After spending time with some witches, Rev Peter Laws believes the Church has been guilty of misunderstanding what they believe and practise
Thirty ministers in training are sitting in a lecture room at Spurgeon’s Bible college. I’m one of them. The air is fizzing with tension. People stare in shock at the speaker; a few shake their heads at this respected scholar. One of his Old Testament tomes is on our required reading list, yet he’s just also told us that he owns a set of tarot cards. It’s the sort of comment that makes the air hiss. Somebody’s pen is slowly clicking on and off, on and off.
He pulls a tarot deck from his bag. ‘The cards have a surprising amount of Christian symbolism in them,’ he says. ‘I sometimes take them to psychic fairs…they help me share my faith.’ He opens the pack and then says something that makes the pen clicker stop dead. ‘Pass them round.’
They’re average-size cards. They aren’t glowing. There’s no demonic hum. But he hasn’t exactly asked us to just shuffle for Pontoon. He sets them softly on the first desk and something fascinating happens. Several students lift their arms clean off the table. Some scrape their chairs back. ‘There’s no way I’m touching them,’ says one. Another mutters, ‘This is so dodgy.’ When the pack lands in front of me, I can feel the sympathetic stares. It’s like I’ve been handed a loaded Kalashnikov.
I shrug and put the tip of my finger on the pack. There’s no spark. I pick them up, turning them over in my hand. It turns out there are Christian symbols on them. But that's not what sticks with me for the rest of the week. Or frankly what has stayed with me in the decade since this incident. What lodges in my mind is the fear. There were complaints afterwards. Colleagues said a satanic power tool had no place in a Bible college. It was, they said, a spiritual contaminant.
It’s not the first time I’ve smelled this fear. When I first became a Christian, I joined a church in Buckinghamshire. One of the congregation said local witches sneak into the back pews of the church, ‘To pray to Satan for the destruction of Christian marriages.’ Another time I noticed a strand of audio cassette tape, snagged on the fence outside church. ‘That’ll be the witches,’ someone said. ‘They record satanic messages then they wrap them round churches.’ According to some Christians, witches hate the Church. They want to bring it down. The only sensible response for a Christian who encounters a witch is to run away.
The witches I meet don’t come across as Church destroyers
Only it’s hard to run when you’re sitting with one in a canteen and she’s offering you a glass of red wine.
I first met a witch at a secular academic conference, one decade after the tarot card incident. I’m at Goldsmiths University, London exploring the bleak but fascinating topic of demonic possession. Psychologists, sceptics, historians and mediums take turns at the lectern, giving their opinions. Most say it’s psychological, others aren’t so sure. I speak to various delegates afterwards, which is when I meet journalist and author Lucya. She’s also a practising witch. She didn’t look very witchy. I ask her if she believes in demonic possession. She says, ‘I’m sceptical about Satan possessing people.’ And when I ask her why, her answer throws me. ‘Because witches don’t think Satan exists.’
In the months after this I start a mini-quest: I’ll ask witches directly what they think of the Church. I quickly discover that what witches think of the Church might be different to what Christians think they think. It is tricky to define the word ‘witch’. Like the word ‘Christian’, it’s a hefty umbrella that covers many perspectives. Most that I meet call themselves Wiccan, which is a relatively new movement in paganism, first introduced in the 1950s. Wicca was recently cited as the fastest-growing spiritual identification in America. I meet a few who prefer to call themselves pagans or druids, yet I notice they all roll their eyes at the charge of satanism. Witches don’t claim to worship any evil entities, never mind the devil. Evil, to them, isn’t even an organised force in the universe.
They don’t tend to believe in the Christian God either. Their deity is ‘the creative force that fuels the universe’. It has both feminine and masculine properties, which is why they often talk of the ‘god’ and ‘goddess’. I chat to them about Jesus and they don’t try to stab me. They say they like Jesus. They believe he is my way of connecting with the same energy they are connecting with.
The witches I meet don’t come across as Church destroyers. I tell some of them about witches supposedly sneaking into the backs of churches to pray down marriages. Some laugh and think I’m joking. Most shake their heads with a sad despair at what they call misinformation. ‘We respect all faiths,’ they say.
Witches have a seriously bad press
Some Christians might argue they’re lying. Others might say that even if they’re not lying, they’re still worshipping Satan without realising it (and they might say the same of Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus). Whatever the case, I’ve realised that connecting mainstream witchcraft with conscious worship of the devil is fuelled more by horror films than reality.
Witches have a seriously bad press. On top of silly comedy stereotypes (turning people into frogs), there are also some horrifying real-world accounts. In Uganda in 2015 there was a reported rise in child human sacrifice, all at the behest of the so-called witch doctors. These are deadly serious issues. And what about those books and testimonies of people who claim to have been raped, abused and hounded by witch cults?
