Around the Motherhouse Blog

ACTION Interview with Jade River

Yule 2012 interview with Jade River in ACTION (the official newsletter of Alternate Religious Educational Network).

Re-formed Congregation of the Goddess—International
Interview with Jade River
By Christopher Blackwell

We hear from time to time about the Dianic Tradition in Wicca, it has quite an history of its own so it is sometimes interesting to talk with some of the people and some of the groups that are in involved with it. I heard of the Re-formed Congregation of the Goddess—International and asked Jade River if she could tell us about it and the women’s spirituality movement in the midwest. She was kind enough to give me time for this interview.

Christopher: First could you give us a bit of back ground about yourself?

Jade: I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky in a fairly functional family. There were two major influences in my teens and early 20s…music and my uncontrolled empathy.

I am a singer. I sang in school choirs, several folk groups and even had a regular spot on a teen television program. The ideals of the music I sang (racial justice, peace and freedom) formed the basis of my values. These were divergent from a majority of my community. But, the music carried me forward into places different from my family and neighbors.

The second influence was what drew me to the Craft. The women in my family were psychic. This did have a degree of usefulness and practical functionality. They knew when someone was arriving unexpectedly, a general level of communication with each other and a multitude of other skills from the mundane to the exceptional. Each of us had our own areas of strength in this realm and like my Mother and Grandmother I too carried this ability.

Despite the fact I came from this family of gifted women, no one ever talked about how to harness this skill. These abilities were clearly not a secret, but it seemed my Mother and Grandmother used their capability with aplomb. I, on the other hand, was overwhelmed with information. Instead of trying to increase my psychic skills, I was looking for a way to turn it down. I knew the craft taught psychic skills and I hoped to find others who could mentor me.

Christopher: How did you find your way into Wicca?

Jade: In 1975 I was an unhappily married suburbanite. I had done exactly what I thought was expected of me…got my degree, married well, bought a house, got a dog, got a job, and had a baby. Despite following the conventional formula for happiness, I was miserable. I had been an active Girl Scout from grade school through college and worked every summer at camp until I married. I used to wonder if all the other “grown up” Girl Scouts were also living somewhere in suburbia and feeling as dismal as I.

A bright glimmer among the tedium occurred when an old Girl Scout friend called to tell me she was going to be in Louisville. She also announced with some bravado that she was now a lesbian and asked if that would cause any problems. She said, “I’m a lesbian.” I said, “I’m a liberal.” and that I would be glad to see her. I was soon to discover where many of the grown up Girl Scouts had gone. They were part of the lesbian community. It did not take long for me to realize I was also a lesbian.

I left my husband with lightening-speed and my new love and I stepped together boldly into the women’s movement of the 70’s. Within the lesbian community there were women who called themselves witches. I sought them out and pestered them with questions. Eventually, they told me they considered “witch” to be a political identification and had no idea what the spiritual connection was. They did, however, know of some “real” feminist witches in Ohio and networked me to them. This group in Cincinnati became my first coven.

Christopher: What started your interest in Women’s spirituality?

Jade: The coven I joined was a feminist Dianic group. Z Budapest had made the connection between the oppression of women and their empowerment through magic. My coven, although well intentioned, didn’t really know how to do ritual or celebrate the holydays. However, armed with Z’s book, then called The Feminist Book of Light and Shadows, we set out to make magic.

I don’t believe any of us knew there was a “mainstream” pagan movement at that time. Feminist Craft said you were a witch if you said you were three times and then thought about what that meant. According to that declaration we were all witches and we began, along with other feminists, to build Dianic tradition.

Christopher: What was the Pagan community like back then in your area?

Jade: My first experiences with pagan community were in Kentucky. This was before the internet when just finding other pagans was a challenge and, at times, scary. When we did find someone we would first meet in a public place just in case the person was unbalanced or an evangelical Christian.

I met a Gardnerian who set off her smoke alarm during the only ritual she shared. I didn’t know what a Gardnerian was, but that didn’t keep me from snickering about the smoke alarm. After that she was not to keen on showing me more. I have to say that I did not seek out the mainstream pagan community. Dianic Wicca was insular, consuming and self-perpetuating. The numbers of women identifying as Dianic was growing and as far as I knew, we were all lesbians.

