Guides and Quakers – being a member of two organisations

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.

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10 responses to “Guides and Quakers – being a member of two organisations

  1. Rhiannon – Love it! I think you and I are on the same page on a lot of what you’ve said here . . . as a lot of it does apply to Guiding/Scouting and Quakers no matter where you live. Very well thought out and written my Guiding Friend! HUGS!

  2. As a Scout (in the US) and a Quaker, you speak my mind (for non-Quakers: I agree).
    On the uniform, as a former US Marine, the point of wearing the uniform is so the others (Scouts, Guides, or Marines) see us all as the same in value. All are equal and worthy of sharing with, of respecting, and of protecting. All in all, the sentiment seems to me to be “Quakerly”, even if its outward appearance does not look that way.
    When I see pictures of the Duchess of Cambridge or the King of Sweden or even a poor Cub in Kenya in their Scouting neckerchiefs, I can feel pride and oneness with all my Scout and Guide siblings.

    • Warren – well put my Friend. I too feel a sense of pride when I see pictures of Scouts & Guides on posts that come through on my FB page in their uniforms and hear of their projects and activities. Except for the various patches and badges I don’t see anything different than all the private and now public schools that have gone to uniforms. And seeing all the adults in uniforms too is great – it shows unity. Thanks.

  3. I thought about guiding and scouting for my children but, although I know that they do good things and that many Quakers choose differently, it didn’t seem right to suggest membership. (Had they really wanted to join, that would have been different as they were, by late primary age, developing their own views and ethics.) The promise was a problem and only partly because of the question of oaths. Both were, at that age, thinking through their view of God and finding that they were questioning what they heard from fundamentalist Christians at school. Both were beginning to say that they might not believe in God – and I thought this a serious spiritual and ethical development which shouldn’t be compromised by the scout/guide promise. To assert belief in God as a social convenience is to say that religion doesn’t matter. And at the same time, I’m a very moderate republican and I didn’t want the children impressed into royalism – although of course they were free to believe as seemed right to them. On the whole, they didn’t see that there was much point to the monarchy. Making a promise to the queen was therefore very tricky – and again, I didn’t want to tell my children that it was OK to lower their standard of integrity for the sake of joining a very good club. I know this put us in a small minority and that it’s hard to discover that your minority isn’t welcome in a particular organisation – but that’s an experience which many people have as children or adults because a large number of people are members of less-favoured minorities. I can see how these practices in scouting and guiding came about, and also that these are organisations which do a great deal of good and deserve my respect. I can also see why, for some Quakers they would present no problem at all.

  4. Kathz – everyone has to find that group or place where they fit in, what works for them spiritually and socially and what doesn’t. I’ve been involved with BSA for 18 years and GSUSA for 16 years – there are pieces of each program that I love and pieces of each program that I dislike – I figure out how to deal with each piece as it comes along, and all four of my children have done the same along their Scouting journey. I’m sure that your children found someplace else where they fit in and have found what they needed.

  5. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that children find themselves excluded from activities which their friends enjoy and which they would enjoy, were it not for the barrier of the promise. Many children find themselves excluded from a range of activities and it’s possible that gives children more empathy with others. But excluding children because of their integrity still seems a shame – and I worry about the imposition of conformity of belief. But I think my children would equally have problems with reciting the pledge of allegiance, which seems very strange from a European perspective (although I can see it’s considered as a unifying force in the U.S.) Perhaps, having grown up in the wake of World War II, and having known people who suffered considerably under much more serious imposed conformity, I remain mistrustful of all compelled oaths and promises of allegiance and service – which is a polite way of saying I’m pretty bloody-minded when people try to impose any form of words upon me.

    • For the record, I’d like to note that GirlguidingUK’s rules do not force girls to take the promise to participate in activities, and children with doubts routinely take time to think it through – it is possible to be in membership without taking the promise, although there are some awards at the higher level (age 14 or thereabouts, I think) which cannot be given if the member hasn’t made her promise, and the general culture of many units would make membership-without-promise something you had to argue to maintain. I don’t think this affects the spirit of your comments about exclusion and the imposition of a form of words, but I thought it was worth clarifying!

  6. I wish that were made clear, Rhiannon, though I still think it presents difficulties. But I’ve been glad to see the guiding movement think this through – and gave feedback on their consultation a few years ago.

    • I don’t think the difficulties go away at all, and I suspect almost all organisations/groups have them to some extent, implicitly or explicitly. (Gyms, classes, Quaker meetings… just about everywhere there’s someone who, in practise, isn’t welcome.) I’d rather deal with ones which have been made explicit, though!

  7. Hey Luanne. This Friend speaks much of my mind.
    Uniforms: Baden Powell initially patterned the Scout uniform on the South African Peace Keepers, sort of a provincial police, not the military. It still was a uniform. But then, even Quakers wore a uniform originally, to help differentiate THEM from US. Equality of participants? Absolutely. The necker is the most universal symbol of Scouting/Guiding.
    Oaths: Bibliclly based. An oath is sworn BY or TO something, as if that makes what is said or promised more true than if not “sworn to”. Friends say that there is only one measure of truth, and not two (sworn to or not?) , therefore, we should always eschew the “oath” and always ascribe to saying what is true. The Scout/Guide “promise” is just that. Notice that is it is not sworn “to” something (by God, by my mothers grave, so help me hanna, etc.). A Scouts word is sufficient. I note that when I speak on the subject. Every Scout Law I have encountered around the world includes “A Scout is Trustworthy” and no mention is ever made about SWEARING to something to make it more believable.
    Likewise, I advise Friend Scouts to stand politely but not say the Pledge of Allegiance here in the USA. It is a Loyalty Oath and borders on Idolitry (promising to be loyal to a piece of cloth?) . Maybe I have been lucky, but no one has ever questioned me or Scoutson about this.
    Authority: I do not salute the flag or other Scouters, same reason, equality. Has to do with our tradition against “hat courtesy” . Doesn’t mean I don’t respect someone’s authority or responsibility or follow someone’s instruction,
    Military relation: BP did invent Scouting as a response to his observation of how un-prepared the young men were in his day. Is our uni really reminiscent of an army uni? Look at all the bling! It is specifically against BSA (can’t vouch for any where else) policy to use military uni items.
    Peace testimony: BP wrote extensively about his hope that the Scouting brotherhood around the world would be a force for understanding and peace. “You can look it up”.
    Nothing really unQuakerly about Scouting /Guiding with the right knowledge/attitude. Never learned Map and Compass or safe use of an axe at Quaker Camp. And, never learned the value of Worship at Scout Camp.

    “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!”

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