Girlguiding, The New Promise, The General Synod, Pragmatics and Confusion


On 1 September 2013 a new Promise was enforced on Girlguiding UK. It said:

I promise that I will do my best:
To be true to myself and develop my beliefs [instead of love my God];
To serve the Queen and my community [instead of country];
To help other people, and
To keep the (Brownie) Guide Law.

The Jesmond Parish Church October 2013 Coloured Supplement on The Religion of the Self explained why this promise was unacceptable (as did the February 2014 edition dealing with “community” for “country”). On 30 October Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali convened a small meeting in London at which among others Mrs Glynis Mackie (leader of our JPC 37th Newcastle Guide Unit and known in the UK for her refusal to use the new promise), Mrs Alison Ruoff (a magistrate and member of the General Synod of the Church of England) and myself were present.

On 9 December Miss Hilary Cooper, the Chief Commissioner Girlguiding North East England, sent me a letter (and I understand all our parents of our girls’ uniformed groups as well). This announced that unless our units used the new promise “we [the Girlguiding hierarchy] will have no choice but to remove the link between Girlguiding and Jesmond Parish Church as of 31 December 2013”. On 17 December I wrote to the Chief Guide that Hilary Cooper was demanding of our Church sponsored units something contrary to Guide law and Church of England law. I was grateful for the Chief Guide’s reply on 20 December 2013. But she seemed not to have understood my substantial point. The Chief Guide, then, no doubt received a shock (as I did – but a very happy one). For the following day, Saturday 21 December, a full centre page feature of the Daily Mail was about Glynis and the girls in her unit. It explained why Glynis is such a good leader and there seems always to be waiting lists for girls to join JPC guides. Following that article Glynis told me that the explusion date had been deferred to 19 January; and just before that date the ban seemed completely lifted. However, a meeting was required by Hilary Cooper to see if a way forward could be found.

31 January 2014

Hilary Cooper convened a meeting on 31 January in Jesmond at which, also present, were others of the hierarchy, our leaders, parents, Guides, Rangers and some church staff (I did not attend). In a subsequent letter to Glynis, Hilary Cooper wrote about her own contribution: “At the meeting I outlined a way forward for the Jesmond Guides to consider, namely the ‘framing’ of the Promise to set it in a context that we hoped would make it acceptable to members of the Jesmond Guiding community. By ‘framing’ I mean those who are struggling with the wording can provide the context of their belief if they wish, through use of a separate statement before making our Promise. The specific suggestions I made were, ‘In the presence of my God …’ or ‘On the understanding that I will always be true to my God’. These were only examples however and it would be a matter of personal choice. We know that this approach has already been happily adopted by some other members of Girlguiding. This is the way forward that we have offered. Girlguiding remains committed to one Promise for all and this suggested way forward is made with the expectation that our new Promise will be the only one used.”

Hilary Cooper’s notes of the meeting make it clear that these new words were new thoughts at the meeting and not generally acceptable as missing the problem “which is the displacing of ‘God’ and replacing it with ‘Self’”.

This letter detailing the 31 January meeting was sent on 12 February. It was after she had see that day’s edition of The Daily Mail with a headline UK Girl Guide troop which refused to drop “God” from their oath win their fight after being threatened with closure. The following article was about Glynis’ unit in particular and after there was no longer an ultimatum and the Girlguiding leadership seemed to be willing at least to talk about change.

However, Hilary Cooper’s letter to Glynis complained that this “article in today’s Daily Mail has resulted in inaccurate coverage.”

The General Synod Debate

The very next day, Wednesday 13 February, Alison Ruoff proposed a Private Member’s Motion in the General Synod of the Church of England on Girlguiding and the issues JPC Guides had raised nationally. The motion was:

That this Synod believe that girls of all ages in the Girlguiding Movement should not suffer discrimination but be able to continue to promise to love God when enrolled rather than making a wholly secular promise.

In the event, there was an amendment proposed by the Rev. Andrew Dotchin, a clergyman who spoke as “an ambassador for Girlguiding”, a recognized role in Girlguiding. His (confusing) amendment was:

That this Synod: a) congratulates Girlguiding on its recent Centenary and applaud its work in helping girls and young women to take their place as full and responsible members of their communities; b) believes that girls and women of all ages should be able to continue to promise to love God when enrolled; and c) commends the suggestion that, when a member chooses so to do, the Promise may be prefaced with the phrase “in the presence of God I make my Guide Promise.”

Andrew Dotchin said that this amendment, if passed, would state the Synod’s belief that “girls and women of all ages in the Girlguiding movement should be able to continue to promise to love God when enrolled, and suggests that a member could choose to preface the promise with the phrase: ‘In the presence of God I make my Guide Promise …’” His amendment was carried by 164 in favour and 154 against with 15 absentions. So the following day, 14 February, the newspapers were read as saying the Girlguiding authorities were allowing the old promise to be said. After all Mr Dotchin was an ambassador for Girlguiding and he had supported the idea that girls and women should be allowed to do that. (It is probable many voted for the amendment on that basis; others may have suspected that this was not necessarily the case and voted against it.)

The Chief Guide’s letter to The Times

The following week on Tuesday 18 February, presumably after the Girlguiding hierarchy had taken stock, the following letter appeared in The Times from the Chief Guide under the heading Girlguiding: “Sir, The Church of England General Synod has just debated Girlguiding’s Promise (Feb 13). Before we changed the Promise, we heard that many girls struggled with it and said it was often a barrier to joining our charity. Our trustees took this very seriously. Being open to all girls is one of our most deeply held commitments. I was immensely proud of the care our volunteers invested in forming the Promise with its pledge to actively ‘develop my beliefs’ and ‘be true to myself’. People have told me this wording demands meaningful thought about beliefs and values. Of course, with over half a million members it was inevitable not everyone would be happy. A few members have told us that as part of their Promise celebrations they chose to say words before making our Promise that made clear what their personal beliefs are. This seemed no problem to us. And it was heartening to see Synod commended this pragmatic approach. But I would like to be clear that none of this changes the decisions that came out of our careful consultation last year. We are absolutely clear that the words of the Promise, and our commitment to one Promise for All, have not changed. Chief Guide Gill Slocombe”

I felt this needed a response and so submitted the following to The Times: “Sir, The Chief Guide in her defence of only allowing ‘one Promise for All’, namely ‘to be true to myself’ (Feb 18), did not mention the Church of England General Synod’s vote ‘that girls and women of all ages in the Girlguiding Movement should be able to continue to promise to love God when enrolled.’ Surely the suggested ‘pragmatic approach’ of allowing a statement of personal beliefs makes a nonsense of the new promise when a Guide states she believes it wrong and misleading! Also the Chief Guide did not mention a Feb 4 letter from the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales and referred to in the Synod. This drew attention to the Guide Association's governing Royal Charter whose Bye Law 24 requires commitment to the ‘Fundamental Principles’ of the World Association of Girl Guides. Article 2 of these says: ‘The Fundamental Principles of the World Association are those of the Girl Guide/Girl Scout Movement as expressed in the Original Promise and Law, laid down by the Founder –Original Promise: “On my honour, I promise that I will do my best to do my duty to God and the king [or God and my country]”.’ Rev David Holloway” This was not published. The confusion and the debate continues.

A biblical response

The words of St. Paul in the Bible come to mind:

“let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Galatians 6.9).

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