Poles apart

Head to head Should we still celebrate pagan British festivals like maypole dancing? Lead the way, says white witch Kate West. God forbid, says the Rev Paul Harris
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Indy Lifestyle Online

"Paganism has had centuries of bad propaganda, sometimes church- led, which is based on fear and ignorance. But it was here before the Christian church, and a lot of Christian ceremonies have been appropriated from pagan ways. Yule, for example, is the time pagans celebrate the rebirth of the sun. This was taken over by Christians as Christmas, and used to celebrate the birth of the son. Paganism is a nature-based religion, and our festivals often celebrate the changing of the seasons. May Day is our way of celebrating the renewed fertility of the land and the marriage of the God and Goddess, which is where the tradition of choosing a May Queen and King comes from.

Unlike Christianity, we don't need an intermediary to intercede with the divine for us, because we're each our own priest or priestess. One of the reasons paganism is becoming popular is that people are moving beyond the stage where their spirituality has to be led. Whereas in the church people are told that there is only one true way, we believe that as long as there is no harm done, nobody has the right to tell others how they should worship.

People talk about us tampering with Satanism, which is a fictionalisation of our beliefs. I have had more people coming to me who've had damaging experiences involving the Church of England than involving paganism. Every group has bad apples: I would no more say, `All Christian ministers are paedophiles,' than I would expect them to say that all pagans are Satanists. To the established churches we're a threat. By advocating freedom from a hierarchical priesthood and placing importance on personal responsibility, we're removing the churches' power-base. We're putting priests out of business."

Kate West is vice-president of the Pagan Federation. She will celebrate May Day - or Beltane - by feasting and dancing


"I can understand why paganism is popular; it has an appeal to people who want to have their cake and eat it - to be able to have a bit of religion but without really any responsibility. It's concerned with people 'discovering themselves', it's superficial and self- centred. Christians believe that there is a way to live that involves more than just passively respecting others, but also actually responding to responsibilities. We're not divorced from the big issues in life such as loving your neighbour as yourself, what's going on in Kosovo, man's humanity to man.

Centuries ago, paganism was left behind and people embraced Christianity partly because they wanted to be free of fear and superstition. The newer religion recognised a need to celebrate the seasons so the old ways were Christianised. So when Pagans say their festivals have been appropriated they're partly right, but what they're trying to prove from this I don't know. Just because something's been there the longest it doesn't mean it's the best.

You may find Christians dancing round the maypole, which is no harm in itself, but it becomes very difficult if there are prayers to pagan gods or pagan symbolism involved. Some people say, 'Well, can't we just mix elements of paganism and Christianity together?' But that really does strike at the heart of our belief - the God we believe in is not a God among Gods. This is very different to Paganism, which embraces a bit of everything - Eastern mysticism, Jungian psychoanalysis, feminist spirituality. As a belief system it's very lightweight. There's a phrase sometimes used about it, which is that it's very much a 'pick and mix' religion - what often happens is that people pick and finish up mixed-up."

The Rev Paul Harris works for the Evangelical Alliance, and will not be celebrating May Day

Interviews by Fiona McClymont