Wednesday, June 19, 2013

God still Guides, but Guides don't God

(update: some second thoughts on this here)

The UK Girl Guides have dropped 'do my duty to God' from their promise, in an effort to be more inclusive to girls who don't believe in God. The new promise reads:

I promise that I will do my best, 
To be true to myself and develop my beliefs
To serve the Queen and my community
To help other people
and To keep the Guide (Brownie) law

Its easy to see the logic. After all, my own Church of England baptises children into the church on the basis of the faith of their parents and godparents, recognising that children aren't old enough to answer for themeselves about their faith until later in life. If we don't baptise 8 year olds based on their own stated faith, then we can hardly criticise the Guides for dropping the God clause. It's a good organisation, and they want to be more appealing. It's worth noting, however, that the Scout movement is growing steadily, so promising to God clearly isn't putting that many people off. 

Having said that, it's sad to see it go, another survival of a more overtly Christian era which has been hollowed out by secularism. To be honest, I'd be surprised to find many guiding or scouting groups which really took 'do my duty to God' seriously. My own experience of 30 years ago was church parade (during which we played innumerable games of hangman and noughts and crosses to while away the time in the pews) and the Lords prayer at every meeting, though the lifestyle and language of the scout leaders the rest of the time wasn't exactly what you'd call a good Christian example. God was a duty, but little more.

This is from the Guides own website:

Girlguiding is not and never has been a Christian organisation. Girlguiding is open to all girls and adults, whether they follow a specific religion or not. Spiritual development is part of the Girlguiding programme, but this is not limited to one or any specific religion, or indeed any religion.

It's interesting to look at some of the reasoning behind the change: the Guides FAQ page makes reference to the strong faith of many guides, and a desire to take 'spiritual development' seriously:

Spirituality is open and accessible to everyone. It is concerned with the inner life and its meaning and purpose, and with making sense of the world around us. Spiritual development is an independent journey that continues throughout our lives.

Within the guiding programme we define spiritual development as making your own spiritual choices, respecting the spiritual choices of others and achieving inner peace.

Sounds nice, but the focus has turned from outward ('do my duty to God') to inward ('making your own spiritual choices...inner peace'). On the one hand there's an integrity about this which is good, but I don't actually believe 'spirituality' exists as a free-floating entity. We are spiritual beings made for relationship with God; what makes sense of our 'spirituality' is having God as an external reference point. We find inner peace when we 'find our rest in Thee', in the words of Augustine. What this attempts to find in 'spirituality' is already there in God, and if we are made by God for relationship with God, then the goal of spiritual development is a mature and committed relationship with God. If there's no God, and we have no spirit, and the only authentic 'spiritual choice' is atheism, then the British Humanist Association should be just as twitchy about this as the sentiment it replaces. The worry is that this creates a spiritual no-girls-land, with brownies and guides being led around the spiritual shadowlands on a 'journey' with no destination. 

I just wonder if the promise above is a bit of a compromise, a bit like an ecumenical act of worship, trying to find language that nobody can reject, which turns out to be language with very little content. 

So what of the new promise? What does 'be true to myself' actually mean? It's the kind of statement you expect to hear from a contestant on a reality TV show, but good luck to the person who has to develop a robust syllabus to back it up. I'm sure there must be something a bit more robust, a bit chewier, that could be put here, but then with 40,000 responses to the consultation perhaps this was the common mind of the respondents.

The other aspect to note is how much more self-absorbed this promise is than the one it will replace: "I will do my best to love my God, to serve my Queen and my country, to help other people and to keep the Guide law."

The entire focus of the current (until September) promise is away from self, towards others - God, Queen, country, others, Guide law. The new promise is headed by a vague narcissism, the focus is me, myself, I. And already it builds in a tension. What if a Guide develops republican views, can she be true to herself and serve the Queen? Or what is someone is innately and naturally selfish? Can she be true to herself and help others? 

By introducing two locuses (locii?) of value, one within and one without, I think the new promise could create as much confusion as the one it replaces. Because it starts with the Brownies/Guides making a promise to themselves, with no objective content, it immediately creates a conflict between objective duty and subjective feeling. 

Maybe it's all part of a cunning evangelistic strategy. By the end of their time in the Guiding movement, teenage girls will be crying out for a way of matching personal integrity and fulfilment with moral duty and higher purpose. Enter Jesus, promising life in all its fullness (personal) and calling people to lay down their lives for others (moral). Maybe the promise will create so much cognitive dissonance that in a few years times the Guides will be crying out for God again.

