Written by Paula Jones Last updated: March 12, 2007
Traditionally, godparents were responsible for ensuring a child’s religious education and had the duty of looking after them if they were orphaned. Today it has come to mean an individual who is chosen by the parents to take a well-meaning interest in the overall development of their child.
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The custom of choosing a godparent for a baptism originated in the Roman world and the original word for godparent was ‘patronus’, meaning a protector. The idea came about as converts to the early Christian church were usually adults with non-Christian parents and a Christian mentor was provided to help them in their new faith. The godparent was a friend in faith who could be turned to in times of doubt, confusion or questioning. The role was then extended to infant christenings in which Christian adults supported the new parents to instruct their offspring about Christianity. The religious association of the role gradually diminished and it became less important than an honorary one.
Watch the video below for tips on how to choose a Godparent.
Roman Catholic: According to the Church legal system, in order to qualify as a godparent the candidates have to be:
Church of England:
The godparent should be baptised, confirmed and be a practicing Christian in order to take on the role of a godparent.
Godparents are called ‘guide friends’, ‘mentors’, ‘supporting adults’ or ‘special friends’ and can be anyone who the parents wish to appoint for the role.
No. Parental responsibility is defined in the Children’s Act of 1988, and parents wishing to appoint godparents as the legal guardians in the case of their deaths should specify this in their wills.
Traditionally a Christian child has three godparents in total; girls have two godmothers and one godfather and boys have two godfathers and one godmother. Those that are not practicing Christians, can have as many or as few as they like, though it is customary to have at least one godfather and one godmother.
In the Roman Catholic Church those that belongs to another Christian denomination cannot offer the guarantees required to become a godparent. However they can still play the role of a helpful guide and are known as ‘Christian Witnesses’. Non-Christians are not eligible for any formal role as dictated by the Church. Most Christian denominations now require that the parents and the godparents be regular churchgoers for the baptism to have true meaning.
The Church indicates 5 duties for the godparent:
In addition, the godparent is generally expected to fill the role of a supportive adult that children can turn to for advice and help, particularly on occasions when it may not be possible for them to go to their parents. Most parents hope that the godparents will share an interest in the development of the child and that there will be a special bond between them and the child.
Traditionally the role of godparents is to be the ‘sponsor’ at the baptism and to speak on the child’s behalf during the baptism service itself. It involves a commitment to support the parents in bringing the child up as a Christian within the family of the Church, so that that they will confess the faith for themselves and come in due time to confirmation. It is also a promise of ‘being there’ at times of crisis and sickness. Often at Christenings, the godparent brings the infant to the font to be baptised and in countries such as Latvia, it is the godparents who also choose a name for the child.
The Christian commitment in a baptism is laid out clearly and will follow the directions of the Church. However, if the ceremony is a non-religious one, it is a good idea to encourage godparents to write their own promises, since then they’re likely to carry a greater personal meaning.
It is quite acceptable for the aunt or uncle of the baby to also be a godparent as long as they are able to fulfil the other requirements laid out by the Church.
There is no maximum limit to the number of godchildren that an individual can have, as long as the parents and the godparent are in agreement.
In the Jewish circumcision ceremony there are two roles which are sometimes considered similar to a godparent. The first is that of the ‘Sandek’ who holds the baby boy while he is circumcised and the other is the ‘Kvater’ or ‘Kvaterin’ (among the Ashkenazi Jews) who is the person who takes the child from his mother and carries him into the room where the circumcision is to be performed. In some cultures, the word for ‘godparent of one’s child’ is also the same word used for close friends, like the Spanish compadre and comadre, the French commère and compère, and the archaic meaning of the English word godsib; ‘god-sibling’.Godparent is also used, in absence of a ‘religious reason’, as a stated person (be it family member or close friend) who is responsible for the child in the case of any unforeseen event. Most popular folktales around the world feature a fairy godmother, who acts as a guide or mentor to a main character.
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