The Girl Guides could face a possible split if the movement does not compromise over the decision to drop God from its membership oath, Christian leaders have warned.
A prominent bishop has called on other Christian Guide and Brownies volunteers to mirror the decision by the leaders of one troop who have pledged to retain the traditional promise which contains references to God and country.
The Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, said that he hoped “many others” would follow the stance taken by the women in Harrogate, North Yorks.But Jem Henderson, 28, who volunteers at the group, based at St Paul’s United Reformed Church in Harrogate, who is an atheist, said the local leaders were effectively excluding people who do not believe.
She accused them of discriminating against people like herself and trying to trap the movement in the past by pledging allegiance to a “beard in the sky”.
The organisation announced earlier this year that it is to replace its traditional pledge with a new wording, removing references to “God” and “country”.
In one of the biggest changes in its 103-year history, the promise to “love my God” is to be scrapped and replaced with a pledge to “be true to myself” and to “develop my beliefs”.
The group’s patriotic commitment to serving their country is also to be changed to a pledge of allegiance to the “community” in the new promise which comes into force on September 1.
It provoked controversy in some quarters but Gill Slocombe, the Chief Guide, said the new wording should make it easier for the organisation’s 550,000 members to make the promise with sincerity.
But now a group of leaders from Harrogate, North Yorks, have signalled publicly that they plan to defy the leadership and continue to use the old pledge at the groups which meet in their church.
Hazel Mitford, who runs the Guide group; Jayne Morrison, the Brownie leader and Alison Ellison, who runs the Rainbow group for younger girls, announced that they will encourage all girls and leaders in their groups to continue to use the original promise.
The Guides have made clear that from Sept 1 only the new promise will be recognised.
But Bishop Nazir-Ali, who was among those who criticised the original decision to drop the old promise, urged other Christian Guide leaders to follow the example of the Harrogate women.
He also challenged the leadership to allow those who wished to retain the former oath to do so.
He said: “If there are others like this group – indeed I would hope that here are many others like it – why should they not be allowed to continue to have a reference to God?
“If these people really believe in diversity they would allow them to do that.
“Why should they face expulsion from the Girl Guides movement which is rooted in the Christian faith?”
He added: “I hope all Girl Guides will remain true to the vision, but, yes, if particular branches want to retain the reference to God they should be allowed to so.
“If these people really do believe in diversity and this is not just a back door to secular totalitarianism, they should be supported in this.”
“I hope that these people are allowed to remain Girl Guides, I hope that the founding vision remains and isn’t discarded.
“But ultimately if there is not going to be any diversity permitted that these people may need to group together in a way that they can support one another if there is more than one [group] – I am sure that there will be.”
But Miss Henderson, who is being supported by the National Secular Society, accused the group’s leaders of being in denial.
“It makes me angry: it is discriminatory against me, it is discriminatory against any atheist who is in the group already,” she said.
“You can’t just put your fingers in your ears and say ‘la,la, la, this isn’t happening’ and that is what they are basically trying to do.
“It is not fair and I am cross about it.
“I think that the new promise is good: swearing allegiance to your community is much better than swearing allegiance to a beard in the sky.”
She added: “Now we live in a society where [a significant proportion] of people say that they are agnostic or atheist, it is good that the Guiding movement themselves have recognised this.
“It is just unfortunate that there are little bastions left of people who are actually wrong about the Guiding movement – they think it is based on God but actually it is based on girls.”
Miss Henderson, a blogger and copywriter, explained that she had recently volunteered at her local Guide unit because she wanted to do some volunteering.
She said she had been specifically drawn to the organisation after its new chief executive, Julie Bentley, described it as “the ultimate femminist organisation” and because of the signal sent out by its new secular pledge.
“I was a Brownie and a Guide at this pack which is why I joined this particular unit,” she said.
“I didn’t know that they were the most rampantly Christian Guiding unit in the whole country, it is just the unit I used to go to and I wanted to give something back.
“It was when I saw that the Guiding Association was going secular that I decided to join.
“I did some volunteering at university, with people with mental health problems, but that stopped and I wanted to do something else.
“I thought as a femminist what could I do.
“Someone described the Guides as the ultimate feminist organisation, they stood up against Page three and I have a lot of respect for that and I thought this is an organisation I could believe in.
“This is a clash between the old promise and the new