The Religion of the Self

The Girl Guide Promise

There was a problem at the beginning of last month. On 1 September 2013 the Girl Guide promise, “the beating heart of guiding” according to the Chief Guide, was to change. The promise that was being discarded was as follows:

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 Brownie/Guide Law

Instead it was mandated from Girlguiding’s central authority that from the 1 September every girl and leader must say these words:

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 Brownie/Guide Law

Jesmond Parish Church sponsored brownie and guide units are refusing to make the new promise. They are right to do so for at least five reasons.

Girlguiding’s charitable object and agreements

First, Brownie/Guide Law requires it! The charitable object of Girlguiding is to help girls “develop emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually”. For our units at JPC that has to be in the context of the sponsorship agreements. These require that “in accordance with the Guiding Manual all members are encouraged to be active in a religious faith”; and a similar requirement is in the Guiding Manual itself in the section entitled, Equality and Diversity – Spirituality and as updated on 9 September 2013. Of course, the religious faith in which our parents know their girls will be encouraged to be active, and for which many parents choose our groups, is that of the community of JPC – a Christian Church. But both Jesus and the Apostles make it clear that the “self” cannot always be seen as a source of enlightenment and an object for commitment to which you should be true. For sometimes a person’s “self” is a dark and conflicting source of deception and to be resisted. This biblical psychology is expressed in Ephesians 4.18-24 that says people can be …

… darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ! – assuming you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

So the question for the Christian is, “to which self are you to be true?” The Christian must never promise simply to be “true to myself” but only “true to the self that I am called to be by God”. Even many secular psychologists and therapists have distinguished “the self as I am” from “the self as I ought to be”.

Psychological Problems

So, secondly, this promise has problems psychologically. In his much acclaimed book Psychology as Religion – the cult of self-worship, Paul Vitz, professor of psychology at New York University, sees this failure to define the self as a serious problem. There are, indeed, “many conflicting parts and layers of the self … If so, which is the ‘real’ self? How does one choose among the various selves.” Philosophically each is “real”.

Another psychologist, Philip Cushman, argues that the “self” is defined by the individual’s particular group or historical context. For example, the 20th century saw a change from a version of the “self” where people needed to save money and restrict their sexual and aggressive impulses. A new “self”, then, emerged that felt the deep need to spend money for happiness and to follow a range of impulses in what has been called “self-actualization”. The earlier “self” was more focused on developing a moral and religious character, while the new “self” seeks to be free from outside authority and “find its own moral compass” (to quote the Chief Guide). But what if the compass lacks a true moral north? Girls being true to a “self” that is materialistic and gives free rein to sexual and other instincts is surely not in line with the charitable object of Girlguiding.

Contrary to the Christian Faith

Thirdly, this promise is clearly contrary to Christian anthropology (the Christian doctrine of man). Vitz puts it like this: “Jesus Christ neither lived not advocated a life that would qualify by today’s standards as ‘self-actualized’. For the Christian, the self is the problem, not the potential paradise. Understanding this problem involves an awareness of sin, especially the sin of pride; correcting this condition requires the practice of such unself-actualized states as contrition and penitence, humility, obedience and trust in God.”

Fundamental to Christian ethics is the fact that humankind is made in God’s image, created for fellowship with God, and Jesus reveals not only true God but also true man. But fundamental also is this awareness of sin. The reality is that men and women, by nature, do not put God first, others second, and themselves last. Rather they put themselves first. However, such an understanding, having been overlooked by many in the Western world for so long, is now being recovered. Hobart Mowrer has written: “For several decades we psychologists looked upon the whole matter of sin and moral accountability as a great incubus and acclaimed our liberation from it as epoch-making. But at length we have discovered that to be ‘free’ in this sense, i.e., to have the excuse of being ‘sick’ rather than sinful, is to court the danger of also becoming lost.”

This “lostness” can be evidenced in people seeking, like the guides, to “develop their own beliefs”. But to put such weight on our “free” selves, in Mowrer’s words, is to “have cut the very roots of our being; lost our deepest sense of self-hood and identity; and with neurotics themselves, find ourselves asking: ‘who am I?’” To have a new promise that may do that hardly helps girls “develop emotionally” – a part of the object of Girlguiding.

Responsibility and Guilt

Fourthly, this promise does not help girls deal with guilt. The doctrine of sin encourages a sense of responsibility for our own behaviour and so gives us true significance. But with responsibility goes guilt, if we are irresponsible; and guilt needs to be dealt with to avoid self-hatred. The Christian good news is that where there is “repentance toward God and … faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20.21), in God’s mercy there is forgiveness and an erasing of guilt. This is through Christ’s death for us, and instead of us, on the Cross where he bore our punishment. How that is possible is a great mystery; but that it is possible is a great truth.

Today, however, there has been an eclipse of guilt by shame. Shame is possible as it simply relates to how ashamed we feel before other people. But selfism has no place for guilt as guilt has to do with the violation of an external standard (so for a guilty verdict in a court a jury is not concerned with how ashamed the defendant feels but whether objectively the law has been broken). To encourage a girl in her delusion that there is no objective divine moral law but all is from her own self, is cruel as well as spiritually and psychologically damaging.


Fifthly, English State law means the promise is illegal. The doctrine of the (established) Church of England is defined (by law) by The Church of England (Worship and Doctrine) Measure 1974. Section 5.1 refers to the Thirty-nine Articles and Article XXXIX forbids “vain” or “rash” promise making. So for a Christian guide unit leader or a sponsoring church (such as JPC) to be endorsing a vain or rash promise is contrary to the law; and Church of England clergy are doctrinally bound by Section 5.1! But this new promise is either vain if it is judged to be (in the language of The Observer newspaper) “gobbledygook”. It is rash if it is understood but the implications are not thought through, and it is not seen how, in effect, this is a secularist imposition and a quite unacceptable form of spiritual discrimination in forcing girls and leaders to make promises against their consciences.

Of course, some people will say the new promise simply means “doing what is right rather than going with the crowd”. But that is not its meaning in our post-modern historical context; and we are told that girl guides themselves are saying it means to “think of your self first and be selfish.” The hard reality is that this new promise is, whether intentionally or not, a move for exclusion. Secularists (often oblivious to their religion of the self) are allowed to say the promise with a good conscience, but not Christians. So much for Girlguiding’s equality and diversity policy! Their founder Baden-Powell would be horrified.


JPC Brownies and Guides are not proposing to disband. They will be enrolling girls using the promise that was in use prior to 1st September. There are various ways forward. Please pray for the right one.

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