This past Sunday there was an article in the New York Times’ “Family Matters” column by Bruice Feiler titled, “The Godparent Trap.” Mr. Feiler gave a bit of history about the tradition of Godparenting in “the early centuries of the church,” but then focused the rest of his article on what happened not only after the Great Schism (1054) but mainly what happened after the Protestant Reformation (1500s):
“As Christianity splintered through the Reformation, each denomination handled the custom slightly differently—arguing over the number, the official duties, even the sexual rules governing godparents. … Over time, the role became less about church doctrine and more about friendship…. Godparenting, it seems, has always been more talk than action.”
The quantum leaps Mr. Feiler makes in three short paragraphs exclude completely what continued (and continues to this day) to be the sacred role of Godparents in the Orthodox (Christian) Church. And while his intentions are good—at one point he calls for “a new generation of godparents”—he goes on to make up three new “ground rules” for godparents: (1) Have many godparents for each child, to build a community. The old “it takes a village” concept; (2) Assign each godparent a specific task; and (3) Continue to add more godparents throughout the child’s life “as needed.” While these ideas might have some merit, from a sociological point of view, they are one man’s suggestions and not the tradition of the historic church. I think each of his rules are possibly answers to the various ways that society as a whole, and individual churches in particular, have failed to maintain healthy communities for their families. So, what is the Orthodox Christian’s answer to these problems?
To begin with, the Orthodox Christian Church has standing “rules” or guidelines that go back centuries. (Some of those guidelines are discussed in this web article, “Godparenting 101.” And while they vary a bit from one ethnic group to another (the Greeks might do some things different from the Arabs or the Russians, and the convert parishes may end up adopted a variety of expressions of these traditions) the intent, I believe, is common to all Orthodox jurisdictions: the Godparent takes spiritual responsibility for the child, promising to raise him in the faith, and to interact with him throughout his life in a way similar to a family member. It’s a high calling, and one not to be entered into lightly.
That said, it’s a bit scary for me to admit that I have 13 Godchildren. Two are no longer living, and those living range in age from 7 to 62. (When adults convert to the Orthodox Church, they have adult “sponsors,” who serve a similar role as a Godparent.) I’m sure I’ve failed many of them terribly over the years… sometimes forgetting a special day (Name days, birthdays, anniversaries, baptismal dates, etc.) and often just letting too much time go by without calling them to go grab a cup of coffee (the adults) or come over for dinner, or to accompany a child to a soccer game or ballet performance. But I do try to pray for each of them every day. (And yes, I fail at that, too, but when I do say my morning or evening prayers, I include them.)
But as we all get older and some of us make different choices about our church homes—some marrying into other faith traditions, others moving away or choosing not to participate to the same degree they once did in church events—I realize how important the family aspect of the relationship is. Just as I love all three of my own children no matter what church they choose, whom they choose to marry, where they choose to live, I also love my Godchildren in this same way. Do I wish they would all remain active in the Orthodox Church? There was a time when I would have said yes, unreservedly. But recently I’ve come to realize that what I want most for them—and what I ask God for in my prayers for them—is that they know that they are loved, by me, by their spouses, their friends, their pastors, their other Godparents, everyone who is significant in their lives. And that they know they are loved by God. Unconditionally.
I agree with Mr. Feiler when he says: “Before your godchild has to friend you on Facebook, be a friend-model of an old fashioned sort. Make a call. Make a date. Make a memory.”
And so I say to Mickey, Sarah, Damon, Madeleine, Damon, Hannah, Patrick, Katherine, Julie, Stacy, Sophie and Sue: please forgive me, and I’ll try to do better! And to Rose and Mary Allison (who are in Heaven): please pray for me. I love you all.