Are Godparents Still Relevant?

My younger sister just became a godmother to my niece. You might wonder if I felt a twinge of jealousy or the sting of being chosen over for the honor (if you didn’t wonder that, you probably don’t have sisters). Um, nope. I have two children of my own already so I’m not in any position to take on the responsibilities of being a godparent. You know, the, er, well all that, hmmmm…what are those responsibilities again?

With its origins buried way back in the single-digit-centuries or before, there’s really no surprise that the notion and practical application of the term “godparents” has changed. But there is very little that’s clear about just what it has changed to. Godparents were originally expected to guide their charge along his or her spiritual path and were required to guarantee (along with the parents) that the child would be raised in the faith into which he or she was baptized. They were also expected to care for the child if both parents became unable (read: died). The role was very clearly defined.

These days, I don’t know anyone who has assigned a set of godparents with the hope that the chosen pair will help provide their child’s religious education. The vagueness of the job description is actually more daunting, I think, than the idea of keeping the kid on the Right Path. And I say this having crowned our close friends, Sam and Katie, godparents to our daughter.

My husband and I talked about the idea for a while before deciding to go for it. Neither of us attends church (in fact, my husband was raised Jewish), but we wanted our friends to be a part of our daughter’s life forever. We were all living within a block and a half of each other at the time, but we knew that would change. We didn’t want distance or time or life to be allowed to step in between our little girl and these two people who mean so much to us. What else could we call them? “Honorary parents” sounded corny and made-up, like a trophy given out for participation when you don’t actually win anything. VIPs? Aunt- and Uncle-by-choice?

So, because it carried the cultural significance we were looking for, we settled on the term “godparents.” We waited until we were all out of town together, then asked them over a nice breakfast. They happily accepted our proposal once we assured them there were no religious obligations involved. Any time we talk about the fact that our daughter has godparents, we inevitably launch into an explanation about how God has nothing to do with it.

I read a 2010 New York Times article on this topic that helped clarify my own feelings on the matter. The author, Bruce Feiler, suggests that modern-day godparents are put in place to teach our children about friendship. I love this. He goes on to say that there’s no reason you can’t add godparents as your own or your child’s needs change and that it’s all part of that whole “takes a village” mentality. I’m so in. I want a village of educators for my children who are also close and loving friends to me. Sign me up! In this sense, perhaps there’s never been a more pressing need for a seemingly outdated convention.

(Photo: Fibers.com)

Share This Post:
    • Rachel

      We’re Anglican, so godparents are actually part of religious upbringing, but other than that, I also see it as a way to make close non-family members part of the child’s “family” as well (if you go with non-family members). My friend chose me to be her child’s godmother because, as she put it, “my sisters are already the aunts”. Similarly, my mom’s friend became my godmother so that she would always be connected to me.

    • Mollie Hemingway

      In my family, godparents are chosen for religious instruction (Lutheran) and we all take it pretty seriously. Extremely seriously, actually. I have seven godchildren and I pray for each of them daily and buy them religious gifts and answer religious questions.

      I don’t have a problem with irreligious people choosing special aunties for their children or whatever but I do wonder why they call them godparents.