With my move to Wisconsin in 1982 I came into a much larger and diverse pagan community. There were many options for practice in and around Madison including the emerging Re-formed Congregation of the Goddess.

Christopher: What was Of A Like Mind?

Jade: In 1978 I attended a conference called Witches and Amazons in Columbus, Ohio. Several friends and I drove to the gathering in a panel van loaded with beanbag chairs for seats. A woman who had traveled to the Amazon in search of amazons spoke, as did Z Budapest. The conference was inspiring and I was exhilarated to be surrounded by other feminist witches.

When we crawled back into the van I announced to the women on their beanbags I thought I knew how to organize for the Goddess. They scoffed because I was always organizing something. I told them I was serious and that if I just had a little money I thought I knew what needed to be done.

When I walked in my door at home the phone was ringing. It was my Mother calling to tell me that my Grandmother (who I loved, but with whom I had a tremendous values conflict) had just died and left me a 2.5-carat diamond ring, a mink stole, some nuclear power plant stock and a little cash. Having just said, “If I had some money I would organize for the Goddess.” and having inherited things which I judged urgently needed transforming, I took this as confirmation of the work I was supposed to do.

As I waited for probate to close I evaluated my situation. I did not think I could organize in Kentucky. Life there was difficult for a liberal, and even dangerous for a lesbian and a witch. I needed to find a more hospitable location. I was surprised to discover that Wisconsin was the only state in the United States where being a lesbian was protected by law and that there was a large pagan community in and around Madison. So, in the fall of 1982, with the money I got from my Grandmother, my 9-year-old Son, my Partner and I moved to Wisconsin.

I had heard a quote from Gandhi that said something like: “If you want to build a movement you need to have a press.” Taking Gandhi’s advice, I decided my first step in organizing for the Goddess was to begin a newspaper.

After arriving in Wisconsin, I began to look for women who could help me start the paper. I thought I needed 3 people, one who knew about printing, one who knew about writing and one who knew about photography. However, soon I met Lynnie Levy. Lynnie had a degree in printing, a degree in photography and a few years earlier had been in graduate school in English. I talked with Lynnie about my interest in starting a newspaper for spiritual women. She readily agreed to work on the project.

I again took this as a sign I was on the right path. We named the newspaper Of a Like Mind and the first issue was published in Oct. of 1983. Of a Like Mind was a newspaper and networking resource for women in women’s spirituality and the Craft. At the time Of a Like Mind began it was the only publication about women’s spirituality. The paper contained not only articles, but also extensive networking information that allowed women to find and make contact with each other.

Margot Adler says in Drawing Down the Moon, “In 1983 Jade (River) and Lynnie Levy began publishing Of a Like Mind, which quickly became the most important magazine of the women’s spirituality movement, and remained so for years.”

Christopher: How and when was Re-formed Congregation of the Goddess formed? Anything unique about it?

Jade: Soon after beginning Of a Like Mind Lynnie and I started working on incorporation papers for a legal women’s religion. My “day job” was as a nonprofit administrator. I believed there was a way to honor the anarchistic nature of women’s spirituality and still qualify for the benefits of organized religion. Doing research about acknowledged religious structures in the United States, I found one of them to be “congregational.”

The basis of the congregational religious model is that the members have enough in common to be considered a religion, however, each individual and even group within an organization has autonomy. Thankful for the religious dissenters who fled to this country and allowed this system to be recognized, we decided “congregation” was the correct name for a group of anarchistic feminists.

Eventually, we chose the Re-formed Congregation of the Goddess—International (RCG-I) as the name for this newly formed organization. Here’s how our early information described the reasoning behind the name.

“Our name was chosen to reflect the matrifocal origins of women’s religion. Women’s religion and culture are not new. They were once prevalent throughout the world, and within them women’s religion provided a structure for women’s spiritual beliefs that validated women’s experience. In the course of the past 2000 years, as belief in the great Goddesses was replaced with patriarchal religious choices, the option for women to express their spirituality in a woman-centered way was lost.

