A Question of Faith?

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Some members of Scouting Ireland may have been surprised to notice that the association is now a ‘faith based movement’, if the strategic plan (presented under the name ‘Vision 2020’) unveiled by a couple of key figures in the senior leadership, is to be believed.

Exactly what this means is not articulated to any great extent, but it has raised some concerns that the somewhat backward, conservative lurch that the association has taken in recent years is now poised to impact that concept most widely open to personal interpretation – ‘faith’.
Scouting has always had a strong affinity with organized religion and indeed many members of Scouting Ireland come from a Christian background, specifically a Roman Catholic one. Many of the values that Scouting espouses are rooted in the traditions of the World’s great religions and this is arguably something that brings many positive attributes to the way we do things.
The trouble is, this new focus and the seeming desire to build it into our association DNA by writing it into our strategic plan is likely to worry even those who have a strong faith. The lofty intention as set out in the strategy document may cause less concern than the manner in which the associations socially conservative leadership will seek to interpret that phrase ‘faith based movement’ once it appears permanently in print.
The rationale is hard to understand. Its not likely to be an attempt to build faith and a spiritual focus into Scouting’s DNA – after all, its already there. Nor is it likely to do much to reverse the general trend in Irish society away from organized religion, particularly by younger people – Scouting simply does not have that kind of influence.
If ‘faith’ is to become a central plank of the association’s strategy, what faith will it be? The obvious answer in an Irish context will be Christianity, specifically Catholicism. Whilst this impacts less on those of us who come from that background, what of our members (and future members) who have a different faith?
More to the point, what of our members who have no faith? What does this mean for the many who question their faith at some point in their lives – usually when they are young? Does this apparent lurch back to the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland, 1950’s style have room for younger people to question, explore and challenge their faith, as they often tend to do.
Should Scouters who choose not to believe or Scouters who have a faith that falls outside this ‘vision’ simply get their coat? What happens when a youth member experiences a period of questioning or crisis of faith? Do we no longer have room for them in the new (old) style of Scouting?
This seemingly innocuous reference (several references in fact) to ‘Faith’ in the Vision 2020 document seem to provide a glimpse into a vision that is appearing to be far less inclusive and far less youth-focused than the PR spin would suggest.
To those of us who keep our personal beliefs separate to our work with young people (who may or may not share our faith), this is a worry.
What at its core, is a fundamentally robust piece of strategy, with the potential to gain widespread support across the association and thus end up being widely implemented and a fitting legacy to those who have driven it, risks being undermined.
The exclusion of many interested members who would broadly support, but like to challenge and question, from the framing of this document was a bad leadership decision that lacked courage. The glossing over of real engagement with ordinary members in favour of a largely engagement-free ‘consultation’ was hopelessly naïve.
The thinking that this strategy can now in effect look to exclude those without faith or those exploring and questioning their faith is not only surely setting up a conflict with the States equality legislation, but equally is arguably placing Scouting Ireland firmly out of step with wider societal trends.
Scouting is a non-formal educational movement, not a faith based one. Scouting in Ireland has always looked to tomorrow, not yearned for yesterday. Faith and its place in society have evolved, often with positive outcomes. The way in which Scouting approaches the concept of faith must also evolve, not regress to an era that has passed.
(This article was first published on December 4th on the Irish Scouter’s predecessor blog ‘Scouting Innovations’)

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