Gardnerianism is one of the oldest of the modern 'denominations' of the Old Religion, also called Wicca, Witchcraft, or simply The Craft (not to be confused with the movie of the same name). It is system of rituals and theological concepts which have been handed down from person to person in a direct line from Gerald B. Gardner. Gardner was an Hereditary Witch in at least three differing systems in England, and the rituals he is often held to have assembled were his best attempt to pass on the knowledge and concepts of his Hereditary paths without compromising the oaths he took. So while our rituals may have been put together by him, they were constructed specifically to impart far older concepts and theologies.
What are those concepts and theologies? First and foremost, Gardnerianism uses its rituals to open up its adherents to the Mysteries. Put simply, the authors’ understanding of these Mysteries are is that all things are connected, all things together make up One Thing, and that One Thing is Divine. We are part of that Divine, as are the animals, the trees, the rocks, the sky, the stars, the earth, the universe itself. This is a truth which can be stated, but must be experienced to be truly understood. Once you know them, you know them, and can see them everywhere all around you. And if you don't understand the Mysteries, no amount of having someone simply tell you these things will give you that understanding.
The Gardnerian system is only one of many, many systems which can provide the experience of the Mysteries. Since one of the most important aspects is the experience, Gardnerianism keeps its rituals secret from those not Initiated into Gardnerianism. In this way, each person is given the opportunity to find for him/herself what the ritual experience means. We don't tell people what they will experience, neither do we tell them, afterwards, what that experience meant. Rather, we explore together, using the basic 'language' of our shared rituals, what the nature of the Mysteries are.
The means by which this important secrecy is maintained is through the taking of an oath before the Gods. In this oath, the new Initiate promises not to reveal those details of tools, rituals, names, etc. which are specific to the Gardnerian Tradition and which are its particular way of expressing the Mysteries. However, the concepts which are expressed in those rituals are freely discussed - we simply don't use specifically Gardnerian examples to do so!
Since the Mysteries are such all-encompassing realizations, we have to break them down to discuss them meaningfully. The first division that Gardnerians use is that of God and Goddess. Simply put, the Goddess is the Mother who brings Life, and the God is the Horned One of Death. Goddess is the Moon, God is the Sun. Goddess is Earth, God is Sky. It is through Their union that all things come into being, and it is Their union which creates the Whole which is the Divine. Therefore, the idea of creative union is central to the understanding of Gardnerianism. This is polarity, the idea of opposites in creative and harmonious union. It is the same concept expressed by the yin-yang symbol. Two halves come together to make up something which is greater than the sum of its parts. Gardnerians use the archetypal images of male and female union, but we do not claim that this is the only union possible, nor do we claim that an individual person must engage in that union to be Gardnerian. All that is necessary is that you understand the concept, and are able to see it as beautiful, and are able to work with that concept within a ritual context. In other words, one's sexual preference has nothing whatever to do with whether or not one can be Gardnerian.
We view our relationship with the God and Goddess as a reciprocal one. We need Them, and we give to Them, and, in equal measure, They need us, and They give to us. We do not see the Gods as 'out there' somewhere. Rather, the Divine is within us, and we are in the Divine. This is not a 'psychologizing' of religion. It is a non-dualistic way of looking at all that is. The trick is to realize that the Gods are as separate from us as they are a part of us. And to be able to hold both those truths simultaneously.
Which brings us to the idea of non-dualism. This is a way of looking at the world which realizes that, though separation is necessary, it is an illusion made necessary by the fact that we are working in the field of Time. We both are and are not separate from everything else in the universe. This is another importance concept in Gardnerianism.
Gardnerianism uses the cycles of nature and the symbology of nature to express the Mysteries. We honor the earth and respect all life on it. We understand that we are a part of the natural cycle, and know that what we take, we must return in equal measure. We understand that all life lives by the death of something else, and so we honor the sacrifice that enables us to live, and we acknowledge our own debt of sacrifice to the Gods and to the world. Therefore, we strive not to fear death, but to accept it as the natural part of the cycle that is it, knowing that as we partake of the joy of living, so we must also partake of the sorrow of death.
Gardnerians have a basic acceptance of the idea of reincarnation, though exactly how that is perceived is a matter left up to the individual. What this means is that we acknowledge and work with the idea of the cycle of life, death and rebirth. We know that if we are going to live, then we must also die, and if we die, then we must also be reborn. We see this clearly in the cycles of nature all around us, and since we are not different from nature, the same is true of us as well.
