This is the first part of 2 interviews Ash Russell made with Jean Williams in 2004. Yes 10 years ago!
They appeared for the first time in WR Imbolc 2005 and Beltane 2005.
Since then Jean has handed over the “Pagan Pathfinders” to younger folk. She and Zach Cox, her partner, have also retired from the Pagan Federation. However Jean is still a welcome member and attends the Council Meetings regularly and is often asked for her advice.
An inspiration to us all, she is still an extraordinary lady!
– Morgana, Zeist, June 2014
An Experienced Vision for the Future – An interview with Jean Williams by Ash Russell, 2004
Jean Williams has been Wiccan since the mid-60s, and High Priestess of Gardner’s original coven since the mid-70s. She has also run Pagan Pathfinders for about 30 years, and worked with the Pagan Federation for about 15 years. She shares some of her experience, as well as some ideas for directions that the Craft could go in future.
What was your reaction to ‘A Witches’ Bible’ when it came out? At the time it was very controversial because so much was going into print for the first time.
Jean: When Stewart Farrar’s book came out, I felt a pang when I saw the Charge published, because I thought that was so beautiful and so precious. It had such a huge impact on me. I would like people to come fresh to it. On the other hand it is something that makes a huge impact on people who read it, because they think “Wow, I want to be where this happens.” So you see both sides, it achieves something, but at a price.
Do you think there is a difficult balance between getting the Craft experience completely new versus having a lot of material prior to initiation? Has it perhaps gone too public?
Jean: I don’t think so. I think we’ve gone past that now, really. I think there are some very good books about, and I have a great respect for people who decide that what they want to do is go it alone, and use Rae Beth’s book or something of that sort to do their own thing. There is such a wealth of books, literature, television programmes, Internet, and every source of information that you want, good written stuff, rituals and poetry available. It’s all part of that ethos of do-it-yourself religion. I don’t think that you have to be put through a training course particularly. I think that people can do their own thing – people can reinvent it. Everybody’s reinvented their religion. Every time it’s revived, it’s a reinvention. Gardner reinvented it and Sanders reinvented it again.
There is a tension between what is Craft and books written by non-initiates. This can cause a tension between what is really Craft and what is Paganism with a more popular name. We want to support solo practitioners, but do we want them to call it Wicca?
Jean: I don’t think it matters what you want, because people are going to do whatever they want to do. They say I follow this book about Wicca, so therefore I am Wiccan. You can’t stop them or copyright a name like that. I’m not sure I can get hot under the collar about this. Some people like to see things in nice, neat categories and they’re never going to get that with the Craft or with Paganism in general. Everything merges one into the other. My field of work was surveys and research, and there you are constantly putting people into categories, and you are aware all the time that it’s a sliding scale. It’s quite arbitrary where you chop things up. It’s the same with the Craft and Paganism. Would you call that Craft or ‘just’ Paganism, with a hint that Paganism’s somewhat inferior… I don’t go there.
Jean: What really makes me hot under the collar is when people talk about fluffy bunny pagans or fluffy bunny witches. It’s totally lacking in respect for people who are doing or finding their own particular path at their own particular level. They should not be treated with contempt, because it doesn’t happen to be the same view of things. I’ve heard people say ‘Oh, I suppose they’re just fluffy bunnies. We’re not fluffy. We’re not a bit fluffy.” And you think, “My goodness I wonder what terrible things they must get up to, in order not to be fluffy.”
I think there is a difference between fluffy and bad research. I would be disparaging of awful research, because I don’t think people should write things as fact when clearly they haven’t done necessary research.
Jean: Yes, well writing things to tell other people what to do is quite different to finding your own path and doing your own thing. If you want to do that just based on walking around the garden and getting into a transcendental state because of a beautiful flower that you see, or the way the squirrels are behaving, then that’s fine, have your own religious experience.
What about the drive to bring people into the Craft and ensure its survival?
Jean: We sort of take things rather easily in our old age. We don’t feel a pressure to find new members or to bring new people in, but if someone asks we might consider possibly it, but we are rather happy trundling along with our little group of people who are very faithful attendees for a long time now. There is a sort of easygoing comfort and closeness in that.
Jean: Every new person you bring into a coven changes that coven. Hopefully it changes them, too, but there is obviously a sort of shifting around to fit them in, and to get to known everyone in the context of the coven and to show them how things are done and so on, and to let them ask questions if they want to. In a way, too I think that every time you get someone newly initiated, the coven is on its best behaviour for a little while, to show their best side to the new person.
How do you feel about formal outer court arrangements, in terms an outer, outer court for training for people who are just coming into Paganism, and then perhaps a formal outer court for people who are doing the work and training?
