Who can be a Godparent?
Canon B23.4 states that, 'No person shall be admitted to be a sponsor or godparent who has not been baptised and confirmed. Nevertheless, the minister shall have power to dispense with the requirement of confirmation in any case in which in his judgement need so requires.' This gives the minister a certain amount of discretion about godparents who are not confirmed, but the requirement for godparents to have been baptised cannot be varied or dispensed with.
Parents may act as godparents to their own child, as long as there is at least one other godparent (B23.1). If they do so, then the requirements about baptism and confirmation apply to them just as they would to any other godparent.
Nothing is said about a minimum age for someone to be a godparent, though Canon B23.2 says that godparents should be 'persons who will faithfully fulfil their responsibilities, both by their care for the children committed to their charge and by the example of their own godly living.' This suggests that godparents need to be of an age to understand and to fulfil their commitments, and the expectation that godparents are confirmed also suggests that a godparent should not be a young child.
What is a sponsor?
The Church of England also uses the term 'sponsor' in relation to rites of initiation. A sponsor is the equivalent of a godparent for an older candidate: 'When one who is of riper years is to be baptised, he shall choose three, or at least two, to be his sponsors, who shall be ready to present him at the font, and afterwards to put him in mind of his Christian profession and duties' (Canon B23.3). The canon makes clear later (B23.4, quoted above) that the same requirements (of baptism and, normally, of confirmation) apply to sponsors as to godparents.
The notes to Holy Baptism in Common Worship: Christian Initiation also give guidance about who and what a sponsor is: 'The term "sponsor" is used for those who agree to support in the journey of faith candidates (of any age) for baptism, confirmation or affirmation of baptismal faith.' (Note 6, p 99).
The commentary in CW:CI (p 342) suggests that sponsors may also be appointed, in addition to godparents, when a child is being baptised. In this case, they have the spiritual role of supporting the child's growth in faith, without the responsibility of the social role which is usually associated with godparents. So, for instance, sponsors might be found from within the church to supplement godparents chosen by the child's parents. Such sponsors might expect to have a role in encouraging the child's growth in faith and in church membership, but would not expect to have to buy them birthday presents!
Some presenting pastoral issues
In pastoral practice, two issues commonly arise:
- Not all the proposed godparents are confirmed
Here the minister can dispense with the requirement of confirmation, and this very often happens. But it can be worth using the occasion, not to impose the requirement, but to issue an invitation. As the proposed godparent prepares to take on a serious responsibility towards their godchild, would they like to think about confirmation for themselves? Some parishes have found unconfirmed godparents to be receptive to this kind of invitation. There is an opportunity to be grasped here, but also a pastoral risk (especially if the baptism is booked and fairly imminent), that people pursue confirmation 'in haste' or without the opportunity to consider fully the implication for their own life.
- Clergy increasingly find that new parents ask whether unbaptised friends or family members can be godparents
Sometimes the proposed godparent was not baptised as a child, and has no desire to be baptised now, but does have a strong desire to support the new parents and their child. Sometimes this is because the suggested godparent is a member of another faith community; sometimes the suggested godparent is agnostic, or possibly even hostile to faith, but has been chosen primarily for the social role of a godparent, or beacuse they have already supported the parents.
It is this second issue which is proving to be increasingly common, and which can be particularly challenging to respond to. It would be contrary to Canon, and would seem to lack integrity (both for the person being asked to be a godparent and for the baptism service) for the unbaptised friend simply to make the promises as a godparent, but it can be pastorally difficult not to acknowledge the genuineness of the friend's desire to support the child, and to deny them a chance to express their commitment publicly. This is a particular challenge when parents have already promised, or at least offered, the godparent role to that person.
Some possible solutions
Perhaps a good starting point is to recognise that in the service of Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child the church has already provided material which allows for parents to appoint, in a public service, those who are not godparents, but who will have a key role in supporting them as they bring up their children.
The service of Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child allows for the appointment of Supporting Friends, who make promises in the service which relate to their support of the family and the child, but which do not commit them to a particular form of that support, or to a specific form of upbringing for the child. In particular, (and in contrast to the promises made in the baptism service) no promises are made about 'drawing them by your example into the community of faith', walking with them 'in the way of Christ', or helping them 'to take their place within the life and worship of Christ's Church'.
From the service of Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child
Thanksgiving and Blessing
Where parents wish to recognise the role of supporting friends it may be appropriate for them to stand with the parents at the thanksgiving. One of them may present the children to the minister, and informal words may be said.
The minister says:
Do you receive these children as a gift from God?
Do you wish to give thanks to God and seek his blessing?
Giving of the Gospel
A copy of a Gospel is presented with these words:
Receive this book.
It is the good news of God's love.
Take it as your guide.
The minister may address the supporting friends and say:
Will you do all that you can to help and support N and N in the bringing up of N?
With the help of God, we will.