What does it mean to be a godparent? Singing God’s song when your godchild forgets how it goes

by
04 May 2018

In his introduction to a collection of letters written to his son by Stanley Hauerwas, his son’s godfather, Sam Wells, reflects on what it means to be a godparent

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THE term “godparent” has two kinds of largely unhelpful connotations. The first is gothic and sometimes rather terrifying. Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 film The Godfather tells the story of how Michael Corleone emerges from the shadows as his father’s youngest son, and becomes the ruthless leader of a murderous Mafia clan. It teaches the viewer never to trust a man holding a violin case, and to associate the term “godparent” with manipula­tion, violence, and virulent lust for power.

Meanwhile, in Pyotr Ilyich Tchai­kovsky’s 1892 ballet The Nutcracker, based on E. T. A. Hoffmann’s story, the children of the house gather round the sparkling Christmas tree, whereupon, as the clock strikes eight, in walks the mysterious Herr Drosselmeyer, councillor, magician, and godfather to the daughter of the house, Clara. He brings with him four dancing dolls, made by his own hand, and a wooden nutcracker in the form of a diminutive man, whose midnight transformation into a life-size character drives the rest of the story. The ballet teaches the viewer to see a godparent as a purveyor of mysteries, fables, and magical dreams.

Then there is the 1697 Charles Perrault fairy tale Cinderella, which tells how a young woman, though oppressed by her stepsisters and forced into virtual slavery, none the less goes to the Prince’s ball and wins his heart through the intervention of her fairy godmother, who conjures dress, slippers, carriage, and footmen with nonchalant aplomb. This tale teaches that a godparent can make dreams come true, especially for those in the gutter.

If these historic connotations of a godparent are unduly vivid, the contemporary alternative is invariably anodyne. Faced with an upcoming baptism, parents cast around anxiously for suitable friends or family members who may be relied on to take seriously the threefold challenge of being conversant with Christianity, represent a not entirely inappropriate role-model, and remember to send Christmas and birthday presents without undue prompting. Those in receipt of such an invitation divide between the honoured, conscientious, prayerful, and attentive, and the dilatory, sheepish, and neglectful.

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But, to be fair to the latter (probably the large majority), there is minimal support for the task. Who teaches you what it means to be a godparent? Where are the how-to guides, the godparenthood-for-dummies manuals, the confessions-of-a-lapsed-godparent tell-all memoirs? A quick Google search on “being a godparent” reveals a majority of entries deliberating conscientiously about whether one can be a godparent if one is not a Christian. There are undoubtedly a series of exceptions; but there seems to be no rule.

In an early essay, Stanley Hauerwas points out that the origin of “gossip” is god-sibb: the conversation of close friends and family members in considering the well-being of a younger member of the household. Today, we think of gossip as always a bad thing: the discussion of the interests and actions of third parties without true regard to profound goods such as loyalty, trust, confidentiality, empathy, and compassion; the trading of others’ secrets for the betterment of one’s own reputation as a lively conversationalist. But gossip began among the inner circle of those whose judgement was genuinely sought out, whose kindly spirit was beyond question, and whose concern was genuine.

A godparent is one who stays faithful to God, and faithful to their godchild, and seeks regular conversation with the one about the other — godly god-sibb, habitual interchange about how we may walk in God’s ways, and about how, as we walk our ways, we find God walking beside us. This book is intended to be a practical companion for godparents, taking up themes as they arise in the life of godchild and godparent, and trusting that, in the relationship between the two, the ways of God will surface and the purposes of God will become clear.

A godparent doesn’t so much guide the godchild through the contours of life or make crucial interventions at moments of decision; instead, the godparent remains faithful whatever the contours of life, and abides even when the decisions have mostly been bad ones. This is a book about such faithfulness and such abiding.

 

I HAVE nine godchildren. When I was young and single and had fewer responsibilities for others, I was a much more assiduous and attentive godparent — certainly in the active role-model and reliable-birthday-rememberer categories — than I am now.

On one occasion, I was asked to preach at a godchild’s baptism, and what I said then I addressed also to myself (in God’s Companions, chapter 5): “We have gathered together for a precious and holy mo­ment. We shall shortly be re-enacting the first public moment of Jesus’ ministry. And, just as we believe God is especially present when we re-enact Jesus’s last meal with his disciples, so we believe he is especially present when we re-enact his baptism in the Jordan.

“What happens at baptism is that God places a song in your heart. But it is very important that there are other people present — because it is very easy, especially when you are less than four months old, to forget the tune. So you have godparents. It is up to the godparent to learn the song so well that they can sing it back to you when you forget how it goes. [See William Bausch, Telling Stories, Compelling Stories, 1991.] So, listen carefully, godparents: we’re relying on you.

“And what is the song? Well, the story of Jesus’s baptism shows us what the song is. Three things happen in this story. The heavens open; the Spirit descends like a dove; and a voice says ‘This is my beloved child.’ Each of these events has great significance. The beginning of the song goes like this: Heaven is open to you. [See Frederick D. Bruner, Matthew: A commentary: The Christbook, 1987.]

“Look at what happens in the story of Jesus: the Gospel begins with the tearing of the heavens and ends with the tearing of the Temple curtain. The veil between you and God has been torn apart. Heaven is open to you. There is no limit to God’s purpose for your life: it is an eternal purpose.

