Today is the first ever Godparents’ Sunday in the Church of England, and I think it is a great idea. Churches all over England are doing what we are doing, helping people remember their godchildren and godparents, that unique relationship which starts at christenings, but continues for life. Godparents matter. That’s something you soon discover in my job. New parents coming to request a baptism for their child have nearly always given a lot of thought to who the godparents will be, and godparents are thrilled to be asked. It is a great gesture of trust on the part of the parents, and a great privilege. So it is good to be able to celebrate and pray for that relationship.
For some of you, the Godparent/child relationship may have been very important and very real – it can be something that lasts a lifetime and which you look on as very influential in your growth in faith. Other Godparents and godchildren may have quickly lost contact, though, as families move and friendships loosen. You may not even know who your godparents were, but if you were baptised as a baby you certainly had some, and those who came to faith later may have had sponsors, or people you regard as godparents who supported you in your faith.
So today might be a good day to reconnect with a godchild or godparent you haven’t spoken to them for a while, to let them know you’re thinking of them and praying for them. It might be a good moment to ask questions of your family, to find out who your godparents were if you don’t know, or simply to pray for those who supported your journey of faith at its beginning, whatever their formal role was, whether you knew about them or not. Each of us can make of it whatever we need to.
The role of godparents has varied across the ages and across cultures, but in its various guises it goes right back to the early centuries of the church, so I thought you might appreciate a quick canter through its history.
You won’t find godparents in the Bible, though of course many people were baptised. We heard about one of them, Lydia, in our first reading today. The baptism she went through was a sign of her decision to become a follower of the way of Jesus, sharing symbolically in the death and resurrection of Jesus, going under the water and coming up again as a new person, and as a member of a new community, part of the family of God. In those early days, people were often baptised quite quickly, almost on impulse, as Lydia seems to have been, along with their households. Godparents aren’t mentioned, but the support of experienced Christians was very important . After Lydia was baptised, she invited Paul to come and stay with her, and under his guidance she eventually formed and led a church in her home. So in a sense, Paul was a godparent to her, the person she looked to for advice and help.
As Christianity spread though, godparents - or sponsors as they were known – became a vital and indispensable part of baptism. Becoming a Christian could be a risky choice. The Christian community was intermittently persecuted, sometimes quite savagely, so Christians often met in secret. If someone was interested in Christian faith you wanted to be sure they were genuine and serious about it, that they weren’t going to betray you, either deliberately or through carelessness. So enquirers had to have a sponsor, someone who’d vouch for them, someone who could make sure they really understood the risks they were taking on, and the danger they might pose to others, before they made their final commitment. Preparation could often last for two or three years. It wasn’t so much about understanding the ideas of faith, as about sorting out your life so that your sponsor could present you as someone who could be trusted. During your preparation, you wouldn’t be fully admitted to services. You might not even know where the Christians were gathering. Only when your sponsor was convinced you were ready would you be baptised and be able to join in worship. The safety of the whole Christian community was in the hands of the sponsor.
It was only when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire that godparenting started to take on the form we know today. When Christian faith became the norm most adults were baptised as children, so godparents were appointed to help them grow in faith, and often to give them worldly support too. If you could, you wanted godparents for your child who had influence or wealth , to give them a bit of a leg up in the world. Apparently to this day, in Belgium if you are the seventh son or the seventh daughter in an unbroken line of sons or daughters, you are entitled to have the King and Queen of Belgium to be your godparents. I have no idea whether it ever happens, but allegedly it is so. The idea that godparents can be powerful allies also lies behind the Mafia use of the term, of course - let’s hope none of the Godfathers here at Seal have that model in their heads! A gentler version of the protecting godparent is the fairy godmother of folk tale, who keeps a watchful eye over her godchild, and has a little magic up her sleeve when the need arises.
So godparents can be protectors, allies, influences for good.
An old English word for a godparent takes us in a slightly different direction though. In England godparents were once also called Godsibs, short for Godsiblings. “Sibling” today tends to mean just a brother or sister, but originally it was any blood relation. Your Godsibs were related to you through God, rather than blood. They were people you treated like family, people you trusted and felt close to as you would a family member. Interestingly the same prohibitions applied to marriage between god parents and children, to blood relatives; you couldn’t marry your godchild, or members of their close family.
Because of the Godsibs role in baptism they would often be around when the baby was first born, maybe even at the birth, because christenings tended to happen very quickly. They’d be the people you’d expect to find sitting around the new mother’s bed, nattering with her, or wetting the baby’s head with dad. And that’s where we get the word “gossip”from – it’s a corruption of godsib. That informal, intimate chit-chat, that “gossip” suggests, was exactly the kind of conversation you’d expect to have with these closest of friends, people you could share your secrets with – or the secrets of others. Christenings were sometimes called Gossipings, because they were the moment when those godsib relationships were formed. Today, when parents choose their friends as godparents, people they feel at ease with, they are unconsciously drawing on that old tradition.
So godparenting is a very flexible relationship; it has taken on many forms, to suit its contexts and the individuals concerned. Over the centuries it’s been about forming the faith of a new believer, protecting and helping them, and providing that listening ear, sharing their intimate concerns.
Godparenting today doesn’t carry any legal weight as it once did.
But despite that, Godparenting is still a very meaningful relationship. In fact it may be because it has no legal force that it feels so significant to us. It’s a freely chosen relationship; parents choose godparents, godparents choose to say yes to that responsibility and privilege. And in that sense godparenting is really a symbol of what the whole Christian community is supposed to do for one another. Even if you’re not a godparent or a godchild, you have something to celebrate and think about today.
Those first Christians, people like Lydia, became part of a new community when they were baptised, a community drawn together by faith, not blood or legal obligation. For many it was the only family they had. Some were slaves who’d been separated from their families of origin. Some had had to leave their families, or been thrown out, when they chose to follow Jesus. Some were widows or orphans, or one of the many outcasts who Jesus gathered to himself. They came together in his name; they were bound together by his love. That didn’t mean that their families or other social networks didn’t matter or shouldn’t be honoured, but they saw themselves as part of a bigger family now too, the family of God. It was a very diverse family, made up of people of all all social classes, all abilities, ages, races and backgrounds, joined in one equal fellowship. It was sometimes a challenge to live in a family like that, but it was a real joy too, and it still is. It takes a village to raise a child, as they say, and it’s quite true. However good our parents are, we need the support of a whole network of people who have chosen and promised to support us if we are going to grow into the people God wants us to be.
Whatever else they are, godparents are a symbol of this wider family. They help us to see beyond the inevitable limits of our family of origin. They remind us that we are all called to support and accompany one another on our journey of faith. That’s why, at every christening, I ask the whole congregation this question “People of God, will you welcome this child and uphold them in their new life in Christ?” and you all answer, “With the help of God, we will.” Whether we have ever been asked to be a godparent or not, we are all godparents to one another, and it is good that it is so.
Today, then, we celebrate our godparents, and we remember all those who may not have officially been godparents but nonetheless nourished and supported us. We pray for our godchildren, and for all the children who are part of our Christian family. And we ask for God’s grace to be his people, loving and supporting one another as we learn and grow together.