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There are often groups of Christian protesters outside pagan/witchy events, and they will thrust pamphlets and religious tracts into the hands of passing attendees (sometimes while telling us to repent or burn in hell!). I have no problem with, and actually enjoy, learning about other people’s beliefs. But if one of us offers to give said protesters a leaflet explaining what we are about (nature-based spirituality, acknowledging the changing seasons, our horned god representing the male principle in nature, not the Christian devil, and so on...) often they will recoil in horror and are not prepared to take our literature in return for their own.
In responding to these legitimate questions, we need to be cautious. Not all ritualistic abuse claims are grounded in reality. It is irresponsible to assume claims are always true. The Satanic Ritual Abuse scandals rocked America in the 80s and early 90s but many of the cases have been discredited. Official investigations produced no evidence of satanic conspiracies or widespread ritual abuse. If you look up Satanic Ritual Abuse in textbooks today, you’ll often find it listed under the title ‘Moral Panic’. When I mention alleged cases of abuse to witches, they’re quick to warn me against lumping Wicca in with extreme and literal versions of satanism or devil worship, which are very different belief systems.
What About Spells?
One of the reasons why the witches I meet are so shocked at claims of abuse is because they say that in witchcraft, committing evil is forbidden. Spells must always be for the benefit of others and must never cause harm. They believe in ‘the rule of three’ which means whatever energy a witch sends into the world, it will return threefold. Basically, it’s wiser to keep spells nice.
A witch I met for coffee last week told me about her 94-year-old granddad who was ill in hospital and about to have bowel surgery. Worried for him, she took a twig from her apple tree and bound it into a circle, thinking positive thoughts towards him. Then, to show a release of energy, she let the circle undo itself. That was it. No goat’s-head mask, no sacrificing a milkmaid on an altar. I’m almost disappointed. What strikes me is that I’ve done something similar myself. During prayer, I’ve held a leaf in my hand and let it be a connection point between me and the divine.
I’ve learned plenty more in my chats with witches. Some meet in covens but many don’t. The majority of them believe in reincarnation, heading for some sort of heavenly enlightenment. But what’s particularly interesting is when I ask about their first-hand experiences of Christianity.
When Witches And Christians Meet
Some screw up their face when I ask them directly about the Church. One witch tells of discovering her faith while she was at a church school. She was shunned. History repeated itself decades later when she picked up her own daughter from her church school. ‘At the gates nobody would speak to me. They wouldn’t even look me in the eye.’
I ask if any of them used to go to church, and a few say they did. ‘So what did witchcraft offer, that Christianity didn’t?’ Some of them take a while to answer this. I can tell they don’t want to offend me. ‘When I was young, the Church couldn’t care less about ecology,’ one of them tells me. ‘I had a passion for nature and recycling long before it was trendy.’ She says the Church dismissed her interests as tree-hugging and irrelevant to Christianity.
Some took issue with how God was presented. ‘You’re obsessed with God being male,’ one woman said to me. ‘The church I went to had zero interest in the feminine character of God. That stuff matters to me.’ Another says their local church presented Jesus as weak. ‘They talked about him like he was a pushover.’ Plus, Christianity seemed obsessed with the negative. Lucya tells me something startling. ‘I went to a church school and I’ll never forget our first art class. The nuns made us draw pictures of the damned being tortured in hell. They said we need[ed] to get these images into our head.’ I post on Twitter that I’m looking for witches to interview for a Christian magazine. People from outside the Church message me, saying it must be a prank. Others think it’s an elaborate Christian ruse to get witches to identify themselves. One of the witches I spoke to is warned off me by her pagan friends. ‘Don’t do it,’ they say. ‘He’ll twist your words.’ A bestselling author tweets me a picture of historical witch hunts. It’s a woodcut of burning women. ‘That’s what witches think of the Church’, she says.
This fear of the Church isn’t a shock. After all, Exodus 22:18 makes it pretty clear: ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’ (KJV). Kill them, basically. Now we know that Old Testament law doesn’t apply in the same way anymore, but do they know that? Don’t forget – the witchcraft community has their own history of being abused, tortured and murdered by Christians. When some Christian friends hear I’m meeting with witches they think I’m being crazy. Reckless, even. Both sides seem to be full of suspicion and fear. Yet, the leaders of pretty much every major denomination talk about the significance of ‘inter-faith dialogue’. But does that include witches? I’m not saying we can’t challenge their theologies. But shouldn’t we know what they believe first?
I can’t see Jesus running screaming from a room if someone passed him some tarot cards. After all: ‘God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline’ (2 Timothy 1:7, NLT). Jesus had a habit of walking across the room and meeting people where they were at. He wasn’t afraid to share God’s truth with people, but he also listened and was unafraid to connect with the world. There’s a pagan community out there. The stats say it’s growing. Will we run squealing for the hills? Or will we try listening instead, just as they might listen to us? If we find out what they think first-hand, we might find they’re not as scary as we imagined. And in turn, they might find out that we’re not quite as scary either.
REV PETER LAWS explores the spiritual side of horror at www.theflicksthatchurchforgot.com. He writes a monthly column for The Fortean Times and preaches regularly. @revpeterlaws