The British Guide Association has defended a program for girls aged 14 and older following criticisms in the press that the program handbook contains unsuitable material and wording.

The Guides' chief executive, Terry Ryall, defended the organization and the program in a statement, saying: "The Guide Association aims to be a progressive organization which recognizes what real life is like for its young members and listens to them. When we stop listening and responding appropriately within our moral code we will cease to exist."

The worldwide Guide movement—known in the U.S. as Girl Scouts—has its roots in the association started in 1910 by Robert Baden-Powell as an equivalent for girls of the Scout movement he developed for boys. From the start, the movement has had a strong moral basis, and in the U.K. the Guide Association operates under a moral code known as the Guide Promise and Laws.

But the British Guide Association is now caught in an argument between progressives and traditionalists as some members complain about a handbook produced as part of a program, known as Look Wider, for girls aged 14 and older.

The handbook is intended to be a tool for section leaders running personal development programs for Ranger Guides, numbering about 7,000 out of the Guide Association's U.K. membership of 700,000.

Some critics are unhappy with the book because it contains a picture of a young woman holding an unrolled condom. They also complained that it did not include the word "wife," using "partner" instead, and that "god" is mentioned without a capital letter.

One complainant pointed out that "husband" is mentioned but only in what she called "a curious case of reverse discrimination"—as "househusband."

The controversy was brought to light by The Daily Telegraph newspaper in London. Penny Thompson, a senior Guide leader in Liverpool, northern England, told the newspaper that the U.K. association had lost its way, replacing the ideal of service to others with "doing what you want to do."

"What message is being sent by the color photo of a girl holding an unrolled condom? Another page recommends contacting a gay or lesbian advice line. I looked in vain for any mention of abstinence."

The Guide Association has issued a statement complaining about the newspaper's "sensationalized view" of the program.

However, the association refused a request by ENI to see a copy of the Look Wider handbook.

According to the association's statement, "the [Look Wider] program tool in no way encourages young women to think selfishly … It remains firmly grounded in the core values of the Guide Association worldwide."

Paul Werb, the association's spokesperson, told ENI that "the section that has been publicized is only a small part of a large program, and no leader is obliged to cover it. The word 'partners' is used, but we are not anti-marriage. We want to inform people about their choices.

"The handbook emerged from three years of detailed consultations, and the response has been very positive."

However, Penny Thompson told ENI that a petition she has sent to headquarters—asking for the Look Wider program to be reviewed attracted 36 signatures out of 38 leaders she approached in her local area—a success rate of almost 95 percent.

"The issues go wider than the section on sexual relationships," she said. "It seems that the material is based too much on the views of young people themselves. Consultation yes, but it isn't the sign of a confident organization if you just ask young people what do you want to do."

Ian Ware, a Scout leader in Anglesey, North Wales, expressing a personal view, told ENI that he was fearful that the approach of Look Wider might spill over into the Scout movement, which would be "not helpful."

Ware said, "I showed the picture of the condom to girls and young women in the target age range for the program, and they were not enamored with it. It caused a lot of raised eyebrows."

Related Elsewhere

Read The Daily Telegraph's "Guides accused of losing their way" and "A very bad guide."

In the U.S. the Boy Scouts have been under intense scrutiny this year because of the organization's refusal to promote homosexuality. Some of Christianity Today's most recent coverage of scouting stories includes:

Scouts in a Jam—or Jamboree? | The courts protect rights. The media-savvy win hearts and minds. (Oct. 23, 2000)

Scouts Defend Homosexuality Policy | Supreme Court scheduled to hear case in April. (March 14, 2000)

Scout's Dishonor | The judge told the Scouts just what their oath meant—and didn't mean. (Dec. 2, 1999)

Courts Divided on Scouting | (April 27, 1998)