Our name acknowledges this is not the first time women have recognized the need to express their intuitive and spiritual selves in a supportive structure with other women. We are not beginning to find each other for the first time, but are re-membering and re-forming the ancient congregation of the Goddess.”

Incorporation is the first step in applying for tax-exempt status and in early 1984 the Congregation became a legal entity in the State of Wisconsin. Lynnie and I worked for months on our application for tax-exemption. When it was finally completed we mailed it off to the IRS with some trepidation, but in Sept. of 1985 RCG-I became the first feminist religion with tax-exempt status and, in fact, one of the earliest pagan organizations to hold this recognition.

Christopher: What can you tell us about the first Dianic Wiccan Conference and when did RCG-I begin to have other well-known women in the women’s spirituality start taking part in workshops.

Jade: Dianic Wicca has never had a point of centrality. Z had written The Feminist Book of Lights and Shadows and feminist witches carried it home and began their practice. Most Dianics had only sporadic contact with each other at festivals and women’s gatherings. We did not know each other. One evening I curiously asked Lynnie what she believed other Dianics thought. Without pause she answered, “Why don’t we get them together and ask them?” In that moment, the Defining Dianic Wicca Conferences were born.

These conferences were organized as colloquiums. We selected 16 topics to be discussed in two conferences in 1986 and 1987. The topics included things like the relationship of Dianic Wicca to healing, ritual, feminism, divination, The Goddess and other related topics.

In the fall of 1986 the first conference took place. About 70 women attended the 4-day event.

Probably the biggest surprise for us was that heterosexual women came. Up to this point, I had never known a heterosexual Dianic, but they were there at the first conference and have been and continue to be a part of the Dianic tradition. It was an amazing gathering full of dialogue, engagement and enlightenment. What we found was that Dianic Wicca had developed differently in different areas. It was an amazingly resilient organic tradition that had evolved to meet the varying needs of diverse communities.

After the first two conferences the discussion was not complete. There was, however, an adjustment of direction. The name of the conference changed from Defining Dianic Wicca to Developing Dianic Wicca.

In all, there were 7 years of Dianic conferences. The exchange at these gatherings helped solidify and quantify what it means to be Dianic. Although there is still more diversity in Dianic Wicca than in many traditions, the Dianic Wicca conferences were an influential element in forming the tradition.

Over the years, many well-known women who had an association with Dianic Wicca attended these events. Authors, artists, healers, guardians and ritualists all found their way to the conferences. Among the attendees were, Z Budapest, Shekinah Mountainwater, Patricia Monaghan, Diane Stein and many others who were or have become well known in the women’s spirituality community.

Christopher: What to you is the most important thing about Dianic Wicca for a woman?

Jade: Most of us have been raised in a culture that does not acknowledge women as sacred. In fact, many traditional religions believe that women are responsible for the fall of “man” from grace. This lack of representation among divinity along with the burden of a cosmic guilt trip is a pejorative reaction to women from male dominated religions. Even in many mainstream pagan traditions women are not allowed to conduct ritual without a man until they reach a certain status.

Women need to have space in which they are not held to the standards of patriarchal culture that devalues women’s work, lives and spirit. When women circle with other women they tell each other truths they do not speak in mixed gender groups. In Dianic Wicca, women can find and revere the sacred in themselves. I strongly believe that without an underlying change of religious structure there can be no lasting change in our culture. Dianic Wicca is a part of this change.

Christopher: What other events did you reach out to and take part in?

Jade: I’ve presented workshops at numerous events and festivals. Many of them were within the scope of the women’s spirituality movement. Womengathering, The National Women’s Music Festival, Goddess 2000, and the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival are a few of the better known.

People are sometimes surprised to find I’ve presented at many mainstream pagan events too. Starwood, Pagan Spirit Gathering, and COG Merry Meet are some of them. One of the workshops I presented “Everything you ever wanted to ask a Dianic, but were afraid she’d bite your head off” was always well attended by both women and men who were curious about Dianic tradition.

Christopher: How and why did you come to publish To Know: A Guide to women’s Magic and Spirituality?

