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Long Stewardship

Hilary of Serendip

©2004, Hilary Powers

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T.I. #98, Spring ’91. If this column doesn’t persuade you of the need to avoid religious references in formal Society business, here’s an exercise that may help: take the draft ceremony (or whatever it was you wanted to use) and substitute references from a very different religion for the ones in the draft. Your reaction to the new version will probably show you why the original wouldn’t work in the SCA, either. But remember, this is JUST an exercise; you still can’t use the ceremony even if you like it both ways....


My cousins, we’re trapped in an awkward balancing act. The Society attempts to re-create the most religious era in Western history without taking a stand on religion, and the effort often leads to disputes and questions. No one really likes the situation, but we can’t change it. No matter how completely we immerse ourselves in the Current Middle Ages, we remain children of our own times, that is, of modern democracies built on religious diversity. We come to the Society from many backgrounds, expecting to find its activities acceptable no matter what religion we fol­low—and that drastically limits the range of possibilities. If modern religious diversity were based on equal welcome for all views of divinity, we might well be able to adapt historical religious ceremonies to Society events with reverence and joy...but this is simply not the case.
     For most people, religious diversity is a distant second choice, and always has been. Most New World settle­ments were set up so one religious sect could practice without interference from others. When they formed larger units, I’m sure most colonists felt the world would be a far better place indeed if everyone shared their own views. However, it wasn’t feasible to pick a universal faith, so they opted for tolerance instead—a general agreement not to stomp on each others’ sensibilities too hard. They strung the tightrope we walk to this day, which allows each of us our own faith and requires us to avoid interfering with anyone else’s.
     Modern life involves firm unspoken rules for staying on this tightrope. We practice our religion in the company of fellow believers, and live by its dictates among people of other faiths as best we can without offending them or taking overt offense ourselves. Even those who seek converts are expected to stop if the people they approach request it. At the same time, we relieve some of the pressure built up by this restraint (and sample more vivid forms of experience) by reading stories and attending plays with religious themes. In fiction, characters can proclaim their truths as absolute and carry them out in each others’ blood—while the authors, actors and audience go about their real lives in a quiet and civil fashion.
     The Society occupies a mental borderland between fiction and reality, so we’re often drawn to dramatic excess. Our events aren’t quite real—our names, titles, clothes and forms of speech all distance us from the world where we work and worship. On the other hand, they’re not quite fiction, either—the things we learn and earn and do in the Society become part of us. We care about them far more than about any literary exercise, and for good or ill, we can’t shake them off. As a result, we need to be prepared to apply the restraints of modern life to behavior at events.
     Dramatic excess does work for us in other areas, where everyone can be sure that’s all it is, and agrees to play. For example, it’s easy to see the difference between rattan and steel, so we can indulge our taste for battle and glory to our hearts’ content. We can jest about blood and death, because we don’t expect any real blood and we’re sure our “dead” will bounce up to join the next battle. However, there’s nothing like rattan for religion—the forms and words are much the same whether they’re meant seriously or not. And whether or not they’re meant seriously, the potential for offense is limitless. Light-hearted religious references offend those who feel religion should only be taken seriously, and serious religious exercises offend those who get caught up in them without agreeing with them—and also those who like light-hearted religious theater but don’t want to see religion used in earnest in the Society. The resulting conflicts climb rapidly towards a level of excess that goes far beyond drama.
     This is one case where authenticity can’t be used as a justification. Yes, the ceremonies and documents crafted in our period were full of religious references. So were the gibbets and the stocks. While much of the beauty of our period grew out of its religion, much of the horror grew out of its assumption that spiritual uniformity could and should be maintained by physical force.* We are recreating the Middle Ages “as they should have been”—which in this case means without the tendency to slaughter each other over fine shades of meaning—and the issue is so complex and vexing that we’ve found it neces­sary to develop a policy to keep the peace.
     The Society’s religious policy (given in full at the end of this letter) applies differently in different circumstances, so it’s impossible to summarize its effects in a sentence or two. Here are the guidelines I use to judge the propriety of a given reference:

