Who can be a
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
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.
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
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
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-querelous 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.