May 7th 2020
Many of my students often talk about joining or setting up a coven. A coven is a big commitment, and as navigating the process can be a bit of a minefield, this article is intended to help in two ways. Firstly, to help you decide if coven life is for you (it’s not for everyone). Secondly, it’s also designed to help you navigate the process as it stands in the UK in 2020.
There were a couple of fabulous articles written by Thorn Mooney back in 2015 which I would urge you to have a look at too - How to find a Coven, and How to Spot a Terrible Coven. Since the world changes pretty quickly, and Thorn’s article is focused on covens in the United States, this is intended to give you a sense of how it works in the UK. My own path is Gardnerian Wicca, just to give you a sense of my background.
If you are starting at the beginning, also see my previous articles which will help you with context:
I have to say, when I started my journey I was adamant I didn't want to join a coven - I was very happy in my solitary practice. However, over time my opinion changed. Why? I knew if I wanted to deepend my knowledge and my practice, I had to step away from the 'How to' books and find myself a teacher, and that came with the opportunity to work in a group. Since then, I've never looked back, and I learned that there is a place for both practices in my life. My day to day magical work is still solitary, and this keeps me grounded on my path, while the work I do with my group enables me to find a more expansive and enriched practice.
IS LINEAGE IMPORTANT?
In short, yes and no. Lineage allows you to know that the practice that you follow is genuine, and worth dedicating your life to. However, joining a coven is more nuanced than just deciding what lineage you want to join. It also essential that you connect to the people in the group, as well as the tradition they practice. It’s important to note that you can’t establish your own Wiccan or Trad Witchcraft coven without being trained and initiated into a group of that lineage first. That would be like deciding you are a Shaman without undertaking the years of training that are required to earn that title. It’s a form of appropriation, and is disrespectful to the people who have put the work in and undertaken the training. Covens do communicate with each other, so if someone is claiming a particular lineage, then they will be able to produce a vouch for that lineage, i.e. other people in that tradition who can confirm their right to the title.
CAN’T I JUST SET UP MY OWN GROUP WITHOUT ALL THAT BOTHER?
You might decide that you don’t want to undertake training, and you want to just establish your own working group with friends. Just be aware, that book learning will only take you so far. Wicca is an ineffable and experiential oath-bound tradition which can only be taught within the structure of a coven. This means, in its fullest sense, it’s not written down anywhere public. If you have hopes of establishing a future lineage where you will initiate others into your group, you also have a responsibility to them to get properly trained. There have been instances where people have claimed a lineage they do not have a right to claim, which can be devastating for anyone who invests the time to train in that path and then finds out it wasn’t what they thought it was.
WHAT CAN YOU EXPECT FROM JOINING A COVEN?
The maximum size of a coven will generally be 13 members, but most are smaller - any larger than that and it becomes difficult to maintain a healthy group dynamic. Wicca is an orthopractic religion what this means is that we don’t have a written set of rules that will follow – there is no one uniform holy book that we all follow, and we don’t have any governing bodies who rule over the groups (no matter what some people might claim). Each coven operates in its own way according to the will of its members and leaders. Wicca is also an oath-bound tradition. When we are initiated into a coven we take an oath of secrecy, both to our members and our tradition. We also work skyclad, and are groups with mixed genders. If that doesn't appeal to you, then Wicca probably is not the tradition for you. If you want to work in a group of women only, look for a Dianic Group. If you don't want to work skyclad but do want to do ceremonial rituals, you might find that Druidry is more suited to you.
WHAT DO COVENS DO?
Covens will meet in a secret location over the course of the year and practice rituals and magical workings. The frequency of these meetings will vary, but generally they celebrate the wheel of the year (Sabbats). They also meet for a certain number of the full moons (Esbats).
Each coven will be as unique as its members. This means it’s very important that you find the coven that’s the right fit for you - no two covens are alike. Some will practice Wicca with a flavour of different traditions added, for example, some covens follow the northern tradition, while others practice the faerie tradition. It’s worth making sure that you do your research thoroughly before signing up to a particular group. Don’t jump for the first coven you find, because it might not be the right one for you. In fact, sensible groups will put you in touch with other group leaders and encourage you to ‘shop around’ before you commit to anything.
