There are many jokes within the Wiccan community. For example: How many witches does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: It depends what you want to change it into. But perhaps the funniest Wiccan joke I ever heard is this:

What's the difference between Wiccan and New Age? Answer: one decimal point.

If you haven't spent a lot of time around New Agers or Wiccans, you may not get this joke. But if you have ever forked over hundreds of dollars for a seminar at a growth center and then, a few months later, went to a Wiccan event where all you did was bring the candles or the wine, you start laughing.

Every religion has to struggle with the issue of money. Should money be charged for instruction? Is it good to have a paid clergy? What price--if any--should be charged for educational programs or ceremonies? If your religion requires initiation rituals as part of the process of becoming a member of the clergy, as does Santeria, Voudoun, and much of Wicca, is charging for those ceremonies appropriate? Is there a problem when you make your "living" from your religion? What are the benefits and pitfalls of doing that?

In this culture, so dominated by the notion that money is the only measure of success, it's easy to lose sight of real values.

Earth-based religions have many different traditions regarding money. In some cases, Santeria and Voudoun initiates must pay for the initiation ceremonies that can cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars. But English-based Gardnerian Wicca, which has influenced more Wiccan groups than many would like to admit, starts with a written law: You shall not teach the craft (Wicca) for money. Whether Gardner made it up, or whether there is tradition behind it, this tenet confronts anyone who comes across a Gardnerian Book of Shadows.

When I was first initiated as a Gardnerian in 1973, I remember taking those words to heart, believing that they helped safeguard my religion from corruption. It seemed that Gardner had reformed or created a religion that worked very well in small settings, a religion of living rooms and lawns, not of churches. This law about money kept the religion small and decentralized.

But even in this system, money created problems and controversies. A few--not all, by any means—-of the people who ran pagan and Wiccan shops, while providing an important and necessary service, could occasionally be more concerned with making money than with practicing the religion. The stores became gathering places for the pagan community, and the owners, often big fish in a small pond, became arrogant, believing that their small world was the larger reality.

Only months after I entered the craft, I attended a ceremony in London led by the famed Alexandrian priestess Maxine Sanders. She charged 50 pence (about $1) for the ceremony and another fee for a class in psychic instruction that took place afterward. A new member was initiated at the ritual I attended. I was new in the craft, and, like most newcomers, rigid in my views. When I went to the London gathering, I remember being in shock; charging money seemed a violation of everything I had been taught by my teachers. In fact, during that time, the 1970s, many Wiccans were outraged at Gavin and Yvonne Frost, Leo Martello, and others who were charging for mail-order witchcraft courses.

But times were changing. Some leaders, like Isaac Bonewits and Zusanna Budapest, argued that Wicca would never get the leaders it needed nor create seminaries that could train good leaders if a paid clergy did not emerge. At one Oregon gathering, Budapest got up and said that priestesses must be paid if they were to be respected. It was such a forceful speech that, all during the festival, people would come up to the various workshop leaders and give them money. I remember a moment when a woman put a $20 bill in my jeans pocket. I felt very uncomfortable.

Today, perhaps unfortunately, we live in a different world. High school students trade stocks, and talk of money is always in the air. Wicca is entering the mainstream. There are Wiccan seminaries and training courses. Some of them, like the Cella training program and Reclaiming's Witch Camps, have been around for years, and reviews from participants are extremely favorable. Festival prices have risen, although most don't begin to approach New Age levels.

Most people in Wicca and other neo-pagan religions such as reformed Druidism are making their own rules, compromises, and distinctions--and trying to live by them. In my own life, I have decided that it is perfectly fine to accept money for a lecture on paganism and earth spirituality, or to lead a paid workshop at a growth center, but it is still unacceptable to take money for leading a coven or performing an initiation.

I have taken favors for doing marriages (once I was given a painting), but usually not money. I think it is perfectly acceptable for someone to charge for a tarot reading, but not for introducing someone to a specific Wiccan tradition. It's a fine line, and I am not always sure that the distinction holds up. I also realize that I can make this distinction, partly, because I do earn my livelihood as a journalist. I choose to believe that having one foot in spirit and one in matter is a good thing, but I often waiver.

Certain things seem disturbing. I have noticed a tendency for some psychotherapists to charge money for goddess circles as if they were group-therapy sessions. Goddess spirituality is not therapy, although it may have therapeutic results. I have also noticed a tendency (borrowed straight from New Age teachings) to describe money as "energy," a neutral force that can be used for good or ill. While there is a certain truth to this idea, it's hard to get around a more basic reality: In this culture, so dominated by the notion that money is the only measure of success, it's easy to lose sight of real values.

Earth-based religions are founded on the idea that the earth is sacred, and it's hard to escape the thought that our society's belief in constant growth and market value shows human weakness not strength.

This tension over money may really be a battle over whether we are simply another religion, or whether we are part of a worldview that takes a stand against the current money culture. Should we be among the "ins" or the "outs"? Is part of our mission to be a critic of society and to put forth a more humane vision of the world, or is our goal to "fit in" and be respected by those other religions--the big boys?

There are pagans who work for dot.coms, and there are pagans who marched against globalization and the WTO in Seattle. Sometimes they're the same people, which is why it's complicated. The money issue may only be a symbol of a deeper struggle.

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