How would you describe your personal religious beliefs and identity?
I consider myself a Pagan, which means my beliefs are essentially animistic. I believe that there is a divine spirit in the universe and that it permeates the rest of the universe and that it touches and communicates with all other living things it in. I don’t consider myself a nature worshipper, but I do believe that all living things, humans, animals and plants have a spiritual identity and are connected to the divine.
Would you identify with any tradition within Paganism?
I am an initiate of the Craft, of modern day Witchcraft, which other people refer to as Wicca, I would call it ‘The Wicca’. I a member of the surviving or revived remnant of the witch-cult of Western Europe.
Was this a tradition with which you were brought up? What made you decide to adopt or retain it?
I was brought up in an open family. My parents were Christian, my mother was quite a churchy sort of person. I did go to church. But I suppose I did a teenage rebellion thing, I just found that the church wasn’t very spiritually satisfying for me. I felt that if God was anywhere on a Sunday morning he wasn’t in a dusty building, he was out in the fields or somewhere. And then gradually, through finding the right people and the right books, through my formative teenage years I became aware that what described me best was Pagan.
Would you describe Great Britain as an equal and a tolerant society, especially in relation to religion and belief?
I don’t think it is. I think it aspires to be, and what makes the UK one of those countries which some other places look at with a degree of envy about the freedoms we enjoy. But I don’t think that most of the population in this country has an appreciation of how their freedoms compare to that of other countries, and I think that makes us a bit complacent. I think that there is an attitude of ‘if it doesn’t affect me then I’m not bothered about it’. And I have been worried about some recent trends of people trying to impose their views on others. And the recent political climate has been a stir up of the pot, and has brought to the surface some worrying xenophobia and bigotry. To those of us who consider ourselves as part of an open and decent society it has been a bit shocking to discover that those elements are a bit more widespread and extreme than we thought.
How easy is it for you to live in accordance with your beliefs?
I think I’m lucky, because I’ve got a job where being a Witch and a Pagan is not a problem. I work for a Heavy Metal record label, so if anything it is almost a bonus. They come to me with some of their artwork and ask what does this symbol mean and does it have some occult significance? I’ve been lucky that my work colleagues and family are very tolerant. My mother has been very supportive that I have any kind of spiritual calling. So I consider myself very lucky personally, by and large I don’t encounter the kind of bigotry which I know that other people do encounter. And I think that has helped me to do what I do, and be part of the Pagan community and help other people stand up when necessary. I am a member of the interfaith council, I am on the Nottinghamshire SACRE and I’ve kind of involved myself in, not so much being an activist and fighting causes, but standing up for what is right when it needs to be done.
Are you aware of any particular problems or challenges which the Pagan community as a whole encounter?
I think that misunderstanding is still there, I think that there is still a stigma to Paganism. And that is still perpetrated by the media. But in my time of giving interviews to the media, I find that the questions which get asked, the silly questions are not in quite the same vein as they used to be. They used to be ‘Do you drink blood and sacrifice children?’ now they are ‘Do you take all of your clothes off and jump over bonfires at Midsummer?’ so equally silly questions, but there is a kind of perceptions of Pagans from the media, that has shifted in a positive or at least a less negative direction. Maybe in any community there is a tendency for people to want to be included. Pagans have lived on the margins for a long time. Of the Pagans I know, not all of them want to come into the mainstream, but most are very glad and grateful to be in a position where I suppose people like me are getting appointed to positions and influences mainstream society. I have been in the House of Lords a couple of times in recent years, and those have been opportunities that perhaps wouldn’t have been accorded Pagans previously.
What was it that took you to the House of Lords?
It was mainly a social thing, I was invited by Lord Laird as someone said that he had a friend whom he ought to meet as I was quite interesting. He wanted to put together an opportunity for people who think differently from each other to get together, because he is convinced that our society and even species will only survive if we don’t think all of the same things at the same time, and explore differences and are willing to change. And I thought that that was quite a worthy thing.
Are you aware of any legal rules which cause problems for the Pagan community at present?
