Many feel that the tradition is very rigid. This is far from the truth. The Gardnerian Tradition is not static. They don't just repeat the same rituals by rote. A tradition that does not change will die. While they do add information, ritual, spellwork, etc., they don't remove older info. This allows future members to know what they have built upon and have a sense of history of where we have been.
Dedication is usually the first step in joining a group and usually occurs when the group and the student feel that there is a connection. Dedication is a serious event. It is a promise to study with a group/teacher and their promise to teach. A student will have studied for at least a year and a day with a teacher before being considered for initiation. Some groups have a list of requirements that must be met before a student may ask for initiation. The Gardnerian Tradition is a Mystery Tradition. This means that they have information that is passed only to other members of the Tradition. In the Gardnerian Tradition, there are 3 degrees, or levels of accomplishment.
When a person is initiated in the tradition (1st degree), they are initiated by a person who was initiated by another Gardnerian, using the Gardnerian ritual. Most people find that initiation is a life changing experience.
2nd Degree requires *at least* another year and a day of study (more often it takes longer). This is a time when those who feel the call to teach or to lead a group begin deep study.
3rd Degree is for those who will run a group. Normally it takes several years (5-7 years is not uncommon) to go from 1st degree to 3rd degree. When you have reached 3rd degree, and wish to start a group of your own, you "hive" from your mother coven. This means that you "break away" and work on your own. This does not mean you are alone. You can always call upon your HPS and Queen for advice. You are autonomous but if you choose to ignore counsel from your elders you will find yourself on a very rough path.
Life in a coven is very different from solitary practice. A coven is like a family. They have learned to love and trust each other and would do most anything for each other. They know that in times of need, their chosen family will be there to help in any way they can. They respect each other and choose to work together. When a member of a group is lost, through moving, or crossing to the Summerland, the grief of the others is real and deep.
Because of the persecution of the past, Gardnerians are often very secretive about their locations and event that this is their tradition. This secrecy is not snobbery, but a remnant of times when to reveal yourself meant death. Many in the tradition are now mixing with local pagan communities, and participating in local events.
Probably basing the structure of his work on what he had learned in various magickal lodges, Gardner set about re-inventing that ancient, ancestral religion. He had little to work with; he had to write a good deal of it himself. He borrowed appropriate work from other artists, most notably Aleister Crowley and Rudyard Kipling, Queen Victoria's Poet Laureate. Gardner's High Priestess, Doreen Valiente (1922-2000) wrote much of the most well-known poetry, including the much-quoted Charge of the Goddess.
The core group grew slowly and in utter secrecy; witchcraft was illegal in Britain at the time. When the Witchcraft Laws were replaced, in 1951, by the Fraudulent Mediums Act, Gerald Gardner went public. The rest is history.
Neo-Paganism suddenly exploded onto the world scene, primarily in Great Britain, first, but spreading quickly throughout the English-speaking west, and beyond. Raymond Buckland gets credit for bringing Gardnerian craft to North America. Some of the suddenly-visible groups were Gardnerian, some were daughter groups of Gardnerian, others were different groups inspired by Gardner's work or by his example. Some of the suddenly visible groups were not Gardnerian at all. It doesn't matter.
If there was only One True Way, that Way would be so self-evident that we would all understand it from birth, and we would be as unaware of it as fish are unaware of water. The huge multiplicity and varieties of paths shows how rich the human imagination should be. The concept of the Quest may very well be as universal as it is because each of us longs to find the path to the Truth that is right for us. For some, that seeking lasts a lifetime; others are born where they belong...some explore other paths and then go home. Some find their path and light it up to help others find it.
Gardnerianism is the path that states that only a Witch can make a Witch; we hold this to be true for those of our path: only a Gardnerian can make another Gardnerian. We believe in the physical passing on of power; that is one of the reasons why we keep records of our lineages: we remember where the power came from. Part of the equality of the sexes in Gardnerian is that a woman is initiated by a man, and a man by a woman.
A Witch's word is Magickal...and careless use weakens the power by diluting it. Never promise what you can't deliver; tell the truth or refuse to speak. Every word you say is a Magickal word, part of the Magickal Act of Living. If your words are careless or thoughtless, your magick will be, as well, for what is a spell but words with your will behind them?
