Sometimes apparently trivial things can be very significant. So, for instance, those of us who have elderly relatives or friends look out for little signs - the tremor of the hands, a failure to remember a name, an unsteadiness on the feet - that may speak of underlying problems. So it is with cultures. Sometimes little signs are just as revealing of underlying issues as large ones. Recent events with the Girl Guides are a case in point.
What has happened in connection with the Guides' Promise is striking and highlights, with considerable clarity, the way that British culture is moving.
The facts of the case are still being debated but what seems to have happened is as follows. Until recently the Guides' Promise went like this: '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 Guide Law.' Recognising that for people of other faiths or no faith the wording might raise issues with regard to openness and inclusivity, a consultation was held, after which it was decided to have a new promise with the following wording: '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.' Some Christians in Guiding have been disturbed at what they see as a betrayal of 'Guiding's Christian ethos'. The reality is more complicated, not least because, to quote the British Girlguiding website, 'Girlguiding is not and never has been a Christian organisation'. These changes are nevertheless a troubling signpost to where we are.
It is a signpost that points backwards to where we have come from. My experience of Scouting is ten years that left me with fond memories of having been a Cub, a Scout and then a Venture Scout who weekly 'promised to love God' but admittedly without anyone explaining to me what that actually meant.
The new Guides' Promise is a signpost to where we are going. There is an extraordinary vagueness in the new version: 'to be true to myself' and 'develop my beliefs' and to serve the Queen 'and my community'. It is difficult to see specific meaning in any of the three clauses. Does this reflect the wider move of our society towards relativism, a laissez faire approach in which nothing is right or wrong except, perversely, believing that there is a right and wrong?
So while a move to increase the reach of a valuable and beneficial youth organisation is undoubtedly to be applauded - no one, let alone a child or young person, should be excluded from such experiences because of their religious beliefs or lack of them - there might perhaps have been a better way of going about this that avoided conforming to the pervading atheistic culture. It's not simply that this culture has ripped up the Christian values and the solidity that they stood for. It's that they have been replaced by words and ideas that are meaningless. The mood of our times, political correctness and New Atheism are in danger of creating a national morality that is a house built on sand. And we have it on very good authority what happens to such houses.