Jean: I think that’s quite a good thing, because there is such a demand now for people interested in Wicca. There is a huge need for some way of getting access. We don’t feel that we are necessarily morally obligated to be part of that. You know, I do Pagan Pathfinders and that’s my contribution to the scene.
What about a formal seminary?
Jean: I would hate to see it over-formalised, with initiation certificates at the end of it, but I do think it’s a useful way of training people. In Pagan Pathfinders people get the basic training in meditation techniques, energy raising both within themselves and as a group, and some basics of magic.
So how important would you say aspects of self-discovery are to the Craft itself?
Jean: I think it’s very important. I think any spiritual path is going to be a spiritual path and not just a glade you’re sitting in. You’re going to be moving forward, and there has to be an element of self-discovery, allowing for a sense of growth and development.
You said you were a little bit concerned about things becoming a bit over-formalised.
Jean: I think there is a danger of this when things become very popular. People are doing what they think is the most purist, traditional or firmly original, or have got the secret key, and that they ought to formalise it; they might say, “Well, we’ll call this Wicca” and “we’ll call that witchcraft or Paganism”. And other people say “I’ll call what I do witchcraft because I’m a solo witch, because Wicca is coven witchcraft”. I think it can get over-formal that way. And yet I think that what I would like see is it maintaining very much the sense of freedom but tradition. Traditions evolve and change, so it must never be a fundamentalist sort of thing, such as this is the way that it’s written down in the Book of Shadows, and you must never change a word. That way lies fundamentalism.
You wouldn’t want to see an orthodoxy, but are there certain things you’d like to see retained, because we can’t disregard our past completely, either?
Jean: I think it should be regarded as an organic, evolving tradition or set of traditions. You find what you do, and you take it forward in your way. There are some traditions that perhaps have a stronger personality, maybe because they’ve got a formal and more structured training course that people come through. Therefore they are sent down a slightly narrower path, rather than something that will proliferate out like a tree.
Jean: What I would like to see is like the Pagan Federation has tried to do, to set a general ethos for Pagans with the three principles, so we set a direction, and a way of integrity and self-respect.
Jean: And what I’d like to see is a general sense of what Wicca is about in terms of becoming priests and priestesses of the gods, and that this gives you responsibilities both within and out to the wider community, and that there is some sort of developmental process you go through to reach this, be it formal training or maybe just a period of experience. We regard the first degree as the one where you get this experience, and then the second degree is when you start to learn to take rituals, and to lead a working. The first degree you are just sort of sitting there being told what to do, and encouraged and challenged to understand it, learning what magic is actually about, the responsibilities and the pitfalls and so on, the ethics of it.
So perhaps going forward retaining the ethics, retaining the spirit of the Craft, including this flexibility, but continuing to evolve?
Jean: But also the spirit of respect for differences, I think that’s very important. Obviously, whenever you allow differences you’ve got to be also prepared to draw a line, and say I don‘t like what you are doing, like you’re doing sexual initiations at the first degree. I don’t hold with that. As far as I’m concerned that is outside the boundaries of what we consider ethical. You also have to be free to say that, but not to go further and say “we don’t consider that it’s ethical to omit outer court training.”
So flexibility, but based on respect?
Jean: Flexibility but based on respect, but also knowing that there will be boundaries. I think what is happening too now which is very, very useful is discussion within email groups and things like that, about what is permissible and what isn’t permissible, and ways things should be handled, like things to do with bringing up your children, and when and what sort of meetings you might include them in, what you should exclude them from and why, this sort of thing. And also what to do with young people who approach you from outside your own families and want to join the Craft or whatever; how do you handle that?
Jean: What provision do you make for children or teenagers, either with the permission of their families or sometimes in rebellion against their families to find out? What do you do? Do you just say, “No, you know, you’re too young, go away,” and leave them to struggle on as best they can, or do you provide some help for them?
Jean: Usually after these discussions somebody will pop up and say well, “I’d like to take that on, I think what we should do is x, and I’m prepared to put my money where my mouth is and try and make a go of doing this”, and maybe then make awful mistakes and maybe find that it’s much harder work than they thought it was going to be and so on. That’s a brave thing to do.
To stump up and do the work?
Jean: To start up and do the work and maybe get it wrong, and then it means it all folds up and someone else starts. It’s this sort of process of evolution, of change.
Perhaps that’s another thing you’d like to see carried forward in an atmosphere of mutual support?
Jean: Yes. If you find that you’ve got somebody in your coven or in the Craft who is bringing it into disrepute or behaves very badly – how the really hard-edged problems of that sort are dealt with.
Supporting each other if something goes badly?
Jean: Yes, I would really very much like to see that developed more in the future.
