In the time since Paganism began its journey toward more mainstream acceptance in the mid-50s, so much growth and change has taken place.  Newcomers to Paganism, or even those established solitaries making their first step into the larger community, can be overwhelmed in a sea of terminology and structure that it can be hard to make sense of.  Understanding just exactly what a tradition is and how it fits into a person’s spiritual life is certainly no exception.

Very often, the Pagan tradition is compared to the Christian denomination.  In many ways, the comparison is apt, as there are many parallels between the two. Both traditions and denominations serve to more narrowly define a specific sub-set of the broader religious path they are connected to. In other worlds, traditions describe specific types of Paganism and/or Witchcraft, and denominations describe specific types of Christianity.

In the case of both traditions and denominations, the members of each come together around shared sets of beliefs, practices, and perspectives. When you become a part of a tradition, you are not only saying that you are a Witch or a Pagan, but you are going a step further to specifically align yourself with the unique beliefs, practices, and perspectives that give your chose tradition its identity.

Just as a denomination may house many different types of members—large churches, small congregations, individuals who wish to worship alone, etc.—traditions may also house a variety of members on a variety of different paths. While some traditions are coven-based and only house members who are affiliated with covens, most are home to a combination of covens, groups, and solitaries.  All of these people make up the “extended family” of the tradition.

The biggest differences between traditions and denominations come into play in terms of the level of active participation expected of the members. In the Christian path, it is generally acceptable to be a part of a denomination through affiliation alone. An individual can claim, for example, the Presbyterian denomination, simply because their beliefs and viewpoints align well with the Presbyterian philosophy—whether or not they ever do anything to actively participate in the Presbyterian community. On the other hand, in terms of a tradition, mere affiliation alone is generally not enough. No matter how well his or her beliefs may align with the tradition, an individual could not claim membership in, as another example, the Alexandrian tradition, just because it suits his or her style.  An individual can only become a member of a tradition by taking part in the rites and procedures required by that tradition, and maintaining active involvement in that tradition. On a smaller scale, but to the same point, it is not at all uncommon for a member of a Christian denomination to claim membership in a church of that denomination, but rarely attend—and this is fine with the church. However, in a coven practicing within a tradition, the general expectation is that all members will be present at all gatherings of the coven.

The general spirit of a tradition tends to be much more intimate and connected than that of a denomination. An initiatory tradition creates an initiatory lineage that traces how and by whom each member came to be involved in the tradition. This lineage very closely resembles a family tree, which is somewhat appropriate, because in many ways a tradition behaves very much like an extended family.  The members in a tradition tend to be much more connected and involved with one another than the typical members of a Christian denomination…with the “nuclear families” (covens and other groups) and individuals regarding one another almost like cousins, who keep in touch, reach out to one another, and come together from time to time at “family reunions” (tradition gatherings). A tradition’s lineage maps out spiritual ancestry, revealing that tradition’s shared history and connections. This sense of spiritual ancestry, and being a part of a spiritual family that is chosen, generally leads to a stronger sense of bonds between members than the more anonymous affiliation that exists between members of a Christian denomination.

Structurally, traditions can be wide and varied.  Some are based on a training system and degree program, while others may be based more on a sense of community.  Certain traditions may be heavily ceremonial and secretive, with very specific and oath-bound rituals marking passage through each stage of membership, while others may have a more egalitarian membership structure with very few ceremonial steps.

Ultimately, while the comparison between a tradition and a denomination can help us begin to understand what a tradition is, it does not go quite far enough in fully describing what a tradition is. What is important to remember is that while a tradition does more narrowly describe your personal set of beliefs and practices, there is much more to it than that. A tradition is more than just a label. It is also a living entity, which can both provide nourishment, and is also in need of nourishment. It is a community that you are now a part of, full of members who you are now connected to.  Your tradition membership is about your individual path, but it is also about a commitment that you have chosen to make, and so it should be meaningful to you on a personal level. Your affiliation with a tradition comes with the expectation that you, personally, will actively take part in that tradition, and not just pay it lip service.