Jade: To Know was published in 1991. In the ‘90s women’s spirituality was still emerging as a choice for women. I found through Of a Like Mind, and the festivals I attended, that women repeatedly asked the same questions. The answers to these questions became To Know. The book explores the beginning of the women’s spirituality movement, the thealogy and practice of women spirit, and perhaps even more important, at that time, where could one find women to practice with and what to expect if you did. To Know is out-of-print, but one can frequently find copies on used internet book sites or used bookstores.

I am also the author of the three curriculums used by the Women’s Thealogical Institute (WTI), in its self-directed training programs. Additionally, I wrote Tying the Knot: A Gender-neutral Guide to Handfastings or Weddings for Pagans and Goddess Women. It is a pagan wedding planner which includes everything from why one would choose to have a handfasting to how to tell your Grandmother your pagan. Here’s what Patricia Monaghan says in her review of Tying the Knot. “Magical and practical at once, ‘Tying the Knot’ should be first on a couple’s list of required wedding items. --Patricia Monaghan.” Both the WTI curriculums and Tying the Knot are available on the Congregation’s website.

Christopher: When did RCG-I start chartering other circles under its umbrella?

Jade: The Congregation received umbrella status in 1991. Since then RCG-I has chartered 10 Circles. Not all of them are still in existence, however, these Circles remain the largest coalition of pagan women’s religious groups in the country.

Christopher: How did you come to be ordained by Z Budapest as a Dianic Elder Priestess?

Jade: I have never known what criterion Z uses for choosing Priestesses to ordain. I think it might be potential and/or merit. Z was planning the Goddess 2000 festival. Z called me several months before the gathering to ask if I would accept ordination as a Dianic Elder Priestess. She said she knew the Congregation had already ordained me, but she wanted to ordain me as a Dianic Elder. I have always considered Z to be a primary inspiration for my work and it seemed appropriate for me to recognize her influence in my practice and for me to acknowledge my connection to her lineage. So, at Goddess 2000 I became one of about a dozen women who have been ordained by Z Budapest.

Christopher: What is a day at the Re-formed Congregation of the Goddess like? What does it offer, what events does it have and how can women learn more about?

Jade: It’s hard to describe an average day at RCG-I. The administrative offices of the International Congregation have been housed in its “Mother House” in Madison, WI since 2000. The Mother House is also home to several Madison based Circles of the Congregation, two WTI groups, a weekly craft circle (as in knitting, quilting, etc.), a Goddess Women’s book club, a Bardic Circle, a divination night and She Sings a Goddess Women’s choir. Rituals and Deepenings are held quarterly.

The Congregation’s largest events, and one of the best ways to get to meet the women of the Congregation, are its two annual gatherings. Since 1987 RCG-I has sponsored the Women’s Thealogical Institute (WTI). WTI is a 6-year self-directed training program that for some women leads to legally recognized ordination. Having ordained 39 Priestesses and with nearly 100 graduates WTI is the oldest and largest school for Goddess women in existence. Each year ordinations are held at the Gathering of Priestesses and Goddess Women the third weekend in May.

The Hallows Gathering is held the third weekend in Oct. Both of these events are held at an indoor group camp in Wisconsin Dells. Further information about activities at the Mother House, WTI and the Gatherings are available on the RCG-I website.

Christopher: What plans, hopes and dreams do you have for the future?

Jade: There are almost 3300 members of the Congregation. They are from every state and all the territories in the United States, all of the provinces in Canada, most English speaking countries and many non-English speaking countries as well. I see this as only a beginning.

It has always been my hope that a growing number of women will become aware that a religion that holds women as divine exists and is an option for their spiritual practice. Each woman who comes to know herself as sacred is like a pebble dropped into a pond. The ripples from that woman reach out to touch many others.

Learning to see our sisters and ourselves as part of the divine changes the way we think about and view each other. It may be that those around her do not always know what is different, but a “Goddess Woman” carries with her a deep sense of being one with the Mother, the planet and other women. She understands men are women’s children and she approaches all humanity with compassion. I imagine a world where our daughters are raised to believe they are whole, sacred beings, and in which Goddess temples welcome us again.