Dr Barbara Stuehlmeyer interviews Philip Carr Gomm for Karfunkel magazine.
First of all thank you so much for giving us this interview! Last year, you and many thousand people all over the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of OBOD. Can you just give us a short overview of its history?
The Order was founded in 1964 by a poet and historian, Ross Nichols, who was the Chairman, known as the ‘Maenarch’, of the Ancient Druid Order, which was founded in the early years of the twentieth century. He, and some colleagues, such as Vera Chapman, the founder of the Tolkien Society, wanted to start a new group that celebrated all eight seasonal festivals, and that worked with three schools of teaching: the Bards, Ovates and Druids. This new Order of Bards Ovates & Druids flourished for just eleven years, until Ross Nichols died in 1975. His successor, John Brant, decided to close the Order ‘in the apparent world’ and died soon after. In 1988 I was asked to revive the Order and to put its teachings into the form of a distance-learning course. This resulted in a rapid increase in membership, which over the last 26 years has grown to some 17,000 members who receive the training materials in seven languages. There are 150 groups (known as ‘seed groups and groves’) around the world and the course is published in English, German, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Italian and Czech. Members produce magazines in several languages and a monthly podcast, called ‘Druidcast’, which is soon to reach its 100th episode. We also hold camps and big gatherings in various places – the next one is our international camp at a castle in Germany, followed by our annual summer gathering in Glastonbury.
As Ronald Hutton in his speech on the gathering in Glastonbury last year said, OBOD is a very important part of modern spirituality. What are the key points of the druidic path?
Its key features are a reverence for the Earth and Nature and a love of myth and story. Druids believe that all natural phenomena, from stones to trees and stars, have much to teach us, and that one of our most important tasks as human beings is to get back in touch with the rhythms of Nature, to listen to Her, and to protect Her. Along the path we work with meditation, story-telling, inner journeys, contemplation and stillness, ritual and poetry to deepen and develop ourselves and to awake the ‘Inner Sage’ and the ‘inner Shaman’ within us – at the same time opening to our full creative potential. We study tree lore and stone lore, animal and plant lore, and learn how to perform rituals at eight special times during the year: the solstices and equinoxes, and the Celtic fire-festivals.
Now, as OBOD has started on the next 50 years, what are the most important topics to concentrate on?
Over the last 50 years, and particularly over the last 26 years, we have engaged primarily in three tasks: firstly, we have developed a very comprehensive training programme with much teaching material and a network of over fifty mentors worldwide that helps members develop themselves spiritually and psychologically; secondly we have encouraged research into Druid history so that our understanding of our tradition is now as strong and clear as it ever has been; and thirdly we have explored and published material on star, plant, tree and animal lore related to Druidry. It feels as if now that we have broadly accomplished these goals we can turn to developing ways of service. A spirituality, after all, is concerned with two tasks: developing the Self, becoming Whole, gaining Enlightenment, or however you want to term this, and being of use to the world – being of service. I think we’ve done well with the first aim, and now we can focus more on the second. We already have tree-planting and ecological responsibility programmes in place, but what we are working on now is developing training programmes in the art of celebrancy – helping members develop the skills to officiate at funerals, weddings, namings and other rites of passage. I am sure there will be other ways we can encourage acts of service, but at the moment this is the focus for us.
You are working intensely to offer Druidry as a bridge through interfaith dialogue. How does this activity grow and why are you engaging in this topic?
You know the way today people are having ‘seed exchange’ meetings? They meet up and swap seeds – sometimes just ordinary seeds of plants or vegetables, sometimes rare seeds. That way our gardens can grow and we can maintain diversity and from that diversity comes resilience to pests, and to the vagaries of the weather. I see interfaith work in a similar way. If we live, spiritually and culturally, in a mono-culture – only mixing with fellow travellers, only reading about one’s own tradition, we lose our resilience, and can drift towards a kind of fundamentalism. By meeting and exchanging with people who are following different paths, we swap ideas and experiences and we ‘grow’ our spiritual garden more effectively. We discover that we can enrich our own path. Sometimes we cannot transplant certain ideas or viewpoints, but in other instances we find we can bring more colour into our world and perhaps help others to colour theirs too.
You wrote in the annual review of 2014 that you will lead attention to the topics of liturgy as there are naming, handfasting and rites of transmission in the near future. What can Christians learn from the rites of the druidic tradition?
In Druid rites we draw as much as we can on the imagery and the powers of Nature, and we try as well to avoid as much theology and ideas of doctrine and dogma as possible. Perhaps this can be of some help. I know one Christian group, the Forest Church, which is a growing movement of Christians who worship out of doors in natural settings, has been inspired by Druid ritual. Perhaps there are others.
Have you learned something from the Christian liturgy?
In my experience, there is a tremendous beauty and power in much of Christian liturgy, but I also find much of it hampered by an old-fashioned feeling – as if a church service is a sort of ‘historical re-enactment’ that belongs to a different age. Nevertheless, the centuries of tradition and the beauty of the language, music, art and symbolism within Christianity I find very uplifting, and it would be wonderful if that level of aesthetic sophistication could be present within Druid ritual too.
What relevance has music in the druidic rituals and meetings?
When musicians are present at rituals and meetings it always enriches the experience. They represent the Bardic stream of Druidry, and stream is a good word to use because they seem to bring a current of life-giving energy that flows into the event, uplifting and inspiring us. I would like to encourage more singing and more music-making in our meetings.
You are intensely studying religious sources and texts; I remember for example your quotes of the church father Jerome or of Pope John Paul II, concerning the body, in your book ‘A Brief History of Nakedness’ – what sort of reaction did you get from those theologians who should know those texts as well?:-)
A number of church people wrote very favourable reviews, including the Dean of Brentwood Cathedral, and Christian priest and author Mark Townsend. It was even briefly mentioned in the Church of England newspaper The Church Times.
Certainly you have heard about the new theory from Julian Spalding, that the megaliths of Stonehenge would not have been used for ceremonies at ground level, but would instead have supported a circular platform on which ceremonies were performed to the rotating heavens. What do you think about that?
I like it because it is provocative and new, but I don’t think it is likely as an explanation. Stone circles are found all over the world, and none of them has ever been associated with a platform raised above it. But who knows? It is worth considering every theory.
In your interview with Damh for Druicast you mentioned your new book. What are you writing about?
I am writing a story based on the real lives of two figures who lived in Brittany during World War Two: the clairvoyant Geneviève Zaepffel and Abbé Henri Gillard, who built a church dedicated to the Holy Grail just by the forest of Brocèliande. I was told that Geneviève took a German officer as a lover during the war, and the story is about their affair and about the strange way in which the Abbé’s project was mirrored by Himmler as he built a grail temple in the SS castle at Wewelsburg. Its provisional title is ‘In the Shadow of the Grail’, and one of my aims with the book is to explore the relationship between idealism, cruelty and fanaticism – to ask questions about human nature and destiny.
Thanks for your time!
Dr Barbara Stuehlmeyer