A godparent (also known as a sponsor), in many denominations of Christianity, is someone who bears witness to a child's baptism and then aids in their catechesis, as well as their lifelong spiritual formation. In the past, in some countries, the role carried some legal obligations as well as religious responsibilities. In both religious and civil views, a godparent tends to be an individual chosen by the parents to take an interest in the child's upbringing and personal development, and to take care of the child should anything happen to the parents.
A male godparent is a godfather, and a female godparent is a godmother. The child is a godchild (i.e. godson for boys and goddaughter for girls).
Origins and history
As early as the 2nd century AD, infant baptism had begun to gain acceptance among Christians for the spiritual purification and social initiation of infants. The requirement for some confession of faith necessitated the use of adults who acted as sponsors for the child. They vocalized the confession of faith and acted as guarantors of the child’s spiritual upbringing.
Normally, these sponsors were the natural parents of a child, as emphasized in 408 by St. Augustine who suggested that they could, it seems exceptionally, be other individuals. Within a century, the Corpus Juris Civilis indicates that parents had been replaced in this role almost completely. This was clarified in 813 when the Council of Munich prohibited natural parents from acting as godparents to their own children.
By the 5th century, male sponsors were referred to as "spiritual fathers", and by the end of the 6th century, they were being noted to as "compaters" and "commaters", suggesting that these were being seen as spiritual co-parents. This pattern was marked by the creation of legal barriers to marriage that paralleled those for other forms of kin. A decree of Justinian, dated to 530, outlawed marriage between a godfather and his goddaughter, and these barriers continued to multiply until the 11th century, forbidding marriage between natural and spiritual parents, or those directly related to them. As confirmation emerged as a separate rite from baptism from the 8th century, a second set of sponsors, with similar prohibitions, also emerged. The exact extent of these spiritual relationships as a bar to marriage in Catholicism was unclear until the Council of Trent, which limited it to relationships between the godparents, the child, and the parents.
During the Reformation
Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin preserved infant baptism against the attacks of more radical reformers including Anabaptists, and with it, sponsors at baptism. However, Luther strongly objected to the marriage barriers it created, Zwingli stressed the role of parents and pastors, rather than the "witnesses", in religious instruction, and Calvin and his followers tended to prefer the sponsors to be the natural parents. A single godparent was retained in baptism at Geneva and among French Calvinists, but some followers of Calvin, most notably in Scotland and eventually the English colonies in America, rejected them altogether.
Numbers of sponsors
In the early church, one sponsor seems to have been the norm, but in the early Middle Ages, there seems to have been two, one of each sex, and this practice has been largely maintained in Orthodox Christianity. In 888, the Catholic Council of Metz attempted to limit the number to one, but proliferation seems to have continued. In early 14th-century Spain, as many as 20 godparents were being chosen. In England, the Synod of Worcester (1240) stipulated three sponsors (two of the same sex and one of the opposite), and this has remained the norm in the Church of England. The Council of Trent attempted to limit the numbers of godparents to one or two, but practice has differed across the Catholic world.
The Church of England, the mother Church of the Anglican Communion, retained godparents in baptism, formally removing the marriage barriers in 1540, but the issue of the role and status of godparents continued to be debated in the English Church. They were abolished in 1644 by the Directory of Public Worship promulgated by the English Civil War Parliamentary regime, but continued to be used in some parishes in the north of England. After the Restoration in 1660, they were reintroduced to Anglicanism, with occasional objections, but dropped by almost every dissenting church. There is some evidence that the restored institution had lost some of its social importance as well as its universality.
At present, in the Church of England, relatives can stand as godparents, and although it is not clear that parents can be godparents, they sometimes are. Godparents should be both baptized and confirmed (although it is not clear in which Church), but the requirement for confirmation can be waived. There is no requirement for clergy to baptize those from outside their parishes, and baptism can be reasonably delayed so that the conditions, including suitable godparents, can be met. As a result, individual clergy have considerable discretion over the qualifications of godparents. Many "contemporary Anglican rites likewise require parents and godparents to respond on behalf of infant [baptismal] candidates."
Lutherans follow a similar theology of godparents as Roman Catholics. They believe that godparents "help [children] with their Christian upbringing, especially if they should lose their parents". Lutherans, like Roman Catholics, believe that a godparent must be both a baptized and confirmed Christian. Some Lutherans also follow the Roman Catholic tradition that a Christian who is not affiliated with the Lutheran denomination may serve as a witness rather than a godparent.
The Book of Discipline stipulates that it is the duty of a godparent, also known as a sponsor, "to provide training for the children of the Church throughout their childhood that will lead to a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, to an understanding of the Christian faith, and to an appreciation of the privileges and obligations of baptism and membership (¶ 225.4)." John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, wrote a homily titled "Serious Thoughts Concerning Godfathers and Godmothers" in which he stated that godparents are "spiritual parents to the baptized, whether they were infants or [adults]; and were expected to supply whatever spiritual helps were wanting either through the death or neglect of the natural parents." He described the role of godparents, instructing that they should call upon their godchild "to hear sermons, and shall provide that he(/she) may learn the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Ten Commandments, and all other things which a Christian ought to know and believe to his soul's health; and that this child be virtuosly brought up, to lead a godly and a Christian life." As such, the Book of Worship states that godparents/sponsors should be "selected carefully" and "should be members of Christ's holy Church; and it is the duty of pastors to instruct them concerning the significance of Holy Baptism, their responsibilities for the Christian training of the baptized child, and how these obligations may be fulfilled."
