At midnight on the 1st September, I stood on a bridge in central London and recited some words that I’ve been fighting for over 15 years to say. I finally made my Promise as an adult member of Girlguiding.
It’s not the first time I’ve made my Promise. I first joined Girlguiding aged seven, when I became a Brownie. In those days, we pledged to do our ‘duty to God’ and, as a practising Christian at the time, it was a relatively easy promise to make.
A few years – and several adventures – later and it was time to do the same thing again as a 10-year-old Guide. By then, the words had changed – ‘to love my God’.
My religious views were also changing, and I’d already persuaded my parents to let me stop going to church.
As the years went on, I became more and more uncomfortable. I took part in camping trips, outings, kayaked, rock climbed, abseiled and volunteered my way through the incredible opportunities. But I felt there was a mismatch. Here we were – a non-religious organisation wanting to be open to everyone, which encouraged people to learn about the world around them and respect all living things. And yet, a dichotomy. To become a full leader, an individual had to declare a belief in some form of higher power.
By the time I became a leader aged 17, I realised I couldn’t make the Promise any more. Treating people differently on grounds of (lack of) religious belief didn’t feel right. Guiding had always moved with the times and had become accidentally out of step. As a passionate supporter of the organisation, I wanted this to change.
Guiding is a youth charity, run by and for its members. And our members have been telling us that they want the words to change to more closely reflect what we do.
We give girls the opportunity to try new things and meet other people from every walk of life. Beliefs and values are part of the programme, but so is helping other people, developing self-confidence – and a healthy dose of challenge and adventure. With more than half a million members, we’re clearly doing something right.
Through guiding I’ve travelled to India, Mexico and Sweden and taken my own Guide group (girls aged 10-14) to Switzerland. I’ve seen girls who are shy and unwilling to try things develop the confidence to lead a group or go on a trip with people they don’t know. This is the sort of stuff that changes lives.
And yet, the Promise is at our core. It sets our members apart. How many 10-year-olds do you know who would stand up in public and promise to take care of their local community, be an active citizen and commit to learning about their own beliefs and those of others?
What the new wording of our Promise does is help us be fully inclusive in a way we haven’t been before. It is not a Promise which excludes those who have a religious faith. It is a Promise which allows an individual to work out what she believes for herself, and encourages her to question that belief as she grows and develops. It includes those of faith and those of none, and recognises that, as we grow, our spiritual development may take us down different paths.
It’s a Promise which recognises that a group of Guides may come from many different countries and faith backgrounds and yet still all be completely incompetent at cooking sausages and burn a hole in a table (hello, my Guide group).
A Promise which says that it’s OK for you to be different from other people, but that it’s not OK for you to thump them in the face or belittle them. A Promise which recognises that it’s really, really hard to work out who you are and to stand firm to that even if you are being bombarded by media images of how women ‘should’ look.
And it’s a Promise which commits those who make it to build a better world, starting from themselves, to the local area and then the wider world.
And you thought that all we did was toast marshmallows on campfires and spend our nights tying knots?
We’re the ultimate feminist organisation. We’re changing lives, one person at a time.
And we have an amazing time doing it.
More articles on Girl Guides...
Poll: Are the Girl Guides right to drop God?, Independent Voices
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'An atheist camp is a terrible idea', Ellie Levenson