Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

Hopefully the Girl Guides can be prepared for lots more members

Sir Robert Baden-Powell
Sir Robert Baden-Powell

So the Girl Guides are ditching God. How do we feel about that? The notion of a Christian God helping children to be good citizens, serving the monarch and their country, was a key element of Baden-Powell's original vision for his Scouting boys, and then the sister movement set up in 1910 by his sibling, Agnes.

A devoted military man – commander, not foot soldier bien sur – Baden-Powell was a prime example of the things Britain held dear a century ago.

Its faith in the superiority of its people, its power and its dominant religion were not considered to be worth even a chat in the pub (unless that chat was between George Eliot and Thomas Hardy), so deep was the commitment to Rule Britannia (written by a Scot by the way; the facts do so often get in the way of symbolism, a point I bring up not entirely erroneously).

I joined the Brownie Guides when I was eight, enticed by playground chat which suggested a kind of exotic Blyton-esque Secret Seven vibe, with passwords, chants and other deliciously cabalistic treats. I became aware of its lofty foundations and its notion of serving a very particular social function very quickly. And, precocious little contrarian that I was, I began to rankle.

The first thing we did, gathered into a closed circle, was to pledge the Guide 'Promise', an oath to 'serve my Queen' and 'do my duty to God' (updated to 'love my God' in 1994).

I still clearly remember the feeling of my hairline bristling rebelliously. Having been party to endless discussions about God and the Church between my lapsed Catholic dad and his vehemently committed sister, I was a firmly established agnostic by seven (three decades of pondering have not much changed my sceptical, if always hopeful, stance).

I understood religion, and the existence of God, to be a topic of discussion, never a given. Anything which had not proved its existence (God) or proved its existence to be a redoubtable force for good (religion) was something to be prodded, tested, forever questioned.

The parroting of a mantra like this didn't sit easily, which left me in two minds; the girls in my team were a warm, friendly, welcoming bunch, and I wanted them all to be surrogate big sisters.

There must be people who like authority and rules and pledges because we keep hearing about people who, like Baden-Powell, love the Army. It may well be to my own detriment that my own instinct is always to kick against any request to think as part of a group.

While many of my school friends thrived in the Guides and loved every minute – and their cheeks, I noticed, were always rosier than mine – I couldn't get over the requirement to commit myself to serving a God I wasn't sure was there.

So I think it's great that the Guides have become more inclusive, assumedly to be regarded as more welcoming to different faiths, as well as non-believers.

And while the ghost of Baden-Powell may buckle, and Daily Mail readers will shrill about "liberal Stasi interference" (actual quote), little firebrands like my eight-year-old self might find a whole new family of girls who, these days, don't just learn how to sew on a button, but are encouraged to learn about cinema (insisting on 'at least one black and white film' – how fantastic!), science, current affairs, global charities and heroines of history.

And only good can come from that.

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