HOW DO I FIND A COVEN?
The other thing to note about Wiccans, is that we are a non-proselytising religion. We do not actively seek new members. If you want to join a group, you will be expected to demonstrate a level of vocation, in other words, this is the only way you want to live your spiritual life, and you feel you can’t not join a group. We are also a priesthood. When we take an oath of initiation, we are dedicating our lives to a life of service which means sometimes you have to put the needs of others and the craft before your own. That might sound unwelcoming. It’s not intended to be, but we will expect you to be consistently called over a period of time (and not just because it’s fashionable at the moment). If it’s the aesthetic that appeals, feel free to continue practicing witchcraft. If it’s the priesthood that appeals to you, then read on…
The first step is to locate your local pagan community. Each area will probably have a pagan community living within it even if it is not immediately obvious. That pagan community will have a more public facing side, so look for your tribe attending public events, such as Pub Moots (gatherings), talks or classes. Look for the community hubs in your area - pagan bookshops are a good place to start. They will probably have a noticeboard which will tell you what’s happening in your area. There’s also the internet - the Pagan Federation is a reliable place to start, and they will have lists of moots happening in your area. By attending these gatherings you will start to meet members of the pagan community in a social setting. Finding a coven is a bit like any other relationship - its best done gradually over time and not to be rushed. It’s important to remember these are people that you will be showing your most vulnerable self to - you’ll be sharing your darkest moments as well as your highs. You need to feel comfortable sharing your secrets with these people and they need to feel safe sharing theirs with you.
WHAT’S THE OATH OF SECRECY?
You will not be expected to take an oath of secrecy until the point of initiation, however its good practice to respect the privacy of the people you meet and only discuss them in general terms with others. If you are not sure, you can ask them if you were allowed to share what they have told you. Not every coven has a public facing-side. Some members may still be working in professions where being made public could potentially damage their careers – we still face a lot of prejudice in public.
RED FLAGS AND GREEN FLAGS
As your coven will be a very important relationship in your life, it’s important that you approach it in the same way that you would if you were meeting a new partner. There are certain red flags to look out for, as well as certain green ones.
For example, Red Flags:
Watch out for his people promising you that they can initiate you next week. Initiation is a very serious commitment, and it takes time and training to be ready for it. The chances are, if somebody is promising you an immediate initiation they won’t be Wiccan, and if it is Wicca you are after, you will need to keep seeking. Other magical groups may well have different systems of training and initiation, but within Wicca it’s expected that you traditionally study for a year and a day before asking for initiation.
Training towards initiation into Wicca is not something you should ever be charged for. While public training is something you would expect to pay for, training for initiation is not. If a coven leader ever tells you that your training for initiation will cost you X amount, run for the hills.
Similarly if any coven leader suggests that you would be expected to trade sexual favours (or any other favours) for initiation, run for the hills again. You’re placing yourself in a position of trust with any group leaders, and it’s very important that they don’t misuse their position or power.
On the other hand, the potential Green Flags might be:
It’s unlikely that the coven leader will formally introduce you to the other members of the coven until after initiation, so there is a certain level of trust that you will need to take that the group is right for you (hence the need for not rushing the year and a day process). You will probably meet all the other members in that year, but you may not know it at the time. This means you are continually being tested and checked (in the nicest way possible) to make sure you are a good fit for the group, nd that the group is the right fit for you.
The other purpose of your year-and-a-day is to prepare you for initiation. You will be expected to have a certain level of knowledge before coming in. How that is managed will differ from group to group. Some covens take an academic approach following a set syllabus of study, while others may have a more experiential approach. It’s important you only sign up to what works for you.
During the course of that year in a day you can expect to meet your contact regularly. This is to make sure that you’re getting the support that you need, and it also enables the group to see (and demonstrate) levels of reliability. A group will quickly get frustrated by a member who is persistently late or absent without a good reason.
HOW DO YOU KNOW THAT YOU FOUND THE RIGHT GROUP?
This is really where you need to go by your intuition. Is the person that you meet with friendly? Are they supportive? Are they kind? Do they help you when you get stuck? Do you feel you can trust them if you have any worries or concerns? Are they able to answer your questions effectively? What does your instinct tell you about that person? Chances are, it will tell you something about the coven too.