|Covens, Circles and Solitaries
How does one make the choice between practicing Wicca alone and with others?
Many of us are drawn to the Craft for different reasons. Personally, I'm a fiercely independent person, and in truth one of the reasons I came to Wicca was the option to practice as a solitary witch. On the other hand, group work can be a very rewarding thing - and I know for a fact that what I miss sometimes is a community around me.
We're going to start out by defining a few terms for those who are less familar with Wicca in general. The term probably heard more in popular fiction is "Coven." A coven is a group consisting anywhere from three to 13 witches that practice the craft together. Usually these groups are closed to outsiders (although, like all things in Wicca, there are exceptions to this rule). A coven also usually has a set structure, and many traditions have degrees and some sort of hierarchy.
A "Circle" on the other hand is often an open group that is usually much more loosely defined. Some Circles practice together, while others function more as a discussion and study group. While a Coven is usually composed of a single tradition, a Circle can contain many different traditions. Some Circles are entirely composed of Solitary Practicioners who use it as an opportunity to meet with other Wiccans (and sometimes non-Wiccan NeoPagans).
The biggest challenge one must meet when working with a coven is that you must be able to totally trust the others who you are practicing with. In my personal experience, while I have practiced with others, I've never been a member of a formal coven. There was a period in my life though where I often exchanged energy and worked with two very good friends of mine (who I won't name, as I am not sure how public they wish to make that part of their lives). Neither one of them was a Wiccan, both having very different ideas of divinity, but the one thing we had in common was total trust. It was a safe environment.
I've met Coven witches over the years, and most describe it as a very positive experience. Unfortunately, there are some unscrupulous individuals out there though who also use Covens for personal power, and may try to take advantage of other members. My advice, quite simply, is that if you are starting a Coven or joining an established one, you should get to know all of its members before trying to join it. Frankly, even if they are well intentioned people, if you don't mesh well with them at all, they aren't the right group for you.
One of the disadvantages of working in a coven is the same as doing anything with other people: Coordinating schedules. The group must be able to meet when the members are available to get together. On the other hand, that also means that covens can, frankly, aid to atmosphere. As I said in my essay on Rituals, the point of a Ritual is the emotional response it evokes in the people involved. Through the elaborate ceremony that covens allow, it can be much easier for some people to have that emotional reaction, and therefore empower the ceremony. Spells cast by a coven also have the united personal energy of the whole group behind it, as opposed to just a single caster. If joining an established group, you can also draw upon the traditions they've established. Established traditions fill in blanks for new Wiccans, and it can make life simpler for them.
It also, frankly, can give an initiate a sense of belonging they might not find elsewhere.
Solitary worship can be very different than Coven worship. I've been a solitary practitioner for over a decade, and for many of us, this is the right fit. Solitary practice allows a Wiccan's practices to evolve over time, and is not as strict. While a Coven does have pre-established tradition to draw from, as it is something built for a group of people, it does not change easily to fit the needs of new people. If a Solitary is unhappy with the way a ceremony is written or the way she or he has done something before, the Solitaire can simply rewrite the way it is done. That is not something a Coven Wiccan can do, as they are bound to the needs of the others they work with.
Solitary practice is also, for the most part, more practical. Frankly, established covens are difficult to find for newcomers, and it is much easier to research and begin practicing on your own. In my experience, I have met many more solitary practitioners than Coven witches, and if a new Witch needs to ask advice from another, they're much more likely to find another Solitary.
Working energy can also be easier for many people as an individual as opposed to working in a group. A coven must make their energy work as one, and while this may be easy for many, if a group is in any way dysfunctional or if there are any interpersonal issues it can disrupt the flow. Let's be honest with ourselves; whenever you get more than five people together in a room, there are going to be disagreements. A solitary on the other hand, only has to worry about their own energy. Their energy always works from a single source.
The major disadvantage to being a solitary practitioner is quite simply social isolation. You often feel as though you are the only one around. There is a compromise to this though: the aforementioned Circle.
For a while in 2003, I was a member of a very short lived Circle in Eau Claire, WI. We met once a week at a local cafe, and had regular discussion. As a group, we never performed any ceremonies together, and the group contained several non-Wiccan NeoPagans. It did however provide a nice way to network and meet other Wiccans in my area, where I had been effectively isolated from them prior to my joining.
In a Circle you are still in charge of your own energy, you are in charge of your own worship. While some Circles will celebrate the Sabbats together, not all do. It is a way for people to gather and discuss without tightly bonding to one another.
A Circle can be an open group or a closed group. Most that I've encountered have been open groups. The disadvantage to this, like any other open group, is that anyone can join. Anyone. This includes people who can easily break up newly established groups (as this is what happened to the group I used to be a part of). A closed group though, for better or for worse, can lead to elitism (for better or for worse), and eventually lead to the death of the organization in the long run as well.
There are advantages and disadvantages to all of these situations. No matter what setting a Wiccan chooses though, the important question they must always be asking themselves is whether or not it feels right. In the end, that is the only thing that should be the determining factor. Also, one must never feel that they are locked into a situation. A Coven member can always leave a Coven, and a Solitary can always search one out (or start their own).
The one thing we can't be afraid of is change.