In The Beginning…
By Scott Sumers
In May of 1994, Mirika and I were asked to perform a handfasting for some local Pagans. So we got the stuff together, wrote the ritual, and trekked out to Shelby Forest to perform the ceremony. It was a lovely ritual, and there were several people in attendance, one of them being Trudy. After the ceremony, we sat around and talked about Wicca and Paganism in general. Mirika and I were being asked lots of questions about the subject, and we enjoyed talking about it. After a wonderful evening with these people, I asked them if they would like to get together again to talk more about Wicca. Everyone had such a good time so they eagerly agreed.
We began meeting several times a week, mostly just hanging out and getting to know one another. We all got along so wonderfully, and many of them wanted to explore Wicca further, so I suggested we start a coven. But not the traditional coven of a High Priestess and Priest, but a leaderless coven. Mirika and I were the only initiated Priest and Priestess in the group, but we wanted to give the others a chance to learn what it was like to lead a ritual and to teach. Our plan was to have the roles of Priest and Priestess to last only 6 months, with their terms overlapping in order to give each person a chance to work with at least two people. I chose the name Summerland Grove because most of us acknowledged the Summerland as an afterlife stop between incarnations, and Grove seemed more fitting than coven because not everyone in the coven was certain they wanted to be Wiccan. Grove seemed more natural, inviting, and inclusive.
I designed the Summerland Grove logo to represent a Sun rising between two “trees”, which were actually symbols for Mayday and also represented our “Grove”. The rising Sun represented the birth of a leaderless coven, with the silver pentacle representing the feminine aspects of Earth and Moon.
For about the first 8 months, we focused more on ritual instruction, energy work, and divination. In order to effectively lead ritual, everyone had to at least know the basics. After months of training, their final test was to write a ritual, based on certain criteria, and if approved, to perform the ritual for the coven. Most of the coven members presented very good rituals that were pretty much standard fare for the times. However, one of our students, Trudy, who had always thought outside the box, presented to us a ritual based on her favorite cartoon character, Bugs Bunny. At first I was upset that maybe she wasn’t taking this seriously. Mirika took to it right away and loved the idea, however, I believed Trudy was trying to make light of something I held sacred for the past decade. And while the ritual did indeed meet all the criteria for the assignment, the subject of it really upset me. Trudy and I talked at great length about the ritual and she explained her reasoning and trickster theology with me. I was quite impressed with how much forethought she had put into it and how well it really worked out, on paper at least. So I agreed to let her perform it, because that is where the true effectiveness of the ritual would be determined. To my surprise, and only my surprise, it was incredibly well performed and effective. So much so, that we agreed to perform it every year on April Fool’s day. The message and the symbolism fit so well with the holiday and with what was becoming our coven persona. It was one of the most memorable things Trudy ever taught me; to be able to laugh at myself, and with my Gods.
Another year passed and we were now working with other local groups, performing public rituals, and holding weekly open meetings for the community. Then one day, one of our coven members was being threatened to have her children taken away by her ex-husband. One of the reasons stated was because she practiced witchcraft. When Child Services showed up at her door and interviewed her, one of the questions they asked was, “What church do you belong to?”. Without an answer, it looked like her children would be taken away. I will never forget the night the coven sat in Trudy’s living room, watching this wonderful woman crying because she may lose her children. I decided then that I wanted to create a Pagan Church in the Memphis area for people like her. People who need an established church to belong to.
I began researching other churches that I knew about, specifically, the Church of All Worlds (CAW) and the Aquarian Tabernacle Church (ATC). I spoke with Pete Pathfinder and Oberon G’Zell for hours about joining their respective churches. In the end, we chose to go with CAW for many reasons, but mostly because it seemed to allow us to be more of who we felt we were at the time. Thus, we officially became a Proto-Nest for the Church of All Worlds, the Morningstar ProtoNest.
It wasn’t long after that a couple of members of our group began to have issues with our association with CAW. We had many discussions about it, but in the end, it split the group up and we began having problems. I was afraid I was going to lose people from the group, people I considered dear friends and didn’t want to lose. Through my own hubris and ignorance, we began to deteriorate. During that emotionally horrific period, I decided to leave the group, claiming that the group would not survive without me and Mirika. And sure enough, the group never met again.
