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 law.
Someone asked on Twitter this week about whether it’s possible to be a Quaker and a member of Scouting and/or Guiding. On the practical level, it certainly is – significant numbers of people are members of both, and have been for many years. I am both a Quaker and a Brownie Leader. On a more theoretical level, I’m aware of two specifically Quaker objections to joining Guiding, and no specifically Guiding objections to being a Quaker.
The first Quaker objection is about oaths. Quakers don’t take oaths, choosing to affirm instead, because they let their yay be yay and their nay be nay. The question, then, is whether the Guiding Promise, quoted at the top of this post, is an oath, and if it is, whether it’s the sort we should be worried about. Although I can argue that it’s quite a weak oath – I use the term ‘promise’ quite casually, to mean ‘I said I would’ – I also see that it is, in a sense, an oath, and I suspect Scouting is clearer about this than Guiding. However, does using the formula ‘I promise that I will do my best’ imply that I am less honest at other times? I don’t think it does. When a fellow Brownie Leader asks me if I can do such-and-such for next week, I don’t have to say that I promise I’ll do my best; I just say yes, I will, and the rest is taken as read. Rather, the use of ‘I promise’ makes a degree of commitment clear, in ways which are accessible to children (remember, the target audience of this text is aged seven and up).
The second Quaker objection, which has I think faded a bit in recent years as the uniform worn by Guides and Scouts has modernised and become more casual, is that these are proto-military organisations. In a sense, this is true. They have their roots in Baden-Powell’s wartime experience and military training, they have often borrowed from military ideas, and even now you’ll find the army advertising to children through Guiding events. (Although you’ll also find Quaker leaders like me refusing to let children in their care go on bouncy castle/assault courses which are army branded.) Even in my lifetime, however, the degree of ‘military’ style material in the Brownie and Guide programmes has dropped significantly – marching into a circle has gone, ‘uniform’ which had to all match has gone, and even at church parade at St High C of E we are very casual indeed about the whole flag business.
A more serious accusation, although I’ve heard it put by feminists more often than Quakers, is that having girls in a single-sex organisation perpetuates inequality. Of course, people who think this can now join the Scouts, who have gone co-ed in the UK. I think, though, that there is a genuine value in women-only spaces for young women, however. You only have to put a Guide unit on the same camping field as a Scout unit to see how they behave differently in the presence of boys. Imagine, if you will, the giggling, the hiding, the screaming. Particularly if you want to offer adventurous activities which might be seen as ‘unladylike’ there’s a real advantage in having a women-only group as it frees up participation from the gendered norms which they – mostly – have plenty of chances to learn at their co-ed schools. If the Scouts do their bit and teach *everyone* to do the washing up, too, rather than bringing in an adult (and usually female) leader to do it, we might manage to improve things this way.
On the flip side, the benefits of participating in such an organisation are probably obvious, and I take them to be wholly in line with Quaker values: team work and sharing, as well as a uniform which takes attention away from differences in background (equality); spending time outdoors and learning about the world (sustainability, truth); having space to develop your own interests and opinions (integrity)… which brings me to the new Promise.
Most people who read the news in the UK are probably aware that last year GirlguidingUK changed our Promise. We made two changes – the thing about taking the word ‘God’ out got a lot of attention, the change from ‘country’ to ‘community’ almost none, and a few people were bothered that we’d kept the Queen. I can say ‘we’ with confidence because this was a democratically made decision – I participated in the consultation, so did my Brownies, so did thousands of others. I’m fine with all the changes, actually. The previous ‘God’ wording – “to love my God” – was a little bit strange anyway, and the new one is accessible to atheists and agnostics without excluding belief. (By the way, ‘be true to myself’ can include my parental, cultural, and other ancestral influences, and commentators who argue that this involves throwing away history have missed something.) I think we kept the Queen for two reasons: firstly, our membership is mainly young women, and many of them are very interested indeed in queens, princesses, etc. Secondly, we are keeping our Guide law: “a Guide is a good friend and a sister to all Guides” – and Elizabeth made her Guide Promise in 1937. When we have a King on the throne I suspect this may change.
As a Quaker and a Brownie leader, I find a number of opportunities to share what I learn between the organisations. I share Quaker values and sometimes ideas with my Brownies – teaching co-operative games, offering open discussion spaces and listening carefully, and refusing to take part in Army-sponsored games or gambling. I share things I learn through Guiding with my Quaker Meeting mainly through children’s meeting, where crafts, stories, and improvisation always come in handy, but also sometimes through vocal ministry.