(apologies for the formatting issues!)
Update: thoughts from elsewhere -
Richard Hall (connexions)  - a similar concern to mine, that by turning the focus from others onto self the new promise loses something important.
Heresy Corner excellent piece, teasing out some of the inconsistencies and implicit values in the new promise
God and Politics wonders why Guides no longer have to promise to serve their country, but still pledge to serve the Queen.
And here's the perspective of a Christian Guider, who welcomes the change, and notes that it's lack of adult leaders, rather than the wording of promises, which is the main thing holding the movement back. 


  1. I think that you're missing the obey the Guide Law bit of the promise.

    A Guide is honest, reliable and can be trusted.
    A Guide is helpful and uses her time and abilities wisely.
    A Guide faces challenges and learns from her experiences.
    A Guide is a good friend and a sister to all Guides.
    A Guide is polite and considerate.
    A Guide respects all living things and takes care of the world around her.

    It doesn't really sound like a moral free-for-all to me. All that has happened is that Girlguiding have decided to try and be inclusive.

    How would you suggest a Guide who had decided that she didn't believe in God anymore but still took her promise seriously should act? Under the old promise, she would have to leave Guiding, is that really a desirable outcome. I don't like putting words in your mouth but you seem to me to be suggesting that there should be no place for non-believer teenagers in the Scouts or Guides. Am I misunderstanding you?

  2. I think I'm trying to tease out what it means to move from a promise which is focused on duty to others (God, queen, country, Guide law) to one which tries to blend some of that idea of duty with the subjective 'be true to myself'. I also wonder whether there's a place for spiritual development to happen that's neutral as to whether any particular spiritual tradition is right or wrong.

    The new promise recognises the reality of things as they are, and I'd neither want potential brownies or guides to lie about their faith to get in, or atheist members to feel they have to leave.

    Andy your question about God applies in a similar way under the new promise to anyone who turns republican. What then? If God has gone, country has gone ('my community'), and pretty much any locus of value outside the individual is now contested, so is it just a matter of time before the guide promise becomes entirely subjective? And is that ok or will it have lost something?

  3. Thanks for your reply, I'm glad that you don't feel that atheist guides should have to leave the Guides. As a republican, I've never had a problem with the Queen part of any oath. The promise is made to serve the office of Head of State rather than the particular person occupying that position. That's made more explicit in the more grown-up oaths for army, parliament and the judiciary where it talks about heirs and successors according to law. I might want the successor according to law of the Queen to be a president elected by the people rather than the Prince of Wales but that not happening would not hinder my fulfilment of that oath. Trying to get the terminology right but that part of the oath would be a sort of "getting along with the majority knowing that I'm in the minority sort of thing" Republicans can be loyal to their country just as much as monarchists can be.

    Does that mean the promise or oath is meaningless? No, the fact we're talking about it means it has value. If the promise was just a set of empty words or something that become tradition rather than a meaning, like when people say "Bless you" when someone sneezes.

    Interesting question about spiritual development. I don't feel like it's the role of Girlguiding to divide up spiritual traditions into right and wrong but then I'm not an Anglican priest and I get why you wouldn't want young people to follow spiritually dangerous paths. The Guide Law feels like a way of getting to the outward appearance of spiritual development, if someone's honest, reliable, helpful, polite, considerate and a good friend to all then does it matter what the internal religious beliefs of that person is? I'm not sure I know what the answer should be. It might be getting outside the topic, but do you think it matters and why?

  4. Thanks Andy - what you say about the Queen is interesting, CofE clergy have the same clause about heirs and successors.

    Your last question is a really good one, and todays diary isn't going to let me give a long answer! The more I think about it, the more I'm struck by the fact that the Guides want to do this at all. They aren't a Christian organisation (weren't before the change of promise, and still aren't) yet still see exploring faith and beliefs as something important. I'm fairly sure this isn't just the whole multicultural thing of demystifying different religions so we're less spooked by them, but that they see it as worthwhile in its own right.

    I agree with you that an aim of honest, reliable, helpful, etc... is worthwhile in itself, and if the Guides are simply encouraging this then good on them. But, if they are looking to help people explore faith and beliefs as well, then I wonder what map they're using as they do so. Can 'spirituality' be explored from outside of any of the spiritual traditions? Can you understand the map and the paths if you don't actually get onto the territory and walk them? Sorry, metaphors taking on a life of their own now...