The first thing we need to talk about with Samuel Wagar's She Grows in us Like a Tree in a Garden: Egregore Theology and Ecclesiology in Wicca is just what the heck this book is about. "Ecclesiology" is a sub-topic of theology specifically focused on religious groups; in the introduction the author specifies it as "the group experience with and group understanding of the divine." I'm familiar with "egregore" being used a few different ways, but here Wagar takes it to mean a guardian spirit (or "small god") that is brought about purposefully by a coven. If I'm breaking down the title completely it's worth mentioning that Wagar's use of "Wicca" is the more modern and inclusive version of, essentially, self-identifying Wiccans, rather than an exclusive Gardnerian/Alexandrian tradition. (This author is aware of the toes being stepped on right now; that doesn't change the fact that the word is used different ways by different people, and my apologies to those that don't care for this fact.) So, this is a book about the study of the neo-pagan use of their covens' collective unconsciousness to raise conscious spirits and work with them. Beyond just dissecting the title, the book is also Wagar's argument in favor of Wicca building lasting institutions in order to secure its own future. Put a different way, he believes that Wicca has reached the end of its ability to grow via ad hoc, self-initiated covens and leaders, and can only grow further with a trellis of organization and tradition to support it. So, having defined this, how does he do?
Not too bad as it turns out. If you haven't read any of his previous work, you should be aware that he comes from an academic background and approaches these topics in the same way - I don't have many books on my metaphysical bookshelves with a nine-page bibliography. On the other hand, I don't think this topic could be seriously discussed with a looser text. The book itself is well formed. There are occasional summaries to wrap up the ideas presented so far, rather than waiting until the end for one big "but what does it all mean?" His chapters build well upon each other, taking us from an overall exploration of egregore as he sees it in the Wiccan context and then tying it into the organizing principles of spiritual groups. Once connected, he explores logical follow-ons such as the value of larger institutions ("temples" in his vernacular) for the long-term viability of Wicca, and the need for those strong Wiccan temples to counteract the harm that can be done by the charismatic leaders around which covens often form.
Other than niggling concerns around editing and formatting that are common in an independently-published book (and neither here nor there, in my opinion, regarding the merits of the book in general) my chief friction with the book is that I don't see myself in the practices he describes. When he says, early on as a definitive statement, that "Wiccan small worship groups (covens) consciously create guardian spirits (egregores).... from the group minds that emerge in their activities" my immediate reaction was "we do?" My particular group occasionally does something similar, during very specific rituals, but to define that as THE thing that we do... well, it honestly gave me a moment of "am I even doing this right?" Which, for an eclectic pagan, is a pretty bizarre thought. I have to admit that I don't recognize everything in Samuel Wagar's reality as universally true. Nevertheless, I found She Grows in us Like a Tree in a Garden to be an incredibly thought-provoking book, and I'm glad that I read it. I don't know what more a review can tell you than that.
~review by Patricia Mullen
Author: Samuel Wagar
Independently published, 2021