Why I support Girlguiding’s new Promise

This week, Girlguiding announced that, following a consultation with members of all ages earlier in the year, they were changing the Promise all Guides in this country make.

This is the new Promise (old lines in brackets)

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

This caused uproar, for three reasons. First, that God has not survived the edit, second that serving the Queen has and third that serving the country hasn’t. Now, the majority of complaints I’ve seen are from non-members so frankly, their opinions are irrelevant. They’re not making the Promise. We are. That doesn’t mean I didn’t get extremely irritated with people’s insistence on calling it an “oath”, a “vow” or a “pledge”. It’s none of those things. It’s a promise. Also, we haven’t been “Girl Guides” in a long time. And while I’m on the subject, Brownies do not and never have come in “troops”. Brownies come in “packs” or “units”.

Just so you know where I stand in Girlguiding – I’ve been a member since I was four or five – I was a Rainbow, a Brownie, a Guide, a Young Leader, a Unit Helper and now I’ve been running a Ranger unit for six years and a Brownie pack for four.

To serve the Queen & my community

I’ll start with the easiest one – the loss of “and my country”. This was a new addition to the Promise in 1994. When I made my Promise as a Brownie in 1993, these were my words (verified by my Brownie handbook which I still have):

I promise that I will do my best
To do my duty to God
To serve the Queen
and help other people
and to keep the (Brownie) Guide law

I thought I dimly remembered having to learn a new Promise. Anyway, as we can see, serving my country was only added nineteen years ago. Before Brownies make their Promise, we do our best to make sure they understand it. Have you ever tried to explain the concept of “serve the Queen and my country” to a seven-year-old? Girls that age tend to assume it means doing chores at BuckinghamPalace. The age-old method of making them understand is to break it down into a smaller scale. The phrase my old handbook uses is:

“Our Queen works hard to make our country and all the countries of which she is Queen or Head happy places for people to live. Serving the Queen means helping her with this work. It means looking around your area to see what needs to be done.”

In other words, serving your community. In the new Promise, the words have changed but the meaning hasn’t. It’s simply made it a tiny bit easier for small girls to understand. And think how many communities you’re part of. Tiny ones like your immediate family ranging right up to the global community.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable for “serve the Queen” to still be in there, despite protests from Republicans. The Queen is the head of state. Were the monarchy to be abolished, it would presumably be replaced with whoever takes over that job. The other thing I’ve seen is an astonishing number of people demanding “Do you want your daughter pledging to serve Charles?” I don’t entirely understand what’s wrong with Charles. People, on the whole, quite like Elizabeth and they seem to like William but evidently there’s something wrong with Charles. He seems sweet enough to me, give or take a habit of talking to plants and an apparent liking for homeopathy.

To be true to myself and develop my beliefs

Finally, “love my God”. The “my” was also added in 1994 to be a bit more inclusive. Really, as in context God was now synonymous with deity, it shouldn’t have had the capital. It’s not a bad thing that God has gone altogether from the Promise. For a start, Girlguiding is an all-inclusive movement that welcomes members of any or no faith and it’s about time that was reflected in the Promise. See this from the Guiding Manual:

  • membership that is open to all girls and women irrespective of faith, race, culture, nationality or any other circumstance, provided they are able to understand and are willing to make or work towards making the Promise

The problem came in the second part of that sentence. Looking at the guiders.co.uk forum on Wednesday morning, when the embargo was lifted and the members could talk freely about it, I saw phrases like “at last, a Promise I feel like I can actually make” and “Now I feel like I’m actually allowed to be included”. I saw comments on newspaper articles like this: “My daughter wanted to be a Guide but as we’re a non-religious family I wasn’t happy with her pledging to serve God so I didn’t let her join” which is a huge pity. Even worse, I saw someone refuse to let their five-year-old join Rainbows (the section for the youngest girls) because they didn’t want her “pledging allegiance” to God. I know it’s our Promise and it’s meant to be our most sacred artefact but what previously atheist five-year-old is going to take a major interest in religion just because of one line she has to say in a small ceremony to be part of Rainbows? What Guide for that matter? If taking God out of the Promise makes more members feel welcome and more people feel they’re able to join, then that’s a great thing. But, for the record, they were perfectly able to join before. “Irrespective of faith”, remember?

I’m an atheist – always have been. As a Brownie, regular church parade was on offer. It wasn’t compulsory but my parents made me go – more out of a sense of “you don’t get to pick and choose which Brownie activities you take part in” or “get the child out the house for a couple of hours so we can have a bit of peace” than for any religious reason. I always found it deeply tedious. We never did anything related to religion at Guides, I’ve never done it with my own Ranger or Brownie units and I’ve never seen anyone else do it. Guide leaders know and understand that religion these days is personal and that it’s different for everyone and that they have a variety of faiths or non-faiths in the unit and you can’t cater for them all at once. Girlguiding is not a religious group and it’s certainly not a Christian group. Of course it had tinges of it when it began – everything did in 1910. So Guides did back then because that was part of life. It’s not now so why should it be in Girlguiding?

And those people who say Baden-Powell would be turning in his grave. While we’re grateful to him for founding Guides, BP himself was never really interested in the Guides. He started Scouts and the sisters wanted to join in too so they set up their own Girl Scout groups and came to a Scout rally at Crystal Palace and asked for “something for the girls”. BP rather reluctantly allowed them to carry on as they were but decided they couldn’t be called Scouts – because the boys might get upset – and named them Guides after the Khyber Guides and then left his sister to look after the fledgling movement. Yes, Guides wouldn’t exist without Robert Baden-Powell but no, I don’t think he’d care too much what we were promising.

That’s what’s gone and now for what’s come in.

Be true to myself and develop my beliefs”. That’s one whole clause, not two clauses. Many people have taken the first half “be true to myself” and are complaining that “this is what’s wrong with this self-obsessed culture” and so on. It’s not the kind of “true to myself” that leads to “I have to be myself and say it like it is”. “Be true to myself and develop my beliefs” means that you follow your own beliefs rather than feel like you have to follow the beliefs someone else tells you to believe, whether those beliefs be religious or otherwise. It’s about developing your own moral code and sticking to it and not being led astray and blindly following the crowd into doing stupid, dangerous or bad things or simply things that go against your personal beliefs. When I started writing this, I’d still not taken to “develop your beliefs” but actually, it works better if you think of beliefs as morals.

So let’s re-write the Promise in a more understandable way:

I promise that I will do my best
To accept people of any or no faith and develop and follow my own moral code
To be a useful member of society
To help other people and to keep the Guide law

That all seems fair enough. It took me a couple of days to warm to the new Promise and I still think it’s clunky and awkwardly-worded in places but the spirit of it fits better and I think Girlguiding will get on quite nicely with it.

And to keep the Guide law

One last thing:

You want to know the Guide law? Amazing the number of people who take issue with other parts of the Promise but don’t care what the last clause even means.

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