Joanna Bogle. Catholic Guides should speak out for the movement's real values
Can we still trust the Guides with our girls?
hat is happening to the Guides? Millions of women around the world owe happy teenage memories, useful skills acquired, friends made and confidence built to this organisation. Since the 1970s it has, of course, had regular periodic updates, with new uniforms duly featured in the press: girls in baseball caps and tracksuits alongside old black and white photographs of the Queen as a long-ago 1940s Guide in a large hat and thick woolly stockings.
But something rather sad is occurring with the latest handbook, Look Wider! aimed at the young leaders section, from 15-25, from which the movement's new leaders of local groups are meant to emerge.
Much of the content is lively and attractive, but there's a new mood of pessimism, and the movement's aims have clearly narrowed, from challenging young people to new ideas, to acceptance of society's current norms and a feeling that it's better to go along with the tide.
The message is that Guiding will help you "to do what YOU want to do". The idea seems to be that Guiding is about pushing yourself to achieve personal goals of self-fulfilment. This is almost the exact opposite of what the movement originally set out to do, which was to encourage girls with a spirit of service, self-giving, openness and neighbourly help.
One page features a crude picture of plump, bosomy girl in a tight-fitting teeshirt holding out a condom. The visual message that this is an entirely normal thing for a girl to do. She's wearing a rather sullen expression, as well she might. Her chances of a fulfilled and happy adolescence are distinctly marred if she goes along with the sordid condom-culture that is dominant offered to youth today. Sadly, the Guide Association seems to have decided that this is nevertheless a culture that need not be seriously challenged.
Girls are urged to invite speakers from the Brook Advisory Centres (which offer abortions and contraceptives to girls as young as eleven) to their meetings, and to contact lesbian and homosexual organisations. It is suggested that they hold discussions about same-sex unions and about bisexuality. The local Family Planning Centre is also mentioned as a useful resource for a speaker about contraception.
Just as sad as the content are some of the omissions. In the section on relationships, there is no mention of marriage. This is particularly tragic, as many young people in Britain today have no direct personal experience of growing up in a family with two parents married to one another. Their only chance of finding out what marriage means, and the enormous satisfaction and stability of achieving a lifelong union, is through talks and information given in a safe, non-threatening environment by a group which is genuinely committed to their best interests. Guiding is ideally placed to do this.
The Guide movement was created specifically to introduce girls — espe
cially those from narrow and disadvantaged backgrounds — to a wider vision and a new understanding of their capabilities. Now it seems to be falling back into the very inertia it was designed to stop. The rationale for not teaching about marriage is the sense that "the girls don't know about this — it's not in their experience. Therefore we can't help them" Guiding was not meant to be about telling girls what was already in their experience, but specifically going well outside it by opening up new doors and lifting girls' visions, encouraging them to challenge rather than merely follow, unhelpful trends among their own peer group.
Religion is poorly handled. God has to share a page with sexual relationships! This will only tend to reinforce stereotypes about religion and sex. The only religious website that seems to be recommended is something called Spiritweb which is standard New Age stuff (astrology, charkas, spiritual consciousness, meditation etc). This in wholly unjust to the many Guide groups which are loosely connected to churches and through which many teenagers, and their parents, do in fact seek some sort of link with a concrete Christian tradition with which they are happy to be identified even though they may not express this in terms of regular attendance or full commitment.
Answering criticism of this, a spokesman for the Guide Association said that above all they wanted girls to have self-esteem. But many young people have masses of self-esteem, covering deep moral problems and personal anguish. They don't need feel-good slogans from adults, but a real sharing of skills, instruction in virtue, inspiration for the future, hope and confidence for what lies ahead, faith to overcome difficulties.
What will Catholic Guide leaders do? How will they manage with the new handbook? Some may delete the most offensive pages and hope for the best. But this fails to address the core problem. In many parishes the Guide group is seen as being part of the work and mission of the local Catholic church. Are Catholic Guides now to be told to invite speakers promoting abortion or bisexuality or the homosexual lifestyle?
TilITE IS A Catholic Guide group listed in the Catholic Directory, with branches in various dioceses. What does it plan to do? If it remains silent, it will be assumed that the Catholic Church finds the ideas in the new programme acceptable. But this is not the case. The time to act is now. Probably, the Guide Association would be open to comments and suggestions from a major denomina
tion which represents a substantial number of Guide groups around Britain. Here is an opportunity to take a stand — and it was precisely this sort of situation for which the Catholic Guide group was formed. Catholics have long been aware that in any major youth group such as this, there may be occasional tensions. It is crucial to have an official Catholic representation which not only fights for the rights of Catholic Guides but in doing so speaks up for basic human values which many will share, opening up a creative and necessary debate. We will find, when we oppose the crude messages in the new handbook, that we are not alone but have many allies.
WE SHOULD look, for example, at the problems that will be faced by Guide groups with an Islamic membership. They will share much concern over the handbooks content. If we fail to speak out and the handbook comes to be regarded as expressing the view of life that Guides are generally expected to adopt, we can expect that there will be a widespread, though probably silent, rejection of the whole concept of Guiding in the Islamic community, a drifting away from the Guide movement of groups that had hitherto been able to feel comfortable with its message. This is a great pity. Something that had been a potentially unifying source in society will instead dwindle into something that fails to hold anybody with any real convictions.
When Baden-Powell created the Scout and Guide movements, he was already operating in what today we call a multi-cultural environment. He was very much an Empire and Commonwealth man and he knew about the different world religions. He devised a system that could accommodate the basic moral vision of all of them in the essentials that mattered to the formation of the young, purity of heart, loyalty, faithfulness, rejection of pornographic images, a spirit of service, a reverence for the things of God, neighbourliness, acquisition of useful skills, respect for tradition, care for all created things.
The future looks like drift. Attempts to create a pretence that Guiding can be "cool" and part of the "clubbing" culture are doomed: young people know when they are being patronised and they simply loathe it when older people try to dress up an idea in language which is meant to appeal to youth. It always fails: fashionable ideas and jargon are out of date almost as soon as they are published in book form. On the other hand great and thrilling visions and ideals have a timeless appeal. Pope John Paul was greeted by over two million young people from across the world in Rome this year — the largest gathering of people in one place for a common purpose ever in European history. He told them to hold fast to great truths and aim for noble ideals: "Christ calls you, the Church needs you, and the Pope believes in you, and expects great things of you!". It is this sort of appeal which will draw out the huge potential of youth, which is fresh in each generation. Guide leaders might like to take note.