For Richard Thomas, a priest on the Anglican bishop of Oxford's staff, witchcraft is not to be feared or hated but to be understood as 'an emerging faith community.'
Thomas, who is the Oxford diocese's director of communication, has spent three months meeting practitioners of Wicca, or modern pagan witchcraft, and attending their rituals.
Christians may be alarmed by the sound of groups with names like the Children of Artemis, but Thomas stressed that Wiccans had a 'deep sense of spirituality and care for the sacredness of creation.' He said in an interview with ENI: 'They are 150 per cent committed to how they live their lives.'
The project is part of Thomas's work for a master's degree under an award by the archbishop of Canterbury, known as the Lambeth system.
Rod Thomas (no relation), spokesman for the Church of England evangelical movement Reform, told ENI: 'Richard Thomas's studies may well be of wider use if they enable Christians to relate to those who hold pagan beliefs in a more informed way. We hope the outcome of his studies will enable us to be more effective in conveying the good news of Christ to those who hold pagan beliefs. If, on the other hand they do not do so, or worse, seek to compromise the exclusive claims of Christ, then they will have been counter-productive and the time and money will have been badly spent.'
Support for the study project came from the bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, the Church of England press office said.
Richard Thomas said Christians often made assumptions about pagan rituals, and this led to a clouded picture. 'For dialogue to take place it is necessary to proceed from a position of humility and understanding rather than from a position of arrogance or fear.' Wicca was partly to be understood, he suggested, as an alternative to what its followers saw as 'the imperialism of organized religion.'
Thomas was keen to dispel several myths about paganism in Britain: he said it was not a middle-class movement, or a reaction against Christianity or a form of New Age beliefs. He added that Wicca 'is about the invocation of spirits and affecting others through magic and ritual.' But he stressed that 'Wiccans are required to do no harm' and that the effect of their actions 'must be at least morally neutral.' He pointed out that Christian prayers were another way of trying to produce a benign effect on other people.
Asked whether formally studying Wicca amounted to treating it as equivalent to world faith systems like Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism, Thomas said: 'I make no judgement on the objectivity of its claims, but I could make a strong case for Wicca as an emerging faith community.' He saw no conflict between his ministry and his chosen area of study: 'I feel this is something that God has called me to do.' The church would benefit through his being a link with the pagan community, he added.
According to the Children of Artemis's statement of beliefs, magic is 'an intrinsic part of this world, a completely natural and neutral force.' Its Web site, www.witchcraft.org, quotes the Wiccan saying: 'An [if] it harm none, do what you will.'
Thomas's research was supported by a 1000 pounds sterling (US$1600) bursary from Ecclesiastical Insurance Office plc, a company with strong Anglican connections. Maggie Vinson, Ecclesiastical spokeswoman, said the churches needed to 'listen and learn' from other cultures. Bursaries were offered to help that process.