ONE potentially awkward subject, when parents contact their parish church about having their baby baptised, can be their choice of godparents.
The Church of England’s canon law requires there to be, ideally, three godparents who are baptised and confirmed. This is because confirmation completes or rounds off baptism, and godparents are sharing their baptismal faith with the baby being baptised. The baptism application form rather unhelpfully states: “the requirement of confirmation can be relaxed in certain cases,” without saying what these cases are.
Very often, by the time parents have got round to telephoning me about baptising their baby, they have already invited people to be godparents — usually their best friends or work colleagues. They rarely have any idea that being a godparent is a religious commitment. They see it as a social link: the godparent will keep a friendly eye on the child, and perhaps do him or her a bit of good later on in life.
When I was an assistant curate, I once had to advise a family that they could not have a godfather who followed a non-Christian religion, and advise another family that they could not have an atheist who categorically refused to say the baptismal promises. In both instances, the embarrassed mother of the baby was furious with me.
Usually, though, when I explain that godparents are supposed to be baptised and confirmed, the parents fully understand. They can usually scrape together a few people who have been baptised. They can occasionally find someone who has also been confirmed. If the parents have had to “stand down” any unbaptised friends whom they have previously approached about being godparents, I often suggest that that they might stand near the font during the baptism service as “special friends”, and this can sometimes smooth things over.
I WISH, though, that the C of E would re-examine the place and function of godparents in the modern world. As contemporary English culture becomes increasingly secularised, popular knowledge of religious vocabulary and imagery shrinks. Statistics show a decline in the number of people being baptised and confirmed.
There is, thus, a sort of reverse snowball effect: fewer baptisms and confirmations inevitably lead in turn to fewer baptisms and confirmations. Parents who now struggle to find a godparent who is both baptised and confirmed will soon struggle to find a godparent who is just baptised. Turning a blind eye, out of kindness, to godparents who are neither baptised nor confirmed is not a good thing to do.
The question arises: do we actually need godparents? In reality, what function do they perform? Do many baptised babies go on to be confirmed and to follow Jesus Christ all the days of their lives because of input from their godparents? Godparents are not an essential part of the sacrament of baptism. What worked well in a parish a thousand years ago is perhaps not best-suited to the altered conditions of the 21st century.
The Church of England needs to have a debate about baptism and the place of godparents, if it is to fulfil its responsibilities both towards God and towards the people who come to it seeking baptism for their children.
It might, for example, decide, after careful consideration, to retain the requirement for godparents to be both baptised and confirmed, but make godparents optional; or it might say that just one godparent, instead of three, would suffice.
THERE might also be something to be said for inventing a new category of “sponsors” (or “witnesses”, or “companions”) for people who were not baptised and confirmed, and who would not make religious promises in the service, but who desired to commit themselves to supporting the baby being baptised.
If someone is not baptised or confirmed, it does not necessarily follow that he or she is uninterested in, or hostile to, Christianity: baptism and confirmation may never have been explained to them, or they may never have had the opportunity to be baptised or confirmed. It might be possible to “mix and match” so that a family could select one religious godparent and two “sponsors”.
Clearly, amending canon law regarding godparents, or inventing a new category of “sponsors”, or whatever one wants to call them, could have potential pitfalls, such as sponsors’ being seen (unfairly, I hope) as second best; but other problems about baptism will also surely arise over time if the C of E takes no action about godparents in a fast-changing society. The first step is the frank acknowledgement of a widening gap between the expectations of godparents expressed in canon law and the daily reality in parishes in England.
Faith, like flu, is caught from other people. I hope that parents, godparents, and all who come to a baptism service might find it a heartening experience that plants seeds of Christian faith in them, or deepens an already existing faith. I should not like to think that some babies went without baptism simply because there was a problem in finding suitable godparents.
Baptism matters and has eternal consequences. We do not want to cheapen it, but neither do we want to erect — even inadvertently — unnecessary barriers.
The Revd Dr Robert Beaken is Priest-in-Charge of Great and Little Bardfield, in Essex.
Read Sam Wells’ reflections on what it means to be a godparent