I have been practicing what I thought was Wicca for ten years. Recently I met with a prospective coven, and the High Priestess basically told me I had to start from scratch. If I join this coven, I'm considered a Neophyte, even though I've been studying and learning for longer than some of the existing members. After I've studied for a year and a day, I'll get initiated as a First Degree. I'm pretty upset, because I think experience matters more than a degree or title. What should I do?
Depending on which books you read, you've probably heard some mixed messages about the necessity of initiation in the Wiccan religion. There's one school of thought that says absolutely, you must be initiated or you're not truly Wiccan. Another group says that you can self-initiate, and still another group says that anyone can be Wiccan, and no formal ceremony is required. So which is it?
Well, like many other Wiccan and Pagan issues, it depends on who you ask. If you're interested in Gardnerian or Alexandrian Wicca, then absolutely, yes, you have to be initiated. These are both mystery traditions, and their secrets are oathbound, which means that the information you read in books is not included in here. The rules of these traditions require members to be initiated. To learn the secrets of either of these paths, you have to be initiated into a lineaged coven. There's no room for negotiation on this one.
Some covens require initiation of their members, but are not necessarily Alexandrian or Gardnerian. There are also dozens, perhaps even of hundreds, of traditions that consider themselves Wiccan and do not require initiation. For example, a number of books are available on these different paths, and their authors often encourage readers to self-dedicate or form their own coven. That's fine for those particular traditions -- just bear in mind that they're not the same as initiatory paths.
Often, particularly in online communities, there is spirited debate about whether someone who's not Alexandrian or Gardnerian can truly call themselves Wiccan at all, or whether they're NeoWiccan. This term is used to apply to a person or group who's not initiated into one of the two original traditions. Some people often take it as a derogatory term, but it's not -- it just means "new Wiccan", and is not meant as an insult if you happen to hear it.
Ultimately, this is an issue that will probably never be agreed upon by all the different factions of Wicca and Paganism. If you're initiated into a coven of some sort, then great! You have a group of people you can share experiences and ideas with. If you're not initiated, don't sweat it -- you can still network and learn and grow, just like everyone else.
Really, you need to decide what's important to you. What does initiation mean to YOU personally? For many people, it's a milestone that marks a certain amount of education and learning that has taken place. For others, it's something to brag about. Figure out what your priority is -- learning and growing, or having a collection of initiation certificates. Also, bear in mind that it's not unreasonable for this coven to have this rule in place. In many covens, all new people start as Neophytes, so you're not being singled out. This allows members to follow the coven's learning requirements, so that everyone is on the same page when it comes to learning. In some traditions, initiation is mandatory because the information shared within the group is secret and oathbound. Initiation is an oath of honor, stating that you will keep the secrets of the tradition to yourself.
You'll have to decide whether or not you can live with the coven's requirements. All other things being positive, it doesn't sound like a bad group to be part of -- after all, would you want to join a coven that just hands out initiations or degrees to anyone who thinks they're entitled to one?