Published in The Guardian

In a traditional Christening service godparents promise to help bring a new baby up as a Christian. It is a promise that rings rather hollow in an increasingly secular society, but many parents see the role of godparent as a ritual worth salvaging and re-interpreting as part of their lives today.

As families become more dispersed, and single parenthood increases, a friend who takes a special interest in a child can be invaluable, often fulfilling the role that grandparents may have played in the past. And as more people choose not to have children themselves, godchildren can provide a relatively painless way to still participate in a child’s life, and spread both the responsibility and the pleasure of parenthood beyond the natural parents to society as a whole.

Simon Caulkin, whose own son is now 23, is godfather to two-year old Theo. He sees his role thus, “I would always have been interested in my friend’s child, but formalising it has made a big difference, I take an almost proprietorial pride in him. I can see myself acting like an umpire if necessary between the child and its parents. It’s like having another sounding board outside the family.”
In the traditional Anglican service, three godparents are usually appointed; two of the same sex and one of the opposite sex to the child, their primary role is to bring up the child as a Christian, and encourage them to attend church. It is perfectly possible to appoint godparents without a ceremony (my son has four godparents without benefit of clergy) but many parents like to have naming ceremonies instead, which can be conducted by friends or by the parents themselves.

The British Humanist Association provides alternative non-religious ceremonies for weddings, funerals and christenings. Their naming ceremony provides for the appointment of “supporting adults” for the child. Nigel Collins, the BHA co-ordinator for Humanist ceremonies., defines their role, “They provide a ‘refuge’ for the child outside the immediate family circle, and take a special interest in the child’s development and support the parents throughout the long years to adulthood.” Alternative, though rather clumsy, terms to ‘Godparent” proposed by the BHA include “special friend” and “friend parent”. (“Mentor” is another possibility.)

The BHA advise that in choosing godparents, you should ask friends who actually like children and who don’t live too far way. They also suggest choosing young godparents, perhaps particularly important for older parents, when someone closer to their child in age might make a more effective mediator.

In France choosing quite young children, often cousins, as godparents is quite popular, for this reason. Many other cultures have the role of godparent in different forms. In the Jewish tradition, for example, the Sandak, who is responsible for holding the child during circumcision, continues to play a special role of responsibility on the child’s life.

In traditional China the closest approximation to the role of godparent was a form of fictitious adoption, where although a form of adoption took place the child remained with its natural parents. Professor Anthony Dicks, visiting professor of Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies explains, “Recent anthropological research suggests that reasons for adoption included protecting the child from evil spirits. Sometimes a professional ‘godmother’ performed this role, and in some cases children were adopted by trees or a large stones in order to gain protection from the attached spirit.” Later the child would be re-adopted by its natural parents in a special ceremony. “Today the adoptive relationship would be marked by a special dinner and the traditional red packet, containing money to signify the transfer of luck from adult to child.”

It is popular today to ask friends without children to become godparents, and gay friends are an obvious choice. Jonathan Brown is gay and enjoys being godparent to two children, “It is a way of having the pleasure of children without the disadvantages. Since I have no children of my own I do invest a lot in the relationship. When my godson comes to stay, he does relate to me differently, we have a much easier, more casual relationship than he does with his father. I indulge him; in fact it is a case of mutual indulgence. He even asked me to go to fathers and sons camp with him, and although I couldn’t go I was delighted to be asked.”

Deborah Kent, mother of Alice aged 6 months, explains what she was looking for in a godparent, “I chose two old friends as godmothers. I wanted somebody who would take responsibility for her spiritual development in the broadest sense, and somebody whose education and background would complement my own. One of them can’t have children herself, and I always used to say, “If I ever have a baby we will share her.” Deborah feels strongly that if you don’t have a lot of family around it is a good way to create a family substitute.

Jaqui Sinatt also felt she wanted godparents for her children who would supplement her own role, and not merely reflect it. “I wanted people who would give them a different view of the world.” She also stresses that it is a gesture of friendship, “It is a way of saying I want to remain friends with you for the next 20 years.”

Christine Stone, godmother to Sarah, now aged 10, says she was very flattered to be asked, “I take the role very seriously, I do see it as a responsibility.” For her the role has brought complications as well as pleasure; her god-daughter appears to be over-eating as a result of emotional problems at home and Christine cannot decide whether she has any right to speak to Sarah’s parents about it, “But if being a godmother has any meaning at all, I really ought to intervene.”