Leslie's Guiding History Site


Religion and Guiding

Religion and Guiding

One of the most contentious topics in Guiding, past or present, is the question of Guiding and religion.  From earliest days, the Promise has made it clear that faith is a significant part of Guiding, alongside active citizenship and service. 


However Guiding is not, and never has been, tied to any particular religion, or denomination, despite common misconceptions to the contrary - often, sadly, misconceptions as likely to be held by past and current Leaders and Commissioners, who should know better, as by the general public.  Guiding has never been a Christian organisation, it has always been multifaith, right from the start.


The misconceptions are probably partly down to the wording of the Promise itself, with many people (in the UK at least) mistakenly assuming that the "God" referred to in the Promise for so many years would naturally or automatically be the Christian God - though it was never stated, and indeed, it is not and was never so.  It could also be related to the fact that, despite strong official discouragement of public uniformed parades of Guides from the earliest days of the movement, and the need for special permission to be obtained from the District Commissioner in order to hold any joint parades of units (as for many years was required at a time when it was one of the few things which required this) customs did grow up in some localities of having regular formal unit parades to churches, and it was sometimes wrongly implied (or even stated) that attendance at these was compulsory - even though the rule book has always banned any compulsion, or even any pressure, to attend church services or parades, regardless of whether units were sponsored or not.  Sadly, some Leaders tried to imply otherwise, or rewarded those who attended and not those who didn't, even where non-attendance was for reasons of conscience (in which case attending would have meant breaking the Promise) - and even up to the present day, such practices, sadly, do still occur in some places.


Yes, in the first handbook of 1912 (and repeated verbatim in the second handbook of 1918) , it was stated "There are many kinds of religion, such as Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Mohammedans, and so on, but the main point about them is that they all worship God, although in different ways.  They are like an army which serves one king, though it is divided into different branches such as cavalry, artillery, and infantry.  So, when you meet a person of a different religion to your own, you should not be hostile to him, but recognize that he is like a soldier in your own army, though in a different uniform, and still serving the same king as you."  In some ways this tone and the chosen analogy is not surprising - as Robert Baden-Powell had served in the army in India and southern Africa for many years, so he would have been familiar with the beliefs and practices of many different religions found amongst the regiments serving there, and among the native peoples of those lands, and would know both the differences and similarities in the core essence of their practices and beliefs, far more so than would be the case for most British people of that era.  And the analogy shows the degree of both understanding and indeed acceptance of equal status among the different belief systems within Guiding, which the founders personally held, and which they also sought to encourage in the Guides, right from the start of the movement - there is a clear request for respect and acceptance in the passage quoted above.  But it also shows that even then, the 'God' in the Promise was intended to be the appropriate figure in whatever religion any individual member followed, and that "God" did not refer solely or particularly to the Christian God.


In some locations, a custom grew up of units being 'sponsored' by organisations - usually either places of worship, workplaces (especially in the days when the school leaving age was 14 and the upper age for Guides 16) or in schools.  Often, this was simply an organic thing - with existing 'clubs' for girls electing to move towards following a Guide programme.  Or a clergyman, mindful of his general responsibility to encourage the morals of all the youth in his area whether of his church or not, might seek suitable people to take on the roles of Scout or Guide leader in his community in order to provide healthy positive activities which could occupy the spare time of the local youth profitably, to reduce the risk of them finding less positive pastimes for themselves instead.  A school might want to include Guiding in it's curriculum to occupy some of the out-of-classroom hours (especially in the case of boarding schools) with the movement's combination of education with outdoor fresh-air fun and fellowship being very similar to the schools' aims of marrying education with a healthy outlook.  But such developments, though welcomed, were not planned or intentional on the part of the founders.  We do have to bear in mind that Guiding grew organically, and so headquarters had to make decisions somewhat 'on the hoof' as issues arose, rather than necessarily planning all aspects in advance.


There are only two (very specific) types of sponsored units which can exist in Guiding.  

'Open Sponsored' is where a unit is given support (which can be use of equipment, use of premises or facilities, staff resources, financial subsidies, or any combination of these) by a sponsoring body, but membership of the unit is nevertheless entirely open to all in the locality who wish to join Guiding - whether they have any connection to the sponsoring body or not.  

