When Pagans gather, they often do so under the banner of organized small groups with colorful names like the Grove of the Ancient Forest, Crescent Moon Coven, or the Circle of Cerridwen. How does one tell the difference between covens and circles, inner circles and outer circles, groves and study groups? If you decide to organize a group, what should you call it?
To begin with, none of these terms are copyrighted, and you can legally call your group anything you want; but if you use certain terms inappropriately, it will cause misunderstanding in the community. Don't call your group a coven unless your members are Witches/Wiccans, and if you use the word "grove," be aware that some will assume you are Druids.
For most Pagan groups that are neither Druids nor Wiccans, "circle" is a fairly safe and non-specific term. (Even here there would be confusion with the organization Circle, based in Wisconsin, which is a large network of subscribers, festival-goers, and friends of Circle Sanctuary. To complicate matters further, some Wiccans use "circle" as part of their names instead of "coven," as in "Circle of the Summer Sun"). "Temple" is another term that could refer to a coven or almost any Pagan church.
Many people begin with the idea of a study group, which could be you and a few friends gathering weekly to talk about nature religions and perhaps magic. The focus is on education or information-sharing, and the term "study group" is innocuous enough that most schools, colleges, libraries, and community centers will let you use their facilities for meetings. A study group will probably have weekly presenters or discussion topics, and not much structure or program beyond that.
At some point the study group members, or some of them, may feel the need to become more deeply involved in the practice of Pagan religion. Then you may want to consider starting an independent Pagan circle, or if you have been involved in the Unitarian Church, a chapter of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS). The latter is a nationwide organization in the United States for people who consider themselves both Unitarian and Pagan.
If your interests are definitely Witchy, then you may prefer to organize a coven. Now, the most cautious way to do this is to join an existing coven and get solid training and experience before you launch out on your own. Still, there are people who have initiated themselves and founded covens with no more background than reading some good books on the subject. It's a difficult path, but if you're a brilliant organizer you might be able to do it. What's the difference between a study group and a coven? A study group exists simply so that the members may learn about a subject. A coven is a religious organization of priestesses and priests dedicated to practicing the Old Religion (Witchcraft or Wicca). Witches don't just study: they celebrate the turning of the seasons and phases of the Moon, work magic, heal, lead rites of passage, and seek spiritual growth by connecting with the goddesses and gods of nature. The same is true of other Pagans, except that they may emphasize magic less and do not all consider themselves to be clergy.
According to the tales, Witches' covens were originally small underground societies created to keep the Craft alive in the face of horrifying persecution by the Inquisition. The Witches of the Middle Ages would meet to celebrate the sabbats or invoke the aid of the Triple Goddess of the Moon and the Horned Lord of the wild places. Some now believe that no covens survived into modern times; others say they did, and initiated people such as Gerald Gardner into an unbroken tradition stretching back centuries.
Whether covens originated a thousand years ago or fifty is a moot question. They are a vital part of the living religion of Witchcraft. Most covens average about seven adult members; few are larger than thirteen. In this small, supportive environment, deep emotional and psychic bonds are formed and intensive spiritual and magical work is carried out.
The word "grove," which originally referred to a sacred place in the woods, has been used at least three different ways among Pagans. Sometimes it is simply a gathering of Pagans of no particular denomination. Often it means a local organization of Druids. Occasionally it refers to a group of Pagans who gather to worship under the guidance of a Witches' coven; this kind of "grove" is also called a "congregation" or "outer circle," as distinct from the "inner circle," which is composed of the priests and priestesses of the coven.
In legal terminology, all these organizations are "churches." If your group chooses to incorporate and even seek federal tax exempt status, you will be called a "church" or "not-for-profit religious organization" in legal documents.
Witches in a given region may join Local Councils of the Covenant of the Goddess (COG). COG is a federation of Witches and covens, formed to secure religious rights of Witches and foster networking among them. Presently it has about 120 member covens, mostly in the United States, plus many elder solitaries and associates. COG has about fifteen Local Councils throughout the States. Other large networks are the Pagan Federation (head-quartered in the United Kingdom) and the Pan-Pacific Pagan Alliance (including Australian, New Zealand, and the Pacific).
From local groups to vast regional networks, Pagans are organizing. What were once the folk religions of villages, tribes, or nations are now recognized legal entities linked by modern telecommunications and the Internet. Paganism may have roots in the distant past, but it has arrived in the age of high technology.