What's a godparent?

September 20, 2011

I didn't refer to my godson as my godson until I heard one of his
parents do it first. They asked me to be a baptismal sponsor but didn't use
godparenting language at first, so I wasn't sure what name(s) they were giving
the relationship. I was glad when, just before the baptism, the baby's mother
said to him, "These are your godparents!" It's pretty awkward calling a kid
your "baptismal sponsee." Really drains the cute right out of the moment.

My wife grew up Catholic, and in her family it's clear that
baptismal sponsors are godparents. It's also understood that it's an honor that
goes to aunts and uncles. I don't have godparents but did (and still do) call
several of my parents' close friends aunt and uncle; one such couple had an
understanding with my parents that in the event of a disaster, neither would
leave the other's children orphaned.

Other Protestant friends apply the word "godparent" to this
backup-parent role and not to their baptismal sponsors. Still others have close
relationships with godparents who fall into neither category.

I find all this quite strange, and my wife and I talk about how,
once we have kids, one of the many things we'll have to figure out together is
what we're talking about when we talk about godparents.

We Americans have got nothing on the Brits, however. According to
the Guardian, godparenting across the
pond has devolved into something like professional networking. After reading
Kira Cochrane's article on the subject, I feel a lot better
about the ambiguity here at home. A godparent takes a special interest in your
life, especially your spiritual formation; maybe she or he is also your
baptismal sponsor, maybe not. Evidently a culture can do a lot worse than that.