IT HAPPENS less often now. Fewer and fewer parents are choosing (or feel the need, or under pressure) to have their children baptised. But, from time to time, parishes still get requests for baptism from families with little or no connection to the congregation. Many clergy look on it as an evangelistic opportunity, while cynically expecting that the family will disappear with the newly baptised, never to be seen again.
In addition, the decline in religious observance has become so well entrenched that many young parents who seek baptism for their child have difficulty finding qualified godparents. To sponsor a child for membership in the Church (for that is what a godparent does), godparents must themselves have been baptised (and, under the canons of the Church of England, confirmed, as well). Even if those minimum qualifications are met, those who agree to stand as godparents are likely to see their function as more of a social obligation than a religious one.
It is no wonder that the Revd Dr Robert Beaken argues for a serious rethink about the purpose of godparents (Comment, 4 May).
WHEN I was the incumbent of St James the Apostle, an Anglican church in Regina, Canada, I tried a new approach: I appointed “parish godparents”. While parents were allowed — and encouraged — to nominate additional godparents, the parish appointees stood as godparents for every infant we baptised. Beyond the baptism, their task was to maintain contact with the families, to encourage them to remember the promises that they had made, and to model a life of faithfulness for the child.
Some other parishes have tried a similar model, but have referred to the parish appointees as “parish sponsors”. To some degree, I think the name is less important than the part that they play and their function. The term “parish sponsor” has little meaning, however, especially to those who have limited connection to the parish. People understand “godparent”, however incompletely.
THE parish godparents at St James’s, Brent and Lynda Gordon, were appointed in November 2011, and their first parish godchild was baptised that month. At every baptism, they have presented a baptism card and a prayer card. Over time, they began to present a baby blanket made by the parish knitting group, the Faith and Hope Stitchers. My successor in the parish now has them present the baptismal candle as well.
As we began, it was not clear precisely what the scope of their responsibilities would be. The certificate they were given (an adapted version of the certificate that we give to all godparents) includes a list of the promises made in the service, based on the Baptismal Covenant in the Book of Alternative Services. In addition, Brent and Lynda’s certificate says:
On behalf of the Parish, you made a commitment:
- To work to maintain a connection with these children and their families in the hopes of ensuring the children will be nurtured in the faith and life of the Christian community;
- By your prayers and witness, to help the children grow into the full stature of Christ.
Within that framework, the Gordons were given the freedom to find a model that worked, and that would be sustainable, as the number of their parish godchildren grew.
Beyond the baptism, the Gordons maintain contact on a regular basis, including cards for birthdays, Christmas, Easter, and the anniversary of the baptism. From time to time, they will advise the families about children’s programmes or other parish activities. In due course, they will advise parents about confirmation courses or other youth programmes. In a couple of instances, they have unofficially taken on the position of parish godparent for older siblings who were baptised before we implemented the parish godparent scheme.
The precise level of engagement, of course, depends on the openness of the families. In the most successful cases, the effort to maintain contact works both ways, including gifts of children’s art for the proud godparents.
AFTER some prayerful discernment, the choice of the Gordons seemed obvious. They were mature in their faith, and active in the life of the parish. But they were childless, and I didn’t know why. As Lynda has said, “We felt your unease at this request, and your instant relief when we agreed; and we could understand that — as people without children — this request could go south really fast.” But, after some discussion, we were all reassured, and the appointment proceeded.
I will never forget the day, however, a few years into the process, when Lynda grabbed my hands after the service and announced with excitement, “I now have 16 babies!” We had discussed how they felt about not having had children of their own. Although it had not been debilitating, there had been a sense of regret, perhaps even grief. But that personal grief also meant that they had love to share.
THE godchildren now number 36, and the first is now eight years old. At a minimum, contact has been maintained between the parish and each family, and, in several instances, a solid relationship has developed. Best of all, a faithful couple have had the opportunity to express their love of children and their love of the Lord.
It seems only right to give them the last word. Lynda says: “This has given us a great opportunity to participate in the future life of the church, and make the programme whatever we wanted it to be. A number of years ago, an older attendee at one of the baptisms was quite fascinated with the concept of parish godparents, and commented that we must be ‘rich’ to take this on.
“We are truly rich and blessed in so many ways to have these little people in our lives through their cards, school photos, and Facebook posts; and to watch as they grow. It’s more than we could have ever imagined. Thank you.”
The Ven. Malcolm French is Vicar of Cambridge, New Zealand, and Archdeacon for Parish Renewal in the diocese of Waikato & Taranaki. He was formerly incumbent of St James the Apostle, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. He can be contacted at email@example.com.