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Godparents - just something social now?
"Etiquette" as per The Times! 
There has been some discussion of this question following an article in The Times on May 18th by Philip Howard, who writes a column "Modern Times" dealing with social and etiquette matters. The Times has denied us permission to put the article up on our web site (although we are permitted to print it in the next BI Update), but we have received permission from the writers (copyright remains with the writers of "letters to the editor") to print three of the six letters which followed it.

"C.J.N., Dulwich" said s/he had been asked to be a godparent to his best friend's daughter, but was unsure whether to accept as s/he was not a regular churchgoer. Philip replied (Weekend section page 15) "yes, accept", saying it depended on the conviction of non-attendance at church, but it was a privilege and pleasure to be asked, and the duties of godparents are more social and bountiful than Christian these days. This provoked the following three letters (the writer of the first, formerly Canon of St Paul's Cathedral, is well-known as standing out for integrity in baptism): 

From Michael Saward May 24, 2002

Sir, Philip Howard (weekend 18 May) tells us, concerning godparenting, that “the duties are more social and bountiful than Christian these days.” That may be a fashionable view in his circles, but would-be godparents are required in the Church of England’s baptismal liturgy to “draw them (i.e. the child) by your example into the community of faith and walk with them in the way of Christ”, helping them “to take their place within the life and worship of Christ’s Church”. Specific promises of Christian belief follow, which every godparent is required to make.

Not long ago, a young atheist told me that no-one believes “that stuff” so he had recently become a godfather and had remained silent when the other godparents had taken the promises. However disreputable his decision, he had at least refused to make the promises which he did not believe and would not keep.

Social and bountiful or blatant hypocrisy? I’ve seen more of the latter at fonts than in any other aspect of nearly half-a-century’s ministry, and Philip Howard merely encourages such disgraceful behaviour. Better to decline a role that one has no intention of fulfilling than to please one’s friends by smugly telling lies before God and others.

In a court of law such conduct would be called “perjury”, and so it is. No man or woman of integrity should stoop to such dishonesty.

Yours faithfully, MICHAEL SAWARD.

8 Discovery Walk, London E1W 2JG.

 Can atheists be good godparents? May 30 2002

From Tim Sykes May 30

Sir, Canon Saward (letter, May 24) accuses atheist godparents who recite Christian phraseology at fonts of “hypocrisy”, a form of “perjury”, and “smugly telling lies before God and others”. About a quarter of the Church of England’s bishops as surveyed (report, April 13, 2001) and, I understand, a significant proportion of its other clergy and lay members, do not believe in the actual and physical, bodily, Resurrection of Jesus after death. But they regularly and publicly recite words affirming exactly that.

Who are the greater hypocrites, perjurers and smug liars?

Yours faithfully, TIM SYKES,

 From Mr David Hunter

Sir, I was an atheist when my brother invited me to be a godparent to his son. It was the highest compliment he could have paid me, and I would not have dreamt of declining.

I have since become a confirmed Anglican, and I view my nephew Joshua’s baptism as one of several possible seeds which may have led to my conversion. I am pleased that Joshua attends Sunday school with the Salvation Army; but I shall think very carefully before seeking to influence the future course of his spiritual development.

Yours faithfully, DAVID HUNTER,

35 Hanbury Close, Chesterfield S40 4SQ. hstarbridge@aol.com May 25.

A further three letters followed on June 03, 2002, under the title "Having faith in atheist godparents". Without permission to print them explicitly, we summarise them as follows and comment briefly on some of the issues raised):

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain wrote that there are no baptismal godparents in Judaism, but there are plenty of atheists. There is a saying "To be a good Jew, you don’t have to believe in God — you just have to do what He says”. On that basis those who don't believe but do behave ethically are equally welcome.

(Readers will know that the Christian Church has also struggled with the question of "what shall we say about those who say they believe but their behaviour is no different from those who don't believe", and the report "On the Way" points out that baptism preparation (catechetical instruction) in the early church was much less about ideas than about practising faith. Somehow there ought to be a point at which people can say "I do" rather than just "I believe"?)

The Reverend Nick Aiken wrote to say that there was a world of a difference between those who say (as godparents) they believe but know perfectly well they don't, and those (bishops and others within the church) who do believe and practise the Christian faith but who intellectually interpret doctrines differently from the way the traditional creeds interpret them. And Mr Brian Wilson put in a plea for a reformulation of the language of faith in order to avoid putting believers in this difficult situation.

(Readers will know that the new CW baptism service insists on the recitation of the Apostles' Creed in place of the much shorter Trinitarian questions in the ASB service. Presumably those within the Christian church who doubt some of the phrases of the creed (for instance the literal virgin birth, ascension or advent) would have no difficulty with the shorter "baptismal" questions? So maybe we ought to revert to the ASB's credal questions to clarify the point that intellectually-querulous believers are welcome but deniers aren't?)

The view of Baptismal Integrity is that those who cannot honestly make the statements of faith in the baptism service should not be asked to do so. Ways should be found of leading such people into genuine Christian commitment so that they can honestly make the statements required of them. And where they are genuinely not wishing to explore a real Christian commitment, they should be provided with alternatives to baptism which do not put them in the position of making false statements.

But it is not Baptismal Integrity's policy to insist on one particular interpretation of the creeds of the Christian church, and I think we have to recognize that Nick Aiken and Brian Wilson have good points in allowing for a diversity of doctrinal views within the Christian church. St Paul himself allowed for diversity of views on a variety of matters, and we should seek to follow his example.

For more discussion click on (God)parents 

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