Non-Hierarchy in Covens

Photo Oxfordian Kissuth

Photo Oxfordian Kissuth

I was discussing hierarchies with a friend of mine last week: where the ideal of the nonhierarchical group comes from, why it usually doesn’t work, what women mean when they promote the idea of the nonhierarchical coven.

In my experience the woman with the most urgent need for a “nonhierarchical” women’s group, and the type of woman who promotes the idea most emphatically, is the woman with highly controlling tendencies who is uncomfortable with her need to control and wishes to change. She will declare the group “nonhierarchical” and proceed to run it, insisting to herself and others that there is an equality of leadership. Needless to say, this is a recipe for a series of power struggles down the line.

The other type of woman who emphatically promotes the concept of a nonhierarchical group is the highly controlling woman who finds herself in a group where another woman is in charge. If she perceives this woman as a strong leader she will accept the situation or go elsewhere; if she perceives her to be a weak leader she will attempt to wrest power without admitting to herself or others that this is going on. “Non-hierarchy” provides a means of self deception. Usually other group members are under no illusions about what is happening, but since they do not hold power in the group they remain silent and resentments simmer under the surface.

The nonhierarchical controller commands a women’s spirituality group in a number of subtle ways. The first controlling gesture is to declare the group nonhierarchical without discussion. No group can be nonhierarchical without a common understanding of what this means and a discussion of the pros and cons of this arrangement. The nonhierarchical controller also decides what is nonhierarchically to be decided and what is just the natural correct way for the group to flow. Another classic way of controlling the group is for the non-leader to be habitually inflexible about her schedule, expecting others to bend and accommodate when arranging meeting times. Of course, job schedules, parenting, and other responsibilities often dictate the amount of flexibility a woman has, but maintaining inflexibility about scheduling is still a common way of asserting dominance. The non-leader will often control under the guise of “taking care of my needs.” It is true that we all have the responsibility to assess and assert our needs, but if a group is habitually adjusting to the needs of one particular person, that person is running the group. In a truly nonhierarchical group, members sometimes have to put their own needs secondary on minor matters and make compromises. This brings up another telling characteristic of the nonhierarchical controller: there are no minor issues. If another member challenges a point or seeks to do something a different way, the nonhierarchical leader digs in her heels and argues for her way. When she inevitably wins the point, she tells herself that she is not dominating, but in the right.

Once the nonhierarchical controller has decided the meeting time, the place, and how long the ceremony will be, she characteristically stands back and asks for group consensus on how the directions will be called, where the altar will be, which deities to invoke, and other details. The problem with this arrangement is not so much that one person is running the show, but that there is deception around what is happening: a person cannot control a group outside of the formal ritual structure without holding the energy in ritual space as well. In this situation there can be no equality, only dishonest leadership.

The root of this challenging dynamic is not really with one particular personality, no matter how controlling. Where there is strong leadership in place, the woman with a high need to control will either accept the situation or go elsewhere. The core issue is that humans are herd animals, who like any other herd animals do not function well outside of hierarchical structures. Only in a limited set of situations do nonhierarchical power structures work. Where there is no clear leadership, stronger personalities usually step in to fill the vacuum, sometimes causing the group to suffer as they jockey for position. In large groups a more stable form of supposedly non-hierarchical control will sometimes be established by unacknowledged agreement. This happens in some social activist groups where power on the basis of economic or educational background is consciously eschewed, only to be replaced with a power system based on political correctness.

In my observations, I have found the covens in which a nonhierarchical structure works best to be those which are small, those which are all women, those in which all members are willing to do an equal amount of work, those in which all members have known each other for some time and get along well outside of coven activities, and those in which all members have a similar amount of experience doing magical work. There’s a lot of ifs here; the stars have to be exactly right. If the coven is strongly dependent on one woman, rather than many, a truly nonhierarchical situation cannot be established. This would be the case if one woman has a great deal more experience, if the group believes they cannot function without meeting on property held by one particular woman, or if one woman holds prestige that the group relies on for attracting new members or holding power in the larger religious community.

Must a women’s spirituality group be nonhierarchical? Our ideal of this type of group is usually based on the early Neolithic matriarchies, where based on the size of houses and the distribution of grave goods it appears that resources were more or less equally shared. For those of us today who have only known a world of class-based patriarchy, these matriarchal societies can easily be characterized as nonhierarchical. But perhaps we should re-examine this assumption. In the matriarchal aboriginal societies that have survived into historical times, there is always, to my knowledge, a clear structure of leadership. One man explained it this way: “We are led by the old women, because they listen to the people and can tell the chief about the desires of the group.” This provides some insight into the nature of the problem. Perhaps we need to stop promoting the abolishment of hierarchy and instead examine better group power structures and models of leadership.

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