The Scout Law ends with this one, the twelfth point. We Boy Scouts faithfully said we were reverent every week in the same breath that we said we were “courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful and thrifty, etc.” I’m not really sure how many of those qualities we could claim as our own. At eleven years old most of them were vocabulary words we hadn’t yet learned in school. They were just words.
The Scout Oath ends on a similar note, “I will do my best to do my duty to God and to the Queen…”
The Boy Scouts have in recent years been forced by the courts to think deeply about what constitutes reverence and “duty to God.”
“Can I say Allah instead of God?” Muslims asked.
“Can I substitute, ‘my Dharma’ for God? Hindus asked.
“Can I say, ‘the country in which I now live in’ instead of saying ‘to the Queen’?
The Scouts have answered “yes” to all these questions.
To my knowledge the Americans never bothered asking about swearing fealty to the Queen, and replaced ‘the Queen’ with ‘my country’ long before I joined. We were patriots, not royalists.
But, what do you put instead of “duty to God”? How ought the oath be revised to include a professing atheist?
Perhaps we should ask young George Pratt who was recently granted permission to join his local Troop; he was formerly banned for his determined atheism and adamant refusal to mention the “G word” in his personal oath. Now the Scouts have decided to prepare an alternative oath to allow those adults and children who profess atheism to join as full members.
“The chief executive of the Scout Association, Derek Twine, argues that the current rules simply force people to become ‘hypocritical or dishonest’ by taking the promise against their own beliefs,” (Bingham, John, 2012. Scouts Welcome Atheists a century after Baden-Powell demonized them. The Telegraph, 4 December, p.1).
As a boy, my family and I attended church every week, so reverence was a given, even if I didn’t know what it meant. But a number of my fellow Scouts were not so active in church which leaves me wondering if they felt hypocritical or dishonest when they made their weekly claim of religious devotion. Most probably never gave the matter a second thought. One might just as easily ask if I was hypocritical or dishonest when I said I was “loyal, helpful, courteous and kind”?
But, is reverence a word or practice akin to bravery and cleanliness? Is reverence simply one quality among many, or is it something more? What does reverence look like? What is our duty to God?
When I think about the behaviour and lifestyle of my ‘hypocritical’ friends I can’t think of too many ways, beyond Sunday worship, that their lives were different from my own. They seemed no more or less constrained by Christian morals than I was, no more or less susceptible to boyhood temptation, no different really than me or any of my church cohorts. In fact, there were times when their bravery and courtesy exceeded my own.
They were like that centurion whom Jesus extolled for his exemplary faith (Matthew 8:5-13). They acted reverent without knowing it.
What is George Pratt doing in his spare time? Harassing little old ladies? Stealing sweets from the local shops? Tossing his empty lager bottles into his neighbour’s front garden? Allowing his dog to soil the pavement?
I doubt it.
In fact, aside from the new oath he’ll soon be swearing, I’ll bet his lifestyle is indistinguishable from his ‘hypocritical’ fellow scouts. He will enjoy a long lie on Sunday morning, but how many of his Scouting peers will do the same?
Less than one in ten members of the general public rouse themselves for Sunday worship. Is there a higher percentage in the Scouting world? I hope so, but given my experience as chaplain in the local schools I am dubious. The vast majority of the children I work with have no more than a perfunctory knowledge of the church and its teachings. And yet, they are as brave and clean and courteous as the children who populate our Sunday school program, and so are their parents.
George wanted to be a member of the Scouts not to prove a point about the taking of false oaths, but so that he could go caving with his pals. He wasn’t coached by his parents; he was and is simply precocious.
But, his determination raises profound questions for the rest of us, especially those who do not consider themselves hypocritical or dishonest in our professions of duty to God. What is that duty? Is ours a different duty than our non-worshiping friends? Do we just sign allegiance to a more nuanced explication of duty (I believe in God the Father Almighty…)? Do our lives really look different? Should they? And in what ways?
The proof of our faith is in its practice. Ever pragmatic, James teaches us, “Faith without works is dead.” Perhaps if we work at it we can show George that duty to God is winsome and life-giving and worth promising each week at his Scout meetings.