godparents

Being asked to be a godparent is an honour, and a sign of true friendship, but if you don’t believe in God, should you say yes? Rosy Edwards finds out

It’s not every day you get a selfie from a three month old. But there she was, tiny Cordelia on my phone screen, holding a sign that read: ‘Will you be my godmother?’

OK, fine: she had help from her mother, my dear friend Katherine. And seeing as she is still in nappies (Cordelia that is – Katherine has been toilet-trained for some time) she didn’t really understand what she was asking.

I shrieked, I cried, I immediately said yes… but did I really understand the question? Because amidst the excitement and sudden rush of love, there was a snag: I don’t believe in God.

I am not alone. A 2015 YouGov study conducted for The Times revealed that a third of British adults don’t believe in God. Almost the same amount (32 per cent) do believe, and the rest adhere to a higher power but no God (20 per cent) or are undecided (14 per cent).

Katherine and her husband knew my stance and had no problem with it – but what about the Church of England?

“To be a godparent, you have to be baptised yourself,” says Reverend Dr Sandra Millar, who leads the Church of England on baptism. Beyond that: “We don’t enquire too closely. The Church takes people at face value.”

During Anglican ceremonies, godparents are required to affirm their devotion to Christ. I do not fear being smote down by lightening – to me, they are just words – but I understand this element can be troubling.

“It depends how the parents see baptism,” says Reverend Cris Rogers, vicar at All Hallows Church in Bow. “If you see it as a rite of passage, then the question isn’t, ‘Is your godparent religious?’ but, ‘Why are you having your child baptised?’”

For many of us, the answer is tradition. “People know the word ‘christening’, it’s what the family has always done,” adds Rogers. If you want the pomp and ceremony (and champagne) without the godly overtones, there are alternatives.

Naming ceremonies are thriving. Elizabeth Donnelly, a celebrant accredited by the British Humanist Association (BHA) has noted a year-on-year rise in parents opting for a secular naming ceremony in the four years she has been practicing.

“I deal with people who are not religious but I also get couples where one is religious and the other isn’t, and this is a compromise.”

Families choose their own symbolic gestures, from planting a tree to writing in a wish book and decorating jigsaw pieces.

The one common factor in every service is a celebration of the parents’ friendships.

“One of the things I say in the ceremony is, ‘You have been chosen by the parents because…’ and announce the reason the parents have stated. We don’t have ceremonies to acknowledge adult friendships but a baby naming ceremony is a lovely way to do that.”

You also get to choose your own title. Humanists commonly refer to ‘supporting adults’ although Donnelly has heard everything from ‘guide parents’ to ‘guardians’ and (my personal favourite) ‘odd parents’ – coming full circle back to ‘godparents’. “It’s a term that is generally understood by society,” she adds.

As more of us move away from organised religion, the Church is increasingly realistic. “You have to start where people are at,” says Rogers. Instead of a full christening, he offers ‘thanksgiving’ services to parents whose faith is negligible; Millar simply hopes that all godparents advise their wards according to ‘Godly’ values, like kindness, compassion and charity – qualities surely godparents of all persuasions would hope to impart. I am happy to offer spiritual guidance should my goddaughter ask for it. I will also listen if she wants to talk about school, or sex, or her career, or good white wine (here’s hoping).

Across the Humanist and Christian divide, the consensus is that the choice of godparents resides solely with the parents. “Choose people who offer friendship and who will be part of your child’s life for a very long time,” suggests Millar.

Katherine and I have been friends since university. Together we’ve been through exams, first jobs, boyfriends, illness, marriage – and now children. I am honoured that she’s asked me to be godmother; she has put her trust in me and I have no intention of letting her down. For me, that supersedes religion.

How to choose your godparents

  • Contact is key. If you stay in regular contact with your friend, your child is more likely to as well.
  • Oldies are goldies. Long-term friends understand your core values and have a track record of reliability and loyalty.
  • Go like-for-like. You needn’t share beliefs but similar attitudes to things like family and education make things easier.
  • Follow your instinct. Don’t feel pressured into choosing relatives or partners of existing godparents. If they’re not the right choice for you, they are not right for your child.
  • Be creative. Choose godparents with a variety of backgrounds, careers and interests. Each will offer your child a unique and exciting perspective on the world.

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