I used to be a kingfisher. And before that, an imp.
Yes, as an eager Brownie Guide in the 1970s, dressed in a uniform of yellow and brown (fortunately, two colours that were in vogue that decade), my 'six' was the Imps. Unfortunately, this meant that we had the worst song of all the sixes in our Brownie pack. While the Pixies were "helping people out of fixes" and the Elves would "think of others not ourselves", the Imps were "quick and quiet as any shrimps". Even at the tender age of seven, I could sense the air of desperation about that one.
But the only thing that made me feel more uncomfortable than the ditty I was forced to sing each week was the quite literal fear of God put into me by the spooky, modern church hall where the meetings were held. Our Brownie pack was affiliated to a church - as most were - and I felt rather fraudulent being there each week, as, fairly typically for middle class Brits in the 1970s, I grew up in a family that was religious in that wishy-washy, still-sort-of-believing yet non-church-going sort of way. I never felt at home in a religious setting, and as a result, I was happier when I later became a Guide. Partly because our unit met in the non-religious, non-creepy wooden Guide hut in our village and partly because I was no longer an Imp but a Kingfisher, which, as we all know, is the king of all birds.
The fear of God I felt as a girl, however, is about to be removed from the Guiding and Scout movements. It's been announced that the promises of both are to be changed (or rather, in the case of the Scouts - who provide a variety of promises - a new one is about to be added). In the new Guide promise, the words 'to love my God' are being changed to 'to be true to myself and develop my beliefs' and the line 'to serve the Queen and my country' will become 'to serve the Queen and my community'.
This has come as unwelcome news to various Christian commentators, bishops and Peter Hitchens. The latter lamented in the Mail on Sunday that the change was a "sinister" move by "radical revolutionaries" - before going on to compare this new-look "politically correct" Girlguiding UK to the Communist pioneer movement and the Hitler Youth. And before you go thinking that that's just Hitchens being typically bonkers, the Bishop of Bradford, Nick Baines, has also played the Nazi card. "Content-free language does not create neutral self-consciousness; it merely empties all language of meaning," he wrote in a blog post about the new Guide promise. "And that does not create safe little altruistic models of moderation; it opens the door to little Hitlers as well as Snow Whites." (Little Hitlers and Snow Whites - now there are two good names for Brownie sixes!)
To be fair to those complaining, the change in the wording came as a shock to me, too. Mainly because it revealed that the promise has changed since I was a girl. Back then - and I can still recite it by heart - we said: "I promise that I will do my best, to do my duty to God, to serve the Queen and to help other people, and to keep the (Brownie) Guide law." Looking at the changes being made now, I can see that the promise they're altering is already different from the one I made. And that's because this latest change is just one of many that have been made over the years to the Guiding movement, of course. As this list shows, Brownies have previously promised "to help other people every day, especially those at home" and "to try and do daily good turns to other people" - and the Brownie Law once demanded that "The Brownie gives in to the older folk". Thank goodness they don't have to live by that now, especially given that the older folk include Peter Hitchens.
And of course it's right that a movement changes in order to stay relevant and appealing to the yoof of today. As a young girl, for example, I looked enviously at pictures of Brownies and Guides in other countries whose uniforms included tomboyish trousers, not girly skirts or dresses - and now, of course, that's exactly how British Brownie and Guide uniforms look (what's more, I've discovered that they now also include T-SHIRTS and HOODIES. It's political correctness gone mad!). That said, I was always slightly relieved that we British Girl Guides didn't have to follow in our American cousins' footsteps and flog cookies to people. Although if we had done, maybe there'd be more women making it into the final 12 on The Apprentice each year. Primarily because they'd be better at selling.
Similarly, the change from 'country' to 'community' isn't just welcome because it rids the promise of old-fashioned jingoism, but also because community-mindedness is a wonderful thing to instill in young people (and surely caring for those in your community is simply loving your country on a practical, micro-level?). While it's being dismissed by some as touchy-feely and trendy, I for one am delighted that young girls will now be consciously made to think about what "being true" to themselves means - something which will help to give them confidence and a strong sense of self, both of which will empower them in everything from personal relationships to career choices.
In addition, the new wording encouraging girls to "develop" their beliefs rather than pledge an allegiance to God isn't just about keeping Girl Guiding diverse and inclusive - it's also more realistic. Many of those making the promise don't believe in God - I know I didn't - and changing the wording is surely a better idea than changing the Guide salute so that it's no longer three straight fingers but two crossed ones. In fact, the news that the Scout Association is about to go one step further than the Guides and introduce a promise for atheists (who until now have only been allowed to join as 'associate members') strikes me as both welcome and also slightly hilarious - the implication being that the Scout movement has possibly finally realised that there have been atheists in its ranks all along, like gays in the military. Still, a new promise is better than a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy.
Personally, I'd go the whole hog and remove the Queen from the Guide promise, too - but as these new changes show, right now, it's easier to get rid of God. In his blog, the Bishop of Bradford also commented that "even those who are glad to see God go must be embarrassed by what has replaced him." But I'm not. I'm proud to see young women being empowered and encouraged more than ever to think for themselves, to develop a strong sense of self and to help those in their community. Living as we do in an age where feminism is still a dirty word to many, where women are still absent from most boardrooms, and where violence against women has reached epidemic level, the Girl Guide movement is needed - and thus needs to be more inclusive - more than ever before.
And apart from anything else, it could have been a lot worse. They could have replaced God with Justin Bieber. Now that would have been embarrassing.
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