We do not believe in sin; we believe in karma. We deal with it with the Wiccan Rede. The Rede is so simple it almost qualifies as a Zen koan, but it is too easy to understand. "An it harm none, do what you will."
Sounds simple, doesn't it? It is not simple. On the surface, the most superficial instruction is simply that one should consider one's actions in light of who might be hurt by them, and then one should modify one's behavior to minimize the harm one does. Minimize does not mean eliminate. There is no way that anyone or anything can live without harming anyone or anything else. The Rede recommends minimizing the harm one does, and strongly implies cleansing your heart so that your intent is not to cause harm. It does not require you to be a vegetarian to refrain from harming animals; it does not require you to give a way your fly swatters to avoid harming insects. It does require you to think about your weather magic, for example: if you work to keep rain away from a festival site, you may be harming the crops, and therefore the livelihood, of farmers who live nearby. If you call rain, you may call it from someplace that needed it just as badly, or you may summon a hailstorm or a tornado that destroys property or kills.
You will make mistakes. One of the lines of poetry that Gerald Gardner borrowed from Aleister Crowley for his Book of Shadows was "Keep pure your highest ideal; strive ever toward it." When that is taken along with the Rede, one realizes that, as humans, there is no way we can succeed at "harm none." We can only strive ever toward that ideal. The word "rede" is a thousand years old; in Saxon, it meant "advice." That's all the Wiccan Rede is: it is ADVICE. It is not a commandment.
Whenever one is faced with a significant choice, one must consider whether who might be harmed by one's actions. This includes oneself. One can use the Rede to help oneself stop smoking. One can use the Rede to require oneself to become a better, safer driver, in order to minimize the risk of harm to which one puts others. A follower of the Rede will minimize one's participation in office gossip and rumor-mongering, since these things inevitably result in harm. Such a follower will recycle, and minimize the use of irreplaceable resources, in order to minimize harm to the planet.
The Rede is our counterbalance to entropy. Entropy seeks to destroy everything, from morals to matter, down to its simplest form. When we follow the Rede, we strive against that dissolution, keeping as pure as we can that higher purpose that is the entire point of having a religion: to model ourselves after beings that are of a substance and kind closer to the perfection that makes them immune to entropy, for the only way to Eternal Life is to outlive the Entropy Death of the Universe and survive the next Big Bang. It seems unlikely that physical beings will be able to do that. So we strive to change ourselves, to become more like the Gods.
There are groups (I hope they are not claiming to be Gardnerian!) that use this as an excuse to limit their membership to the young, nubile and attractive. This is absolutely not appropriate or acceptable within Gardnerian practice. If one is a bit shy, one can recall that there is a reason why candlelight is considered "romantic"—it makes one glow, but does not illuminate flaws. And, after all, none of us are perfect. We are naked in our rites because one's clothing anchors one's mind to mundane matters. Skyclad practice works just as the concept of ritual robes does: it helps your mind shift gears, puts your consciousness into the magickal place where the power flows.
Another reason why skyclad practice is a necessary part of Gardnerian practice is that being unclothed together helps to foster emotional intimacy among the coveners. Anyone who's been in an indoor circle with a dozen people knows that you can't help touching one another. None of it is sexual, but it is intensely intimate. The coven needs this connection between the members for us to function together seamlessly.
Gardnerian Wicca is a mystery religion with oaths of secrecy, so I am not going to tell you exactly what we do. But we invoke the powers of the elements, draw our circle with earth and air, fire and water, purify ourselves and in general make the space sacred, and then ourselves. Then we celebrate the Sabbat, or do magic to fulfill our needs, sometimes both. We ground ourselves, we celebrate the rite of cakes and wine, we close the circle, making the space mundane again.
Paganism's heritage, for the last thousand years, is that of a fugitive religion; once our ancestors had to hide what they did and who they were. They could not build churches and they could not lay out any sort of permanent sacred place without the risk of persecution. So a good deal of our ritual is designed to create a fresh temple each time we meet. For the same reason, the security of the members, when the circle is dismissed there should be no sign left that it ever existed, on any plane. You cleanse the astral plane, you pick up everything off the ground. No more than a little flattened grass or tamped-down earth, maybe a little candle wax dripped on the rug or the faint scent of incense in the living room, should be left behind, except for the love in your heart and the fellowship of those who were there with you.