"We'd love you to be the twins' godmother," my cousin announced this week. An honour indeed. And what fun to have a special reason to whisk them off and do extra-exciting things with them throughout their childhood.
So why, then, did my stomach tighten when she asked the question?
The reason is simple – it's because I'm atheist.
It's not that my cousin minds this. Indeed, I'm already godmother to four other children, all of whose parents are fine with my (non) beliefs. And let's face it, I'm not exactly the first non-Christian godparent to walk the earth.
But still, I increasingly find myself wondering if an atheist godparent is actually a contradiction in terms. In which case, is it the right job for me? And should parents who are considering non-believing godparents for their own offspring also rethink their decision?
"Just mumble the words in church, then forget all about the God bit," laughed one of my friends, whose son is my godchild, when I admitted my concerns. "I chose you as godparent to be a special part of his life, not because I expect you to drag him to Sunday school every week!"
I suppose I could always cross my fingers while I say the vows. But even thinking about the ceremony makes me feel uptight. "All men are conceived and born in sin" is the Christian premise of the Public Baptism of Infants. Indeed, the christening itself is principally about sanctifying the child and washing away his sin so that he can be received into Christ's holy church, "That thing which by nature," according to the Common Book of Prayer, "he cannot have."
Well, I'm sorry, but there is little more pure than a newborn baby and all this talk of sin and devil in relation to a tiny infant doesn't sit well with me. In any case, I agree with Richard Dawkins when it comes to children and faith – that is, you can't say a child is Christian, as baptisms appear to do, merely that they are a child of Christian parents. Only when kids are old enough to make up their own minds can they choose a faith, if any.I could avoid saying the words altogether. It's what I did last time in fact. I simply stayed in the congregation whilst the other (believing) godparents did their bit by the font. The parents were happy with this and the vicar was none the wiser.
But even this doesn't solve my dilemma altogether. Godparenting is, after all, about much more than renouncing the devil (or not, as the case may be) – and it's this wider role that I find myself contemplating the most.
"As its name suggests, at the heart of a godparent's role is a commitment to support someone in the journey of faith," a Church of England spokersperson tells me. An atheist can be a wonderful influence in a child's life, but being a godparent is to be a representative of the religious community and an example of godly living, he adds.
In days gone by, it didn't stop there. You'd have been expected, as godparent, to strictly oversee a child's religious upbringing. These days, that's pretty much unheard of, though, so at least I'm off the hook there.
Others believe I'm off the hook altogether when it comes to religion. Susan George, mother of four, laughs when she thinks back to her friend turning down the obligation of godparent. "She told me, 'I'm so sorry, Sue, but I can't accept because I don't believe in God.' To which I answered, 'Don't worry, hun, nor do I!' In our increasingly secular society, I don't think anyone really expects religion to be the focus of godparenting."
If you disapprove, cast your mind to the many families who have far more questionable intentions for christening their child, even when they and the godparents are religious. Let's face it, the primary reason for some is getting the child into the local church school, whilst for others it's about making links with the wealthy. It can be no coincidence that Elton John is reported to have at least 10 godchildren; the Queen at least 30.
Interestingly, christenings are becoming less popular in the UK. Statistics show that in 1980, there were 226,000 Church of England baptisms; in 2008, there were 139,000. Although not so sharp, numbers in the Catholic Church are also down: around 75,000 in England and Wales in 1981 and 64,010 today.
In contrast, the number of baby-naming ceremonies is on the rise, with around 10,000 taking place a year. Two-thirds of local authorities offer them, as does the British Humanist Association.Head of ceremonies at the British Humanist Society, Ben Siegel, explains, "In the past, many non-religious people would have gone along with a Christening to keep the relatives happy or because there were no other options. But now there is a ceremony available that focuses on family, without the church, and in many cases, people use this ceremony to invite people to take a special role in their child's life."
For these families, having odd-parents, good-parents, guide-parents and friend-parents just feels like a less hypocritical option if non-believers are involved.
Then there are families, mine included, who have gone down the route of choosing guardians for their children – people who agree to take care of their children if both parents should die. If you think about it, the kinds of things you'd look for in those families are the same things you'd be seeking in godparents.
I think it's safe to say that I'll probably always feel uneasy about the religious side of godparenting. But as the families I know accept this and as there is clearly much to celebrate about the nature of the role, I've made the decision to stop focusing on the negatives and to embrace the task in hand in the best way I know how.
So here's my vision. By the time my godchildren are adult, I hope they remember me as someone who did extra fun stuff with them as a kid. And even more crucially, I hope they come to think of me as someone they want to know, not just because I'm mum's friend or relative, but because we have built up our own special bond. God or no God, that seems to me a pretty worthwhile endeavour.
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