imbolc ritual took place were (I recall) 3 new people. I believe that two were agnostic/atheist, or something like that, and the other I don’t remember. The point is that, if there had not been a party, but only a ritual, we never would have seen any of those people again, since they were obviously uncomfortable with attending a ritual, and did not participate at all, even though the circle was open, inclusive, and very non-denominational.

Fortunately for us, at least two of those people are now in more or less sporadic attendance at meetings.

The Beltaine ritual was held over a weekend, not on Beltaine at all, nor during a meeting, and only involved people who decided to go camping that weekend. It wasn’t really a PSA function, although we did practice the ritual at our Beltaine party.

After that, the PSA downplayed our ritual involvement seriously. Our Co-Chair at time and our founder decided that too much ritual was not what the PSA was around for. She told me at one point that PSA was much more about social interaction and learning than practicing, and also noted (quite rightly) that practicing with a group as diverse as the PSA was very, very difficult.

The following year, we only did one ritual as a group: Beltaine. We wrote the ritual, did a maypole, and that was about it. Honestly, I hardly remember doing the ritual, it was so unimportant to the group and our goals that year.

In the 1999-2000 school year, we changed our outlook some. We started the year off by having a large public ritual in conjunction with PCCO for Samhain. It was written as a learning experience, but so few people assisted in the actual creative process that it was useless as such. The ritual did serve to strengthen our ties with the local Pagan community, particularly PCCO, which I will come back to in a moment.

Other problems with the Samhain event included personality conflicts experienced in ritual, a poor understanding by participants about who was in charge and what they were expected to do, and very, very poor interaction between the Priestess and Priest to create the ritual (since it wasn’t done in PSA meetings).

Many of our members also seemed to feel somewhat alienated by the openness of the ritual. Despite all this, I feel personally that the ritual was a success, and the story in the lantern helped to bring us further notice.

We were asked by PCCO to do the opening ritual for The Greening, their Imbolc gathering. Here is where the effects of ritual on the PSA become most noticeable. We agreed, after taking a vote that was mostly in favour of doing a ritual for the PCCO. The vote was on whether we should do the ritual at The Greening, and no one actually asked who could be there. Slowly, the number of people who were willing to be involved dropped to some very low numbers, and soon only one person was left.

Needless to say, PCCO was rather angry that we pulled out after the flyers had been printed up, but the last person in our group apparently managed to pull off a very nice ritual and save our hides for the majority of Pagans in Ohio. I doubt that we’ll be able to work with PCCO again until the current leadership either entirely forgets that incident or changes in some very fundamental ways.

At this point, the PSA decided to reaffirm our desire only to do ritual as a learning experience. For Beltaine that year, we had a party, danced a maypole, and had a bardic circle. No ritual that year.

The following year, we had a few new members come in. By this time, we had ‘collected’ a number of non-Pagans as members, and so we felt that rituals were not something we should really be doing on a regular basis again. By Spring quarter, however, one of our Co-Chairs had left, and a new one was voted in.

Our focus shifted to reflect this, and we ended up having a ritual planned for Beltaine again. This time we used a definite format, pulled from a book on the Henge of Keltria’s (a Druidic Order) Beltaine ceremony. We changed some things, made some different calls, and cut down on some of the more extraneous items in the liturgy.

The ritual was effective, from my point of view, but there was one problem: 6 people showed up, out of our regular membership of about 8-10. It wasn’t that these people were busy, it’s that they weren’t interested.

Now we are where we are (there is no simpler place to be, is there?), and the topic of ritual has come up yet again. Should we do private rituals, or should we do public ones? Should we do ritual at all? If so, what tradition should these rituals be in?

My answers to these questions come from a unique perspective: not only was I a Co-Chair of the PSA for a year, but I know the founder well, and I led most of the rituals described (actually, I think I led most of them, didn’t I?)

Perhaps I should be as Martin Luther, and present 95 Theses?

1: The PSA is not about ritual. It never was, it should never be.
2: Learning from writing rituals is a good thing.
3: Having a group of people write rituals for the PSA as a whole is a bad thing.
4: While often the PSA has had good experience with ritual, oftentimes the rituals themselves have poor effects on PSA as a whole, or on a few of the participants. Cases of personal conflict, alienation of members or potential members, and alienation of the larger Pagan community are only a few of the problems previously encountered by ritual.
5: We can’t please everyone, so we really need to stop trying, but we can please a majority of members.
6: When certain people take control of rituals (I’m guilty here, as are others), those who have little or no creative control are left feeling ignored, useless, or disliked.
7: Any ritual done by the PSA should be inclusive of ALL the traditions included in the PSA’s membership. This is not to say that all rituals should be eclectic, but that one ritual should focus on Wiccan holy days, the next ritual on a Druidic celebration, and the one after that on Etruscan holidays.
8: Any ritual done by the PSA should have the intent fully agreed upon by all participants, and by a unanimous vote of the members, including the members on the list. Discord in this sense is not to be tolerated.
9: The PSA should have one (1) ritual per year. Beltaine is a good one, since it’s already traditional in PSA, and it’s very deep in the Wheel.
10: Elitism among those who wish to participate in ritual is a very, very bad thing.
11: Not all of our members are comfortable with ritual, nor are all of them any flavour of Pagan.
95: The official purpose of the Pagan Student Association is: "To provide pagan students and students interested in alternative religions a forum for discussing and learning as well as a social atmosphere." This aspect MUST be kept in mind.

Now that you’ve read my problems, here are some solutions:

1: PSA could move entirely to a “learning through ritual” stance, and we could cease our social/open learning environment.

2: A separate group to practice ritual, possibly acting as a student group or just a “coven” of people. PSA membership is not required, and PSA time cannot be diverted to “coven” time.

3: A “Ritual Committee” within PSA that learns from ritual experience, and experiments with different types of rituals and practices. PSA membership optional, and the “committee” would have to meet on a different night. PSA time would go only to general announcements from the “committee,” not to discussing what the “committee” is doing, has done, or will do. The "committee" would not write rituals for the PSA, but would rather do rituals on their own. Rituals as learning experiences would be created by members in PSA.

4: A continued stance of “No Ritual Unless it’s a Learning Experience” within PSA.

5: No ritual at all.

Here’s the part where I go weird. First, I’m pretty middle of the road in most things. I’d like to see option 3 come to pass. Failing that, option 4 is best for me. The drawbacks of both options include the possibility of alienating new members, and less effective ritual. Option 3 has the more problematic aspect of forming an elitist group who dominates the meetings of PSA and the “ritual committee,” leaving no room for new members.

The ONLY thing I do not want to see is the membership go separate ways due to one small, insignificant detail like ritual. You may argue with my description of the importance of ritual, but everyone here should agree that it's a dumb reason to possibly lose PSA at this University. No matter what we think, we're helping to keep the University safe for Pagans merely by existing. At least other Pagans know where to find us, if they need us. OSU cannot lose that.

Content © 2003, Michael J Dangler
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