The first conversation to have with parents, then, is whether they wish to make use of a Thanksgiving service as something separate from baptism, which enables their friends to play a significant part in the service. It will important not to make this offer in a way which suggests that it is some sort of 'second-class' option.
The Thanksgiving service can be offered in two different ways:
- It can be offered as an alternative to baptism, as part of the process of helping parents to discern which form of pastoral service most clearly reflects what they are seeking from God and the Church
- It can be offered as a preparation for baptism. The Thanksgiving service takes place first, involving the Supporting Friends (who may include those who can also be godparents), followed by a baptism service at a later date, involving the qualifying godparents
If this option is not appropriate, then the possibility of something extra within the baptism service needs to be considered.
Options within the Baptism Service
Here the key questions will be where to put anything extra within the service, and what form of words to use
In considering where to put additional material, there are two obvious options:
- At the very start of the baptism service. The baptism service already includes the option of a short prayer of thanksgiving near the beginning of the service (CW:CI p 66), and this could be the point to add in extra material
- At the start of the Presentation section, either immediately before, or immediately following, the congregational response and before the parents and godparents make their commitments.
The important thing will be to keep any extra material away from the baptism itself, so that the service gives a sense of movement from the general support needed by any child, which these friends are offering, to the more focused support needed for Christian nurture, which the parents and godparents will offer.
If one of these locations in the baptism service is used, a further question will be whether these additional friends make their commitment on their own, or whether the parents and godparents join in too.
What should be said?
The first option is to use material from the Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child, such as the question to the Supporting Friends:
Will you do all that you can to help support N and N in the bringing up of N?
With the help of God, we will.
Other material from the Thanksgiving service could be incorporated as well, if desired.
An alternative is to insert a different form of public commitment, which is tailored to fit the role which the parents are seeking and which the person can respond to. An insertion like this is technically informal, in that it is entirely additional to, and does not replace any authorised part of, the baptism service. Almost by definition, it needs to be determined locally and on a case by case basis, rather than being provided or commended by central authority, but it can still be solemn and public.
The following suggestions give a sense of the sort of question and response which might be appropriate to insert:
N, will you do everything in your power to support N as he/she grows to maturity and adulthood, and be for him/her a source of confidence, encouragement and love?
N, will you offer your care and your love to N as he/she grows up, celebrating with him/her in times of joy, and supporting him/her through times of difficulty?
The main difference between these suggestions and the texts from the Thanksgiving service is that the Thanksgiving focuses the Supporting Friends' role on supporting the parents, whereas the above suggestions focus the promised support on the child.
Keeping things clear
Friends who make this public commitment are not recorded in the Baptism Register as godparents (though a marginal note in the register might acknowledge their role). The family will still need to choose a sufficient number of baptised persons as actual godparents. But the friends could (like the godparents) be given a card to remind them of the undertaking they have made, using a form of words such as this:
To N, to remind you of the undertaking you have made today, on the occasion of N's baptism at at X Church, to be for him/her a source of confidence, encouragement and love. May God strengthen you to fulfil this promise and bless the support you give.
Though it will be important not to confuse these friends with the godparents, and to keep their roles distinct, when it comes to the moment of baptism itself, it might be appropriate to invite the friends to come close to the font, along with the parents and godparents, as additional and important witnesses of the baptism.
If a Thanksgiving Service is used instead, then a certificate for the child, which records the names of the Supporting Friends, will be important, as well as cards for the Supporting Friends themselves. A register of Thanksgiving Services should also record Supporting Friends' names.
Questions of terminology
What are these 'friends' to be called? Anecdotal evidence suggests that 'Sponsors' is a term being used in some circumstances, and this might be a good suggestion, were it not for the fact that the word is already used in another sense in the Church of England.
Though the term 'Supporting Friends' is less well known, it can be commended as terminology which the Church has already provided in its services, which is already is use, and which, in due time, can become better known.
- Though it is possible in some circumstances for godparents to be appointed who are not confirmed, it is neither appropriate, nor permitted, to have godparents who are not baptised
- Where unbaptised godparents have been suggested, one possibility is to offer a Thanksgiving Service at which they can be appointed as Supporting Friends; another possibility is to incorporate an extra, locally determined, element in a baptism service in which these friends can make a different sort of commitment from that made by godparents
- The term 'sponsor' is not appropriate for these extra friends, because of its use for those who have a specific role in baptism and confirmation which relates to the candidate's Christian nurture
- Any additional role given to friends in a baptism service should take place early in the service, at or before the Presentation of the Candidate.
- In all situations, it will be important to keep the role of godparents and sponsors distinct from any additional role given to others
(Mark Earey and Anders Bergquist, October 2013)
ithin the Baptism Service