DATELINE: TORONTO (AP) May 08, 1988 EDITOR'S NOTE To hear some of them tell it, there are

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DATELINE: TORONTO (AP) May 08, 1988 EDITOR'S NOTE To hear some of them tell it, there are more witches in North America than you can shake a boom at. One of them is an American who emigrated to Canada, a high priest of Wicca who is campaigning for witches' rights. Among other things, he wants a license to perform weddings. By JEFF BRADLEY Associated Press Writer TORONTO (AP) He's a Vietnam veteran who spends quiet evenings watching Cary Grant movies and would like to be reincarnated as Fred Astaire. But Charles Arnold is also Canada's most visible witch, a second-degree high priest of Wicca, the religion of witchcraft. "I don't melt if water is poured over me," says the 40-year-old clerical worker who is campaigning for legal acceptance of his beliefs in both a male and female divinity, the potency of magic and absence of original sin. Arnold began the quest last year when he asked his boss for paid religious leave on the Wiccan holidays of "Samhain," Nov. 1, when witches celebrate the mortality of the body and immortality of the soul, and "Belthane," May 1, welcoming summer, life and fertility. Humber College of Applied Arts and Technology, which employs Arnold in its hospitality office, denied his request because Wicca is not recognized by the Canadian Council of Churches and lacks tax-free charitable status. Arnold protested to a labor arbitration board which upheld his grievance and said: "Wicca is obviously a religion...the modern survival of the ancient pagan religions of Western Europe." But Arnold's victory was short-lived. The native of Washington, D.C., who served a year in Vietnam, became an anti-war activist and emigrated to Canada 15 years ago, had also applied for a license to become the first Canadian witch authorized to perform weddings. In a March ruling, the Ontario registrar-general's office turned him down. It questioned the legitimacy of his ordination and the nature of the Wiccan marriage ritual, known as a "handfasting." Arnold blamed Ontario's Protestant establishment, although Council of Churches official Edith Shore showed some sympathy for the Wiccans. "Christianity was a fringe group when it started, too," she said. Arnold complained that the Marriage Act discriminates against Canada's 5,000 witches by making it a crime, punishable by up to six months in jail, to perform an unauthorized wedding. "They should either license me or do away with the law altogether," he said, noting that Wiccan weddings are permitted in 38 U.S. states. He had to travel to Montpelier, Vt., for his own Wiccan wedding three years ago. The practice of witchcraft is fairly widespread in the United States, but precise numbers are hard to come by. "It's everywhere, every big city probably has a group," says the Rev. W. M. Kent Burtner, a Dominican priest based in Portland, Ore., who studies cults. "I see it basically as a nature religion not associated with Satanism, but that may be skewed because of whom I get to meet as a Catholic priest. It's a write-your-own theology sort of a approach and it runs a real broad spectrum." Lady Sabrina, a high priestess in Nashua, N.H., estimates there are "a couple of hundred thousand" members scattered across the United States, including "a couple of thousand" high priests and priestesses. Starhawk, a San Francisco high priestess and author of "The Spiral Dance," a book about Wicca, largely agrees. "I just had a conversation with someone and we decided that there were between 250,000 and 4 million of us," she says. The 4 million, she explains, would include all pagans. "In any case," she says, "there are more of us than there are Unitarians." Starhawk says many members are underground. "There is a long tradition where it is not safe to be a witch," she says. "We don't necessarily announce it. Many people's jobs would be in jeopardy." Starhawk, an author and lecturer, teaches at a Catholic college in Oakland, Calif. Her most recent book is "Truth or Dare Encounters with Power, Authority and Mystery." Lady Sabrina runs Our Lady of Enchantment, a Wicca mail order school with 6,000 members representing 25 countries. "I have performed marriages and have tax-exempt status, but I only know 12 or 15 others who have tax exempt-status," she says. "You really have to fight to get it." "Many of us in California perform marriages, but here if you go through the trouble to sign the papers and take a blood test, you can get licensed to perform marriages," Starhawk says. "A dog could get the license here." Lady Sabrina, whose church is open to the public on Friday nights, says she never heard of Charles Arnold, but that does not surprise her. "For a while a woman in Salem, Mass., who was picketing the movie 'Witches of Eastwick' became very well known. Since there is no central organization, whoever makes the most noise becomes the most prominent witch." Arnold, a soft-spokeman man with a beard, says he was initiated as a priest in witchcraft traditions dating back thousands of years. Each coven, grove or temple chooses its own rituals and vows. Some covens meet in the nude, but Arnold's group prefers robes. He offered this description of a Wiccan wedding: Inside a magical circle, the male and female divinities are summoned along with the guardians of the four elements air, water, fire and earth. The groom's left hand is bound to the bride's right hand and some choose to draw blood from their skin and touch like blood brothers. Couples exchange rings, bracelets or floral crowns; step over flames for purification and fertility, and jump over a broom to symbolize household unity. Traditional gifts include bread (for plenty), silver (prosperity), salt (health) and wood or coal (physical and emotional warmth). Before the priest pronounces them husband and wife, he invokes the couple "to pleasure one another," Arnold says. "We don't cut sex off from the rest of life. We don't make a big thing out of it either." At the heart of the primitive religion lies the power of the male and female in nature, symbolized by the god usually referred to by the Celtic name Herne, and the goddess known as Cerridwen or Athena or Isis, Arnold said. Wiccans also believe in the mysteries of magic, reincarnation and in celebrating the rites of passage, such as first menstruation and menopause. "We go through life after life to learn and evolve and progress to the point where we rejoin the god and goddess," Arnold says. "Behind them, there is something we can't even identify, the unity they come from." Witches don't go around laying curses on people, and they don't conduct human or animal sacrifices, eat babies or worship the devil as depicted in folklore and comics, he said. But the craft does have a practical side. "I mix up potions and my wife makes some of the finest liqueurs you've ever tasted," Arnold says. "I use wormwood and calendula (a rare herb) in vinegar to take bruises away and lavender vinegar for sunburn." Arnold says he discovered his religion 10 years ago after intuitively constructing a Wiccan altar in his home. A woman he was dating happened to be a witch and was startled to see the altar. Leader of the 50-member Temple of the Elder Faiths in Toronto, Arnold was raised in New Jersey by a grandmother who read tea leaves. "We believe that if you are meant to find the craft, you will," he says. "Many traditional Wiccans think we're growing too fast and this will water down the religion and may actually destroy it." He said covens usually meet on eight sabbaths coinciding with the year's solar and lunar cycles. The average age in his group is 27 and members include a real estate agent, a schoolteacher and a naturopath. "Covens are closer than most families. Members tend to be more imaginative than most people and a little bit eccentric," said Arnold, a published poet and expert on ritual body decoration. "I want to come back in my next life as Fred Astaire. He had class."


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