I’m aware that there are rules about religious artefacts……..I’m aware that we are not the only sector. Sikhs carry knives but witches certainly do use a ritual sword or dagger, we call them athame. And there are rules about how you may or may not carry them. Information goes in both directions. I am quite good friends with a guy called Andrew Pardy, who is President of the Police Pagan Association. He and I are quite active in getting this information out to people, telling them how to behave so that they are within the law. The law is basically that if you can demonstrate to the reasonable satisfaction of a police officer that the reason you are carrying a bladed weapon is that you are on your way to or back from a religious ceremony, in which both you and the item have been involved, and also that you are carrying the blade in a way which is neither concealed nor immediately brandishable, then there is no suspicion that you are on your way to commit a crime. I quite like that sort of stuff, the way that we can sit down and interpret the law in a way that people can understand and comply with.
Do you think that the Human Rights Act and an increased aware of human rights has been a positive thing for our society?
I think that it has absolutely been a positive thing. Not that the Human Rights Act is perfect, but it has certainly brought to the fore in people’s mind what human rights is all about, and the idea of how we live with our neighbour.
How do you feel about religious groups having some exemptions from equality and discrimination legislation?
Difficult question. In principle I think I believe in total equality, in practice it is more complicated. It’s a matter of measure, there is scope for permitting people on religious grounds to behave in ways which might not be to the absolute satisfaction of the rest of society’s idea of equality. But by and large I think that we live in a democracy, and if a law has been passed we should abide by it and we don’t like it work to change it.
Do you think that living in a democracy is positive, is there any form of government is one which you would prefer?
Personally I think that leaders should be accountable to the people, and that is the foundation of democracy and should be the foundation of the society we live in.
Do you believe that you have a duty to vote?
Yes, I do. I believe that you have a responsibility to your fellow creatures around you, to take care of their interests as well as your own. If we all acted selfishly, lots of people and animals on this planet would suffer a lot. So I do believe in looking outwards and having a say in the society you are in. I wouldn’t force people to vote however, and imprison them if they chose not to.
Do you think that it is a problem that members of the House of Lords have a role in making and changing law, even though they are not elected?
Yes, I do think it’s a problem, more on a pragmatic level than as a point of principle. I don’t really object to the idea that someone might have an unfair privilege over someone else, but I do believe that with privilege comes responsibility. And I believe that religiously as well, I think that the further you get along the path the more humble you need to be, and the more responsible you are to the people around you. I think that some people in the House of Lords haven’t felt the need to do that. I would support the idea of more elected peers without a doubt.
How do you feel about the Lords Spiritual?
I don’t have a problem with Church of England bishops but it would be a more representative of society as a whole if other faiths were represented. Of the people of faith in Britain, nearly all of them are Christians. And the statistics do show that, we are essentially a Christian society, but that doesn’t mean that just because the majority is one thing that the minority should be ignored, they should have a proportional voice. And of course the other thing is that we live in a secular society, many of the people who describe themselves as Christian are not active in going to church or practising their faith.
How would a group like Pagans without a hierarchical structure select representatives?
That is difficult, Paganism is a broad term for a variety of different paths and faiths. We have a Pagan Federation which was established by Wiccans like I am, and a lot of people within the Pagan community don’t like the Pagan Federation because they view them as being a Wiccan elite. I don’t know how the Pagan community would elect somebody if there was going to be an election like that, or how you would restrict the ballot papers to Pagans as is less than clear how you define a Pagan. I’m sure that there would be some way of organising an election, but it would take some thought.
How do you regard the fact that some decisions which affect Great Britain are taken by EU institutions and the devolved assemblies in Wales and Scotland?
No, if you peel back our skin we are all pink, and just because there is some historic boundary between my country and yours it makes us different I think is a nonsense. I have no problem with taking part in a global community, provided that we can find a framework and for me the framework would have to be a democracy. I would have like to see us remain in the European Union and I would have liked to see that spread to be a global union of human being and animals and plants. But I recognise that that is a bit idealistic. It’s not pragmatic, it is over the top idealism, but it’s how I see it. We live in a global society and we should govern ourselves with an eye to the global dimension of our existence.
Have you ever felt so strongly about an issue that you have wanted to campaign on it? If so, what did you do, and why?
