That Girl Guides Promise

The furore this week has been over the change in the Girlguiding1 promise. There is a new promise for the girl guides, one that drops out the word God and replaces it with some words that are fairly meaningless. The full text of the new promise and previous one are as follows:

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 (Brownie) Guide Law.

The previous promise:

I promise that I will do my best:
To love my God,
To serve the Queen and my country,
To help other people
and
To keep the (Brownie) Guide Law.

So what do we do about this? Protest that the Girl Guiding movement is leaving behind Christ? Rejoice that girls no longer have to make a empty promise to love a God they don’t know about and don’t believe in? Well, before we get to to that, it might be worth looking at the promise before that one:

The one before the previous promise:

I promise that I will do my best:
To do my duty to God,
To serve the Queen and my country,
To help other people
and
To keep the (Brownie) Guide Law.

Notice the difference. The big thing isn’t the change from ‘duty’ to ‘love’ (although that is interesting and significant) but the change from “God” to “my God”. The older promise assumes that the God everyone was promising to serve was the triune God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The 1994 promise allows you to pick and choose what God you want to promise to love. So now a Muslim or a Sikh can say the promise, because they are saying it about their God. It goes from being an exclusive promise about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to a promise that can be said about any higher power or ultimate idol. That’s actually a pretty good compromise for a non-Christian organisation trying to be inclusive. Everyone makes a promise to serve their own God. That means if you value acceptance above all else, you can promise to serve your God of acceptance. If you value scientific rationalism above all else, you can promise to serve your God of scientific rationalism. Believe in whatever God you want, they say.

The irony of the new 2013 promise, is that for all the talk of it being more inclusive, it’s actually significantly less inclusive. Now you can’t promise to serve your own God, whatever that might be, now you have to promise to serve the modern God of self-esteem and individualism. “I promise to be true to myself and develop my beliefs” or in the language of the old promises “I promise to love myself and do my duty to me”. The only God you can promise to serve now is yourself. Other people have pointed out how ridiculous this notion of being true to ones-self is. They’re right. To be true to myself and develop my beliefs only makes sense if you have some inherent built in compass to draw you to goodness that will never point you wrong. By being true to yourself and developing your beliefs, you can become a better, fuller person. Except if your beliefs are that white people are superior to everyone else. You shouldn’t develop that belief. Or what about the belief that it doesn’t matter if you lie, as long as no-one finds out? Probably shouldn’t develop that one. Pity now the poor girl guide who takes those promises seriously and looks at herself, and says “you know what, I’m not sure I want to be true to this person I see who so easily gets angry?” “I’m not sure I want to be true to the person who harbours horrible thoughts towards my friends” “I’m not sure I want to be true to this person who loves the praise of other people more than the praise of God”. Tough!

In all this, what may not be obvious, is how much youth workers have to blame for this. This is pure youth work language here. This is the baby of the four core values of youth work and the JNC. The definitive book in secular youth work, the one that’s set out the philosophical underpinings for youth work, and the one that a thousand youth workers training for their professional validation reach to cite from, is Kerry Young’s The Art of Youth Work. This words from the promise are a direct outworking of this philosophy. Here’s Kerry Young on why you do youth work from that book:

“As such, the core purpose of youth work is to engage with young people in the process of moral philosophising through which they make sense of themselves and the world, increasingly integrate their values, actions and identity, and take charge of themselves as empowered human beings.
Youth work therefore enables and supports young people to:

  • Explore their values.
  • Deliberate on the principles of their own moral judgements.
  • Make reasoned choices and informed decisions that can be sustained through committed action.

In the process, young people learn and develop the skills of critical thinking and rational judgement; the ability to engage in ‘moral inquiry’; and a disposition towards virtue as a central feature of their identity and responsibility as social beings in a social world order”

This is the philosophical logic that leads to promises like “be true to myself and develop my beliefs”. Of course that philosophical logic only works if you believe that by thinking hard about who you are and where you come from, you’ll end up disposed towards virtue, so much so that it becomes a central feature of their identity. If you don’t believe that, if you believe that people can think as hard about virtue and still end up deciding everything is meaningless, then the entire exercise comes undone. And ultimately, if you believe that Truth is uniquely wrapped up in knowing Jesus Christ, not in knowing yourself, then there’s no way this new promise to “be true to myself” is going to help anyone.

So what’s a youth worker to do? Keep telling your young people earnestly about the truth that is Christ Jesus. Display him as the person to put their hope and trust in, as the God they can promise to love and obey. Then, as new people raised with Christ, they can be true to themselves and God.

1 Yes, that’s right, the charity that runs Girl Guides in the UK is called Girlguiding, not as you might reasonably assume ‘Girl Guiding’ or ‘the Girl Guiding Charitable Association’ or anything that makes sense in the English language. Regular readers of the blog will now how much I despise calling youth work ‘youthwork’. Needless to say, ‘girlguiding’ now equally feels my ire.

2 Two things I like about Kerry Young’s The Art of Youth Work. She properly works through all her arguments for why youth work should be the way it should be (even if you disagree with the premises underlying her arguments) and she gets that youth work is spelt youth work.