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. 


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.


Even as early as 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 amonst the regiments serving there, and among the native peoples, and would know both the differences and similarities in the essence of their customs 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 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 the 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 'factory clubs' for junior staff electing to move towards following a Guide programme, or existing boys' or girls' youth clubs opting to transform themselves into being Scout or Guide groups.  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 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 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 and 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 to cater for those not 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 it 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 the members' specific needs, and would therefore not suit those without those specific needs well.  

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 is signed by both parties and states the benefits and obligations of each party.  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.


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 each wear their Guide uniforms whilst doing so.  From this, some units developed a habit of setting a regular date when all who wished might attend together whilst wearing uniform.  But it was always intended to be an optional extra, only for those who cared to join in, 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, colour parties and other extras into the mix - again, simply for those who cared to participate.  It appears that in some areas, the voluntary aspect was 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, and requirement for parental wishes to be fully respected in this area.


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, 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 both the same faith and 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."