A few years ago, Nottinghamshire County Council wanted to build what they called an Orbital Loop Road, when I read about it, it was in my favourite part of the woods where I grew up and developed my own personal Paganism, and they were going to put a horrible great road through it. I got involved with a local guy who was not a political activist either, but was rambler who felt very strongly about it. The bit that got me, was when I discovered that quite a few of the people whose houses were going to be purchased to enable this road were major shareholders and executives on the board of Tarmac, whose company stood to benefit from the contracts for making this thing. It just stunk. So I campaigned, and ended up in the Council House in Nottingham watching the democratic process take place, whereby all of the Tories decided that they were going to all vote together, because they couldn’t bear to lose a vote to Labour, regardless of what the issue was. And the Labour lot didn’t want to vote at all for fear of losing. They kind of all got together and agreed that when the guy who proposed the motion that the Orbital road should be stopped stood up and said his piece, if nobody seconded it wouldn’t have to be debated and there wouldn’t be a vote and nobody would have to lose. I was quoted in the Nottingham Evening Post saying that it was a mockery of democracy. I am proud that I campaigned and managed to get enough attention to demonstrate that what was going on was wrong.
And I have just done it again on behalf of our local Pagan group. We have had discussions that we would like to demonstrate our solidarity with the protesters in Standing Rock in the US, over the pipeline which is going ahead. We wrote them a letter and had some nice contact back, so I suppose I am being politically active there. But it was again a cause which I felt that people would want to take up.
In your experience of dealing with public authorities, do they show an appropriate level of awareness and respect towards Pagan beliefs and needs?
I think that broadly speaking they do. There is a willingness to engage with faith communities, and us as a very fringe faith community. Most human beings, including Councils respond in kind when spoken to reasonably and logically. I am a big supporter of the police, I have found that in any case where there has been any kind of contention, there has been a willingness to talk and find a common sense solution. My experiences are largely positive.
And you said that you were on the local SACRE
Absolutely, it was through my friend who has just finished his term as Pagan Federation President, but he said that all you have to do is write to them, and ask why there wasn’t a Pagan representative. And it was. They said that there was a co-opted chair and they voted me in.
Is it important to you always to act within secular law, or are there circumstances which justify or even necessitate breaking human made law?
Yes, there are. I think the preservation of life is a reason to break the law. If I thought that one human being was about to cause harm to another or a group of others, then I would do so. I would do the right thing and then throw myself at the mercy of the law and hope that it would defend and protect me. But I haven’t had a circumstance where something so extreme has happened, but that is my belief as to what I would do if faced with.
Do your beliefs require you to speak out for third parties facing injustice, especially if they are weak or vulnerable in some way?
Yes, they do. Absolutely.
Do you think that the Rule of Law is applied equally to everyone in society?
I think that there is corruption of a form at all levels of organised society, so it is a question as to how we can manage something that we can’t eradicate. In a Pagan or Witchcraft understanding, how can be ensure that the minimum amount of harm is done to the maximum number of people. I don’t think that any particular segment of society is targeted in an organised way, but I do think that when you get any group together there tends to be a ganging up to represent the views of the majority group.
Is there anything on this topic which you would like to add?
I think what I would like to say is that the nature of the way in which religion has been practised by human beings has given religion a bad rep. And I think that the same is true of the law, it is the humans that are the problem. The humans who administer the rules are more a problem than the rules themselves. The moral compass which people have when encouraged out of them in a spiritual way, rather than an authoritarian way, is that the instinct of people is to be good and kind. So I think that religious people generally have a more positive outlook on their fellow human beings than others, and for that reason I think that spirituality and developing the human spirit is vital. Or at least not stifling it. So I would oppose any regime with stifled people’s freedom to experiment with their religion and the non-physical aspects of life in our reality.
Ashley is a trustee of the Doreen Valiente Foundation and a director of The Centre For Pagan Studies as well as being a media spokesman on Paganism on behalf of a number of local and national pagan organisations. Ashley is an initiate of the Wica, gives talks and lectures on the origins of Paganism and the history of Wicca/Witchcraft and is an active participant in the Pagan and wider spiritual community.