What Is The Role Of Godparents: Are They Really Relevant Today?
UPDATED 27th FEBRUARY 2010
It seems strange, in this highly secularised world, that the concept of Godparents appears to be such a hot topic. It makes you wonder if, despite our anti-religious dogma, we’re not – deep down – actually spiritual beings after all.
Well, of course, I’m in no doubt that we are! But the article that follows – first written in August, 2009 - suggests that there does seem to be some strong feeling, plus a good deal of confusion.
So here, below, is the blog I wrote following my ‘appearance’ on BBC Radio 5 Live, plus links to a second one written when I was asked to speak on BBC Radio 4 in the context of a spat between retired BBC presenter, Anna Ford, and distinguished British author, Martin Amis.
The Richard Bacon Show on BBC Radio 5 Live airs a debate between midnight and one in the morning. The topic, in August 2009, was Godparents. I was asked to be one of the panellists, to explain the role, and to argue the case that Godparents were still relevant in this day and age.
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure that they are!
But let me qualify that statement. It’s my belief that Godparents are highly relevant. I just don’t think that they can be to the worldly society in which we live. Consequently, before taking part in the 5 Live programme, I found it difficult to understand why so many people persisted in what – for them – must have little meaning. The answers that came out of the show, however, were quite illuminating.
THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF BAPTISM
It was easy enough to do a little research on the subject via the excellent Church of England website, and I was able to tell the BBC Radio audience the bare bones of the history and role of Godparents. Baptism, of course, was a Jewish custom, but there is no record of Jesus having had Godparents when he was baptised in the River Jordan, and it is unclear when the practice started.
Nowadays, the Church of England asks that there should be two Godparents of the same sex as the child, plus one of the opposite sex, though exceptions may be made. And unlike the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, Common Worship, authorised for use in 1998, requires the parents of the child to make the same promises as the Godparents.
THE RESPONSIBILITIES OF GODPARENTS
The responsibilities of Godparents are to: encourage and to pray for the child, and by example and teaching do their best to see that he or she learns to live by trust in God.
“However,” I finished, “baptism these days is more of a social event.”
A young Curate from Basildon rang in, immediately.
“Why do people like you agree to baptise members of the public if they don’t believe in God?” he was asked by the Presenter, Matthew Bannister, who was standing in for Richard Bacon.
It turns out that that the Church of England is legally obliged to baptise anyone who asks. In the Basildon church, however – and I guess many others – it appears that the current policy is to put both parents and Godparents through a preparation course, to ensure that they understand what they are doing. This, to me, makes eminent sense.
My opposite number on the panel made the somewhat clichéd point that “it takes a village to bring up a child”, and I pointed out that the church agrees with this concept. The whole argument against the “private” christenings requested by many people is that the child should be presented to the church congregation during a Sunday Service, and thus be delivered into the care of the whole community.
There were those who felt that a Godparent should be prepared to take on a child in the event of the death of its biological parents. It’s a fine idea, but one which I doubt would occur. For one thing, despite the threat of terrorism, the fact is that most parents in Western society live to a good old age. For another, can you imagine relatives deferring custody of a child to a Godparent?
The old chestnut about children not being subjected to “religion” “until they are old enough to make up their own minds” was raised, but not demolished. My answer, had I been invited to give it, would have been what it always is: is it wrong to subject children to table manners, a sense of right or wrong, and a work ethic before they are “old enough to make up their own minds” about such things? Of course not! Because responsible parenting – and Godparenting – demands that we educate our children from an early age precisely for that reason: to give them a basis of knowledge from which to form their own opinion.
THE GODPARENT AS MORAL MENTOR
Much was made of the Godparent as a moral, spiritual and emotional guide. It’s an argument with which I can’t disagree. Neither, I concluded, was I trying to claim that Christians had a monopoly on morality.
However, when one of the guests in the London studio, and one of the callers to the show freely admitted to making promises with their “fingers crossed behind their backs”, poured scorn on the liturgy as “hullabaloo”, and laughingly admitted to the irrelevance of lying before a God in whom they had no belief, one has to ask what sort of integrity or morality they might be instilling in the child in their care? Surely even an atheist would not claim to be without any moral compass?
Why, I asked, have a child baptised in the first place? Wouldn’t a good party serve as well?
PRESSURE FROM AN OLDER GENERATION
Matthew Bannister reminded the audience that some of the callers had spoken of the pressure put upon them by an older generation. The point had, earlier, been made that sometimes a combined service is requested: a baptism for children born out of wedlock, plus a wedding for the parents.
Not given the opportunity to answer the point, I sat in the studio feeling vaguely bemused. It was only on the way home in the car that I felt I could put my finger on the possible reasoning behind such an event. Some scorn had, previously, been poured upon the “mumbo-jumbo” that one was required to read at a Christening Service.
“I reckon,” I said to my husband, “that there’s a degree of confusion and superstition at play here.”
The fact is that young men and women think nothing of living together in what, a few decades ago would have been termed “living in sin”. For their grandparents, however, that is a problem once children arrive. For whilst they might silently accept something that they can’t actually condone (the living together outside wedlock), once a baby arrives, then in their minds that puts a whole different complexion on things.
Baptism was viewed by many, in times gone by, as a magic bullet which guaranteed you a place in heaven. Babies whose lives were at risk were hurriedly christened in order to avert the tragedy of them going to hell. Because it was thought that without baptism, you were damned.
Nowadays, many perceive that to be no more than superstition! Baptism does not guarantee anything. But neither is it merely symbolic. It is either a declaration of one's own faith. Or it is a statement of intent: to do one's best to ensure the faith of an infant.
And faith - which is the sum of belief, trust and obedience - offers the only guarantees promised by God. And then only as a gift from him.
Listen to the debate here, if it's still available.