1. Business. Activities that are “real” in the context of the Society (that is, anything with long-term effects on any person or branch) must be strictly secular. Any reference to religious sanction for such proceedings implies Society endorsement of that religious viewpoint, and thus falls afoul of Society policy. (Court may be dramatic, but it is NOT theater; there’s no “fourth wall” separating royalty and their attendants from the populace gathered to witness the deeds done there.) Calligraphed scrolls commemorat­ing actions of the Society fall midway between official business and literary and artistic efforts. They may include references to deity, but they must not state or imply general or shared belief in the religious system invoked, or say that the deity has acted or will act on behalf of the Society or anyone involved in the events noted in the scroll.

2. Fiction. Plays and stories with religious themes may appear at our events and in our publications. Fiction written in period or on period models is very valuable in the study of historical belief systems, which is specifically authorized in the policy statement. However, the nature of such material must be clearly explained to potential audiences or readers, and people must not be compelled to experience it in order to take part in Society business. In addition, if a branch chooses to explore religious fiction, it must vary the point of view of its efforts, not draw heroes and villains from the same faiths every time.

3. Expository Writing. Essays written from a historical perspective can also enhance appreciation of the period we study, so explicit and implicit religious assumptions may appear in scholarly articles and how-to pieces. However, either the text itself or an editorial note must make it clear that the article is written in terms the author believes a person of thus-and-such time and place would have used, thereby alerting readers to extend the license they give to fiction to that aspect of the work. In addition, officers and royalty may not use this literary device to bring in religious references when they write or speak in their official roles—the SCA did not exist in our period, and no histori­cal personage has anything to say about it!

4. Private Life. Personal religious exercises may take place at events as long as they do not impinge on Society activities and are not announced in ways that imply Society sponsorship. You may gather with fellow believers, but you may not use space needed for another activity, you may not delay other activities by your meeting, and you may not march chanting through the camp or otherwise actively involve the populace. Keep your prayers private. Calling attention to your efforts to gain assistance (or to your belief that you have done so) comes under the heading of compelling people to observe or join your ceremonies and is barred by Society policy. However, modern weddings are permitted under the policy; just follow these standards for personal religious exercises and for avoiding religious references while acting as an officer. Also, remember that the usual rules on garb and deport­ment of attendees apply to everyone there; if that won’t work for your family, you should hold a private historical-theme party at your wedding instead of bringing your wedding to an event, so you can set it up as you please.
     Our record of complying with the Society’s religious policy is far from perfect—if you’ve been around a while, you can probably recall instances contrary to each of these guidelines. However, past errors don’t create a precedent for future indulgence. In a very real sense, we are still making up the Society as we go along, and the things people are willing to accept have changed over the years.
     We must maintain our standards of restraint. It is true that there have been times and places—our period not least among them—where the dramatic approach to religion moved from the stage to the streets. There are such places in the world today, to its ongoing grief. Every moment of every day, our lives literally depend upon keeping our balance above the morass of unbridled religious expression. The tightrope of tolerance has got to run through Society activities, because the ground under it isn’t tenable, even in jest.

*To see how religious distinctions permeated and some­times poisoned the lives of well-meaning people in our period, read The Heretic’s Apprentice, a medieval mystery novel by Ellis Peters. The patterns of thought shown there are by no means as far from the modern mind as we would like to believe of ourselves!

Having no wish to recreate the religious conflicts of the period under study, the Society for Creative Anachronism, Incorporated, shall neither establish nor prohibit any system of belief among its members. No one shall perform any religious or magical ceremony at a Society event (or in association with the name of the Society) in such a way as to imply that the ceremony is authorized, sponsored, or promulgated by the Society or to force anyone at a Society event, by direct or indirect pres­sure, to observe or join the ceremony. However, this provision is in no way intended to discourage the study of historical belief systems and their effects on the development of Western culture.
     Except as provided herein, neither the Society nor any member acting in its name or that of any of its parts shall interfere with any person’s lawful ceremonies, nor shall any member discriminate against another upon grounds related to either’s system of belief.
     — SCA Organizational Handbook

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