'Closed Sponsored' is where membership of a unit is restricted solely to members of the sponsoring body, and anyone who is not a member of the sponsoring body is not permitted to join the unit.  

Closed Sponsorship was long discouraged (and was only ever permitted provided there was an 'Open' or 'Open Sponsored' unit available in the immediate locality in order to cater for those who would not be eligible for the closed-sponsored unit), and it has been the rule for several years that no new Closed Sponsored units may be opened (with the existing ones being encouraged to consider moving to being 'open sponsored') - so nowadays closed sponsorship tends only to exist in groups such as those at boarding schools, where the restriction exists solely because the logistics of including girls who are not school pupils would be tricky - or for specialist units such as those at schools for the disabled where the unit programme is adapted to fit their members' specific needs, and would therefore not suit those who would not benefit from the adaptations made.  

Just as not every unit which chooses to meet in a school hall is necessarily sponsored by that school (open or closed) - and most aren't - so not every unit which happens to meet in a hall belonging to a religious group is necessarily sponsored by that religious group (and many aren't) - because they are only 'sponsored' if a current, formal, written sponsorship agreement exists - which has been signed by both parties, and states the benefits and obligations of each.  If there is no signed sponsorship agreement, or the agreement is lost, or out-of-date, or lapsed - then the unit is not sponsored - and has no more obligation to support the body they hire premises from than any other hirer does, it is simply a commercial rental transaction.  In many parts of the country there is no tradition of sponsored units.  Guiding has long worked to encourage open-sponsored units to keep their sponsorship agreements regularly reviewed, to ensure the contents remain relevant for both parties, and continue to fall withing Girlguiding's policy and rules, and also to avoid inadvertent breach of the terms by either party.  However, changes of leadership can mean the documents being mislaid, and reviews to be overlooked.


In some localities, a tradition of 'Church Parades' sprang up.  Usually the root of those was that some Guides and Guiders who regularly attended a place of worship either by themselves, or with their families, desired to go to that place of worship together and to wear their Guide uniforms whilst doing so.  From this, some units developed a habit of setting a regular date to be set aside for those who wished, to wear uniform at church, wearing ordinary clothes on the other weeks.  But attending church in uniform was always intended to be an optional extra, only for those who cared to join in, and not a formal unit outing - and certainly not something unit members were expected or obliged to participate in.  Over time, some units chose to add formal parading to the church, taking the unit's flag with them, and other extras into the mix - again, simply for those who cared to participate.  It appears that in some areas, the rules on the voluntary aspect were either forgotten, or ignored, by some Leaders.


In terms of religious policy, the 1935 edition of "Policy, Organisation and Rules", the official Guiding rulebook, stated: "Every Guide should attend the services of the religious denomination to which she belongs."  And also "Where a company consists of Guides of various religions, they should be encouraged to attend the service of their own denomination, and in camp any form of daily prayer and of weekly Divine service should be of the simplest character, attendance being voluntary."  It also stated "Combined public parades of companies are not allowed without special permission from the Commissioner; and in the case of church parades, in no circumstances should a Guide be taken to a church other than that of her own denomination, without the written consent of her parents."  At that time, camping, and church parades, were the only two activities for which written permission was required - which would tend to suggest just how strongly the organisation felt about the need for parental permission for attendance at places of worship, and the requirement for parental wishes to be fully respected in this area.  From the beginning and into the 1960s, Guides or Guiders of the Roman Catholic faith were not permitted to participate in church parades to non-Catholic churches, or in Guides' Owns.


The 1985 leaflet "The Religious Policy of the Girl Guides Association in the United Kingdom" stated "Membership of the Girl Guides Association is voluntary, and is open to girls and women without discrimination as to race, religion or any other circumstances, providing they are prepared to make the Promise."  It also stated "Where a Unit consists of Guides from various faiths or Christian denominations, members should be encouraged to attend their own places of worship.  For such Units, at their regular meetings or in camp, any form of prayer or of divine service should be composed with all those present in mind, and with attendance clearly voluntary."  So - not just technically voluntary, requiring someone to ask to be excused - but clearly voluntary, thus, stated as voluntary and an alternative to attendance offered or provided.