We celebrate eight yearly Sabbats, both to rejoice in the cycles of nature, but also to participate in them. We feel our oneness with everything very strongly, and so our efforts turn the seasons as much as the turning of the earth on its axis. We and the earth are one, therefore what we do, the earth does, and vice versa. We also join in ritual on the Full Moons, and at other times if necessary or desired by the coven members.
We accept and understand the working of magic. We define this as using our connectedness to the All. After all, if we are all One Thing, then affecting the weather is as simple a matter as raising our hand. It is the connection to our hand that give us the ability to raise it. Likewise, it is realizing that connection that enables us to work magic. Of course, there are limits, natural laws, the Way the Universe Works. We can't go against these natural laws. There's no twitching of the nose and making a lollipop appear! But we can shift weather patterns so that it rains here rather than there, because weather moves and rain does fall. We can influence how soon the elevator at Minicon arrives on our floor, for arriving at floors in a hotel is what elevators are supposed to do. We could not make the elevator at Minicon arrive at our front door.
We accept the Three-Fold Law of Return and we follow the Wiccan Rede. The Three Fold Law states that whatever you do, good or bad, will effect everything around you and will eventually return to you, magnified by all the other interactions around you. So if you're unethical, expect ethical problems to plague you. If you strive to help those in need, don't be surprised when help comes to you when you need it.
The Wiccan Rede states "An it harm none, do as ye will." This is not a simple statement of 'do whatever you want as long as you don't hurt anybody.' This is rather a profound understanding of the function of our own Wills and of the responsibility that comes with being a Witch. It states first that you must know your true Will, which is a very different thing from what you wish or desire. Second, it places on you the responsibility to have investigated the consequences of working your will. Thirdly, it tells you that you must not do harm by the working of your will. Finally, it is a command to act. Remember, the Rede does not say 'you may do what you will.' It states do what you will. This is a call to action: to ethical, responsible action that is prepared to take the consequences, whatever they may be. It is a statement of the assurance that everything has been done to insure that working your Will does no harm, but also a statement of accepting the responsibility for your Will, regardless of the consequences.
In Gardnerianism, each coven is lead by a High Priest (HP) and a High Priestess (HPS) working together. The people who trained a coven's HP and HPS are referred to as that coven's Queen and Magus. Each coven is autonomous, meaning that there is no central authority and each HP and HPS decides how they want to handle training of new Initiates and, within certain boundaries, how to perform the rituals. The Queen and Magus of a coven are responsible for seeing that the coven doesn't stray too far from the boundaries of the Tradition, but they have no real authority over the coven. Any HP or HPS is free to ignore the advice and concern of their Queen and Magus - though this is certainly not something to be done lightly. In the best conditions, the Queen and Magus of a coven are treated as respected and loved Elders, and the whole feel of the Tradition is one of a healthy extended family. This, of course, is an ideal, not, unfortunately, always a reality. Gardnerians are, after all Human, with Human flaws and blindnesses.
Gardnerianism uses a Three Degree system. Pre-Initiates must work with the coven in non-oathbound rituals for at least a year and a day, and coven members work at least a year and a day in each degree. During pre-initiation, one is 'in the womb,' growing and preparing for entrance into a new life. First Degree can be likened to a birth. The new coven member knows little about the 'world' s/he has just been born into, and spends a year getting to understand this 'world' and its language. Second Degree is like puberty. The coven member is expected to begin learning how to be a adult within the Gardnerian 'world,' learning how to perform the rituals and how to teach the Mysteries. At Third Degree, one is a fully empowered adult. Any Third Degree may hive off at any time to begin his or her own coven. This 'hiving-off' is like leaving home, getting married, and having 'children' of one's own. It is a big responsibility, but exciting and envigorating at the same time.
These are the basics of the Gardnerian system and worldview. It is not the right path for everyone, for its symbols and particular expressions of the Mysteries will not resonate with everyone. But since it is only one of many different and beautiful expressions of the Old Religion, no one needs to feel that they must be Gardnerian to be a Witch. Each person needs to find the symbols and the path that speaks most clearly to them. Gardnerianism is simply one of those many, varied, and meaningful spiritual journeys. We hope everyone finds the path that's right for them.