Do you think that’s a trend occurring more frequently now, that you’d like to see encouraged? That people are encouraged to hive off and get on with creating groups and training more people?
Jean: I think that it probably is happening. We were never that close to other working covens. I think it is happening more now. I think it probably is a good idea to encourage people. I rather gather from talking to Vivianne Crowley that she did that quite a lot. She had quite an intensive outer training course with her Wicca study groups, and then people come to an inner training course, and so she would find herself with more covens than she could possibly run. She sort of set them up. I got the impression that she had her own coven meetings of coven leaders that she had set up and then they would discuss ideas.
So perhaps families of covens?
Jean: And that’s what Madge used to do. I think that’s the best way, yes, families of covens within a tradition.
And perhaps sharing materials, so that you get a consistency?
Jean: Yes, and that’s a good way in which groups can form to share ideas and so on. And perhaps they can coalesce with another family group somewhere that is fairly close to them.
And then perhaps sharing an outer court?
It sounds like a pagan temple arrangement, in which some of the priestly duties would be shared.
Jean: And that way you spread the load of the training, too.
How would you feel about people actually founding Wiccan or pagan temples as such?
Jean: I don’t know. It would be very nice to have a sort of a Wiccan centre. I’m not sure what it would do to have a building. A wood seems a much better idea. I’m not sure that a central working temple quite fits in with my idea of the Craft. But you know somebody having a farmhouse with farmlands around it and some woods would have a great deal of appeal. I love the idea of being able to plant your own circle of cypress trees.
How do you feel about Craft- inspired art and poetry getting out into the public?
Jean: I think that it’s one of the things that gives one of the best ideas of what the Craft is about, seeing the art forms and hearing the poetry and so on. I think that it’s up to the individual whether they want to publish what they have written, and what I have seen is that people move on, like they write stuff that is private for their coven, and then they decide to do yet more, and they think, oh I may as well make that lot public because I wrote it 10 years ago. I think Vivianne Crowley has done this; when writing her first book, she put quite a lot of inspirational poetry and invocations and so on that she had written earlier.
So you see that as a positive development?
Jean: I see that as a positive development. And when Vivianne Crowley talked at the London Pagan Federation conference last February, she read some of her latest stuff – her explorations of the goddess at various times of the year. I found that very moving. I thought there was some really lovely stuff there. I think as far as pictorial arts go, that if people are really artists, they will want to do things and be fairly prolific. They may have things that they keep private, and things they will also put out.
How do you feel about the role of public priesthood? Whom do we serve, and whom should we be serving?
Jean: I suppose it’s in concentric rings. Firstly your coven, secondly your inner circle of friends and fellow pagans, and from there doing your bits for the evolution of humanity towards self-realisation. I don’t think that for humanity as a whole you should present yourself as a priest or priestess – you’re just a human being. Any authority you express is purely what comes through you, not what you status say you have.
So behave as a priest or priestess?
Jean: Behave, but don’t declare yourself as such. Even within the pagan community, don’t declare yourself as a Wiccan High Priestess. That this is your authority for doing x or y. You might be declared as a Wiccan High Priestess for giving a talk or running a workshop, because it’s relevant, but not because you have a divine right of authority over anybody else. Your authority is what you can exert, and is to lead by example and by your own rhetoric and magical personality to achieve things in the outer world. Remind yourself that this is what you aspire to be, and you’ve got to rise to the occasion as it were.
So sometimes put aside your own desires because you’re there to serve.
Jean: That’s right, yes, and put aside your own fears and self-doubts, and get on with it, stick your neck out.
How do you feel about organisations such as Liferites, , who are specifically around to help people who need assistance for funerals, rites of passage and this sort of thing?
Jean: I think that’s fine. I think that’s a good idea. It serves a particular need for people who are diffident at about that sort of thing. We have performed funerals for people and I hope that when I die my friends and coven members and so on will do the same for me, and not have to call Liferites, but I can understand that many people are not in that lucky situation.
Jean: I think a lot of pagans would like a pagan wedding and they are not members of groups, and they don’t have anyone else to call upon and they want someone who has the resources to give them the support they need, I think that’s fine.
So instead of swanning about being a High Priest, go and join Liferites,
Jean: If that’s the work you want to do. If you want to do something of that sort.
If you want to make a contribution, don’t assume authority and play a role, instead get in an organisation where they are doing the work, and do the work.
Jean: But don’t feel you have to get in an organisation to do the work. If that’s what you want to do, and you feel that you want to be that public and open about what you’re doing, and you’re prepared to travel and help strangers do things, then join Liferites, but otherwise, you know, just live your life and remember always that you are a priest or priestess of the Gods.
See part 2.