So, from earliest days, and without variation ever since, the policy in Guiding has always been to encourage members to develop their own beliefs regardless of what religion, denomination or belief system these beliefs might be drawn from, and Church parade has never been compulsory (not even in sponsored units), and it was considered important that it was made clear to all members that attendance was optional.  Leaders are not allowed to pressure members to attend any particular place of worship, or offer rewards of any sort to those who attend one place of worship rather than another, or none.  Acts of worship have always had to be multifaith unless the leader is certain all unit members belong to not only the same faith but also the same denomination thereof, and Guiding has always recognised that unit members could be from any of a wide range of religions, and denominations within religions.  The policy was consistent and unchanging over the decades, and is still very similar today - the Guiding Manual (the current rulebook) as at 9 April 2013 stated: 


"Guiding does not subscribe to any particular faith or religion and believes that every member should be encouraged to take an active part in the religion or faith of her family and community.  Leaders and Commissioners should take account of the special requirements of the faiths of unit members - such as dress, diet or holiday days - when planning unit programmes and other events.  Attendance at any act of worship must always be voluntary and be seen as part of the spiritual development of the individual member.  Attendance at church parade or any religious gathering is not part of the guiding programme.  No young member under 16 may attend a service of a faith or denomination other than her own, at a guiding event, without the consent of an adult with parental responsibility for her." 

In June 2022 it read: 

"Religion or belief

Girlguiding is open to young members and volunteers of all faiths and none and believes that every member should be encouraged to explore their beliefs and to take an active part in the religion or faith of their family and community where appropriate.

Leaders and commissioners should take account of the special requirements of the faiths of unit members – such as dress, diet or holiday days – when planning unit programmes and other events. 

Ongoing spiritual development is a core part of what Girlguiding offers girls and young women. This forms a key part of our Promise and Girlguiding programme and is outlined further in our educational framework. However, participation in any religious act of worship or activity in or out of the unit meeting place must always be voluntary and with the consent of an adult with parental responsibility for the young member."

"Spiritual development is a key part of Girlguiding's programme

Girlguiding is open to girls from all backgrounds and beliefs. This includes girls with no faith or who have a non-religious belief sysem. 

It's important to think in advance about how you will make sure that girls from all faiths, and none, will be included in your unit.

This can mean taking a more bespoke approach. If you need some specific advice or can't find the guidance you need here, get in touch with your local commissioner or email [email protected]

First impressions matter

Think about how your unit looks to new or potential members. Holding meetings in a place of worship, or attending religious events, might make it look like your unit is for girls of only one faith. Think about how you can make it clear that your unit is open to all girls.

Talk about all beliefs

Make sure that girls from all faiths and none are understood and made welcome in your unit. There are places within the programme to discuss differences in beliefs - an evening on the Promise would provide an ideal opportunity.

Don't focus on one faith

Don't just refer to one faith during unit meetings and activities. For example, doing a reflection or song that refers to a god wouldn't be inclusive for all girls.

Think about when your unit meets

Particularly where this may clash with religious activities of faith groups in your community. For example, some members may not be able to attend meetings on a Friday night for religious reasons.

Ask questions

Remember to always talk to the young member and their parent/carer before making any assumptions. If a volunteer, parent/carer or girl has told you about their religious beliefs, it is useful to ask questions to make sure you understand how to include them in guiding.

This can include:

  • do they have any dietary requirements?
  • is there anything that you need to consider when planning the programme, for example, activities that they would not be able to take part in?
  • are there days that they won’t be able to attend for religious reasons?
  • are there any fasting days they participate in?

Give as much information as possible

Always give members all the information about events, including who will be attending and what activities are planned. This will allow for them to make an informed decision about whether they attend.

Remember, religious parades are not part of the Girlguiding programme. No young member should attend a faith-based parade without consent from their parent or carer, and taking part in any religious act must always be voluntary."