“Now, you may find that your godparents sidle up to you when you are making a choice of career: they may say, ‘Don’t dive for cover, don’t just do what your parents did or want: heaven is open to you. The sky isn’t the limit: there is no limit.’ Or, if a time comes when you are facing serious illness, even death, your godparents, knowing the song in your heart, may say: ‘The angels are waiting for you, they know you by name: heaven is open to you. Death is the gate to the open heaven.’

“And the second line of the song goes like this: God’s Spirit is in you. Remember the end of [the story of] the flood, when the dove brought the twig of new life back to Noah? Well, here is the dove descending on Jesus, bringing the gift of the Holy Spirit. [The gift implies] you are now the Temple of God’s Holy Spirit. You are the place where others will encounter God. God’s Spirit is in you.

“If a time comes in your life when you feel alone and surrounded by hostility, you may hear a godparent gently whispering a tune: ‘You may feel evil is all around you, but you can still worship, for God’s Spirit is in you.’ Or, if a time comes when you are wildly successful, you may hear a sterner song: ‘God’s Spirit is in you — everyone may worship you, but don’t forget whom you worship.’ You may be cross with your godparent at the time, but they may be singing the song in your heart, and reminding you of your baptism.

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“So, heaven is open to you; God’s Spirit is in you; and, finally, the third line of the song of baptism: You mean everything to God. God’s words are ‘This is my beloved Son.’ These words mean, ‘Jesus means everything to God, and everything God gives to Jesus he gives to us.’ You mean everything to God.

“There may come a time in your life when you feel a deep sense of [your own missing the mark,] of your own sin. Then you should hear your godparent say, ‘You are everything to God. You still are, whatever you have done, however unworthy you feel.’ Or you may wander away from the Church because God seems so distantly cosmic and ethereally vague, when you long for intimacy and passion. Then you may hear your godparents sing, through their tears, ‘You are everything to God. Remember your song.’

“So, this is what baptism is: God places a song in your heart. And so the part played by your godparents is this: to learn that song so well that they can sing it back to you when you forget how it goes. And this is the song: ‘Heaven is open to you; God’s Spirit is in you; you are everything to God.’ This is the song that makes your heart sing. And what does the song mean? I’ll tell you. You are the song in God’s heart, and he will never forget how you go.”

 

A GODPARENT is a companion — literally, one who shares bread — with growing child, with parent, and with God. Each relationship has its own integrity. A growing child has very few adults in her life to whom she is not connected by familial ties or contractual expectations. The flaw in the former is that they are permanent and inescapable, however problematic and distressing they may sometimes be. The flaw in the latter — the dance teacher, the school nurse — is that they are appropriately boundaried and invariably short-term.

A godparent fills the gap between the two: he or she has the potential intimacy of the former, and the option of less frequent contact should the relationship not prove life-giving. In an ideal scenario, the godparent carries out a genuinely priestly function: representing God to the growing child in constancy, listening, understanding, and love; and representing the growing child to God in intercession, thanksgiving, and, sometimes, lament.

A relationship between godparent and parent is, at its best, one of critical friend. The godparent loves both growing child and parent, and represents, on occasion, the one to the other. “I’ve noticed you’re reading her text messages; it seems like the trust between you has got to a difficult place” is the caring, non-judgemental observation of a critical friend. “I get the feeling that you’re finding it hard to talk with your parents about the things that really matter” is a similar such observation.

Such god-sibb opens the door that a parent or growing child may be longing to walk through for understanding, solidarity, space to reflect, or gentle challenge. The godparent is the ideal person with whom the parent can discuss the growing child’s spiritual development — whether she doesn’t like attending church any more, or whether, when we all light a candle and try for a few moments to be quiet together at the end of the day, she insists on blowing the candle out. Such issues don’t have simple solutions. The point for the godparent is not to fix the problem, but to dwell in the place of discernment with sympathy and grace.

The godparent is the one who asks the second question. The first question is (to the parent), “How’s my precious goddaughter doing?” — to which the answer may be a list of school reports and clashes with siblings and ratings of grandparent-satisfaction and tidiness of bedroom. The second question is simply, “How’s she really doing?” In the hurly-burly of life, even the first question can easily go unaddressed. And the godparent may be the only person who ever asks the second question.

Likewise, when the same question is addressed to the growing child, the first answer may be a litany of dance classes, school clubs, upcom­ing tests, broken friendships, and tryouts for one team or another. From an early age, the growing child may have learned that these are the signposts by which an adult navigates the mysteries of a young person’s emerging existence. That young person may never have been asked the second question. It may be so strange that he or she can’t initially grasp how it’s different from the first question. But, over time, he or she may come to realise that, while the first question is the one that domin­ates their world, the second question is the one God cares about.

Michael Ramsey once called priests to be “with God, with people on your hearts”. That names the priestly function of the godparent: to be with God, with their godchild on their heart, and to be with their godchild, with God on his or her heart.

It is a position both daunting and simple. The daunting part is to recognise that getting involved in the work of the Holy Spirit is likely to change all involved. The simple part is that it’s the Holy Spirit that does all the real work: one has only to be willing to participate.

 

Canon Samuel Wells is Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London.

 

This is an edited extract from The Character of Virtue: Letters to a godson by Stanley Hauerwas, which is published by Canterbury Press on 30 May at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.30).

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