Because we no longer met the requirements for a Proto-nest, I officially disbanded it, but I still wanted to achieve the goal of having a safe place for groups and solitaires to go to in the Midsouth. I met with a corporate attorney to discuss what it would take to establish a legal church in Memphis. He went through the process with me, as did Oberon and Pete. I sat down and wrote the Articles of Incorporation, with the help of Pete Pathfinder. Then, Mirika and I created our first set of Bylaws based on the Bylaws for the Church of All Worlds. Later, Mirika and I sat down and created the Realm System based on the RING system of CAW. We wanted it to be self-paced and flexible enough for practically any Pagan path.
With all the paperwork filled out, the only thing keeping us from establishing our church was the existence of another board member. At the time, we had to have three people on the paperwork to establish a corporation. Mirika and I did not hesitate in choosing our third party. We had been working with her for almost two years. She was outgoing, intelligent, and we both loved her dearly. So we called Trudy up, told her the plan, and she immediately jumped on! The three of us went to the notary public to sign the paperwork. Mirika was to be Vice-president, Trudy was to be the Secretary, and I was to be President and Archpriest of the church. The position of Archpriest was to make sure that regardless of who held Board positions, the mission of the church would remain the same. We sent off the paperwork, and a few weeks later, in April of 1996, Summerland Grove became the first legal Pagan Church in Memphis. I setup our website, got our PO Box, and developed flyers for our meetings. We were ready to accept members into our newly formed church.
One of my favorite stories involves my title of Archpriest. During one of our board meetings, Trudy lovingly suggested we change the title “Archpriest” to FRA, which stood for “Fucking Religious Asshole”. At first I was somewhat hurt by the suggestion, but the other board members loved it, and I could see how fitting it actually was, so we amended the Bylaws to add FRA to the title of Archpriest. Thus, from that point on, I became the FRA, even though Archpriest is still the official title.
At one of our first meetings, we had membership forms for those who wanted to join our church. It was at that meeting that we met a grinning, pipe smoking, rabble rouser; Grynner. This rabble rouser became our very first official member. Soon, word got out about our church and our numbers began to grow. In the beginning, our membership was free and we had an online application. Everyone who joined would get a membership card, certificate, and welcome letter. Within the first two years we had over 2,000 members worldwide. This became an unruly nightmare and we couldn’t afford the printing and mailing cost any longer. Therefore, we began to charge a yearly fee of $15. This would both help with expenses and keep our membership limited to only those who really wanted to be a part of it.
It was a learning experience for the three of us. Running a church is not like leading a coven, there were differences to be sure. But we supported each other, worked hard, and truly kept trying to succeed in being that safe place for local Pagans. But we needed help. So many members, and only three ministers. Luckily, some outstanding members were eager to progress through the Realm System to become ministers. The first five of these folks, who were going through the Realm System together, were to become affectionately known as the “Rat Pack”. On April Fools 2001, the members of Summerland Grove got a fresh bunch of ministers. Tom, Jeff, Grynner, Lori, and Gaia. With fresh ministers in the mix, we decided to change the organizational structure of the church by adding a Clergy Council, consisting of ministers of the Church, which would be led by our Vice-President, which by this time was Trudy.
With the Clergy Council in place, Trudy suggested changing the Realm System from a mentor based training, to more of a classroom environment. Due to the large number of students, and the limited mentors available, this was a wonderful idea. Trudy slowly began to make changes to the Realm System and eventually it became something she was devoted to.
The church has gone through many ministers and board members over the years, it has changed with the ebb of flow of its local community. We have suffered tragic loss and have celebrated many new beginnings. Our mission has remained throughout, to be a safe place for Pagans to gather, learn, and worship. The one thing I can say, without a doubt, that all the ministers of Summerland Grove had in common, was the sincerest desire to help others.
This April, we celebrate the 20th year of being a legal church. I am simply awed that we have survived this long, with no sign of slowing down. Summerland Grove is an imperfect church, run by imperfect people, in an imperfect world. And that is what makes it the perfect church for me.
December 1st, 2015