The Orthodox institution of godparenthood has been the least affected of the major traditions by change. In some Orthodox churches (Serbian, Greek) usually the best man (kum, кум, koumbaros) or bridesmaid (kuma, кума, koumbara) at a couple's wedding act as a godparent to the first or all children of the marriage. In some instances, the godfather is responsible for naming the child. A godparent to a child will then act as a sponsor at the child's wedding. Godparents are expected to be in good standing in the Orthodox church, including its rulings on divorce, and aware of the meaning and responsibilities of their role. They cannot be a minor or a parent of the child, and at least one sponsor must be Orthodox.
In the Reformed tradition that includes the Continental Reformed, Congregationalist and Presbyterian Churches, the godparents are more often referred to as sponsors, who have the role of standing with the child during infant baptism and pledging to instruct the child in the faith. In the bapismal liturgy of Reformed Geneva, "the traditional presence of godparents was retained". John Calvin, the progenitor of the Reformed tradition, himself served as a godparent during forty-seven baptisms. The Reformed Church in Geneva, in order to ensure confessional orthodoxy, "expected parents to select Reformed godparents." Today, many Reformed churches invite parents to select godparents for their prospective neophyte, while other parishes entrust this responsibility to the whole congregation.
Roman Catholic Church
The Catholic institution of godparenthood survived the Reformation largely unchanged. A godparent must normally be an appropriate person, at least sixteen years of age, a confirmed Catholic who has received the Eucharist, not under any canonical penalty, and may not be the parent of the child. Someone who belongs to another Christian church cannot become a godparent but can be a 'witness' in conjunction with a Catholic sponsor. A witness does not have any religious role recognized by the Church.
In 2015, the Vatican declared that transgender Catholics cannot become godparents, stating in response to a transgender man's query that transgender status "reveals in a public way an attitude opposite to the moral imperative of solving the problem of sexual identity according to the truth of one's own sexuality" and that, "[t]herefore it is evident that this person does not possess the requirement of leading a life according to the faith and in the position of godfather and is therefore unable to be admitted to the position of godfather or godmother."
In some Catholic and Orthodox countries, particularly in southern Europe, Latin America, and the Philippines, the relationship between parents and godparents or co-godparents has been seen as particularly important and distinctive. These relationships create mutual obligations and responsibilities that may be socially useful for participants. The Portuguese and Spanish compadre (literally, "co-father") and comadre ("co-mother"), the French marraine and parrain, and the archaic meaning of the English word gossip (from godsib, "godsibling"), describe these relationships. By extension, they can also be used to describe a friendship.
The Spanish and Portuguese words for the godparent roles are used for members of the wedding party—padrino/padrinho meaning "godfather" or "best man" and madrina/madrinha meaning "godmother" or "matron of honor", reflecting the custom of baptismal sponsors acting in this role in a couple's wedding.
The Spanish custom was also adopted in the Philippines, a predominantly Christian country in Southeast Asia that was a former part of the Spanish Empire. The Filipino terms ninong for godfather and ninang for godmother, were also borrowed from Hispanic custom, and apply to godparents in both a child's Baptism and the child's later Confirmation. In the context of a wedding, the terms instead refer to the principal sponsors of the couple.
Literature and folklore
Godparents are noted features of fairy tales and folklore written from the 17th century onwards, and by extension, have found their way into many modern works of fiction. In Godfather Death, presented by the Brothers Grimm, the archetype is, unusually, a supernatural godfather. However, most are a fairy godmother as in versions of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and The Blue Bird. This feature may simply reflect the Catholic milieu in which most fairy tales were created, or at least recorded, and the accepted role of godparents as helpers from outside the family, but feminist Marina Warner suggests that they may be a form of wish fulfilment by female narrators.
In the Yoruba religion Santería, godparents must have completed their santo or their Ifá. A person gets his Madrina and Yubona (co-godmother) or his Padrino and Yubon (co-godfather). A santero, aside from his co-godparents, may have an oluo (babalawo, initiate of ifa) who consults him with an ekuele (divinating chain).
There are two roles in the Jewish circumcision ceremony that are sometimes translated as godparent. The sandek holds the baby boy while he is circumcised. Among Orthodox Ashkenazi, the kvater (or kvaterin if female) is the person who takes the child from his mother and carries him into the room in which the circumcision is performed. Kvater is etymologically derived from the archaic German Gevatter ("godfather").
Some Chinese communities practise the custom of matching a child with a relative or family friend who becomes the godmother (乾媽) or godfather (乾爹). This practice is largely non-religious in nature, but commonly done to strengthen ties or to fulfill the wish of a childless adult to have a "son/daughter". In most circumstances, an auspicious day is selected during which a ceremony takes place, involving the godchild paying his/her respects to his new godfather/godmother in the presence of relatives or friends.
Alternatively, as it is already common in Chinese kinship to use kinship terms among people that are not related (e.g. addressing a respected coworker as "brother" or one's father's friend may be referred to as "uncle"), an older friend or family friend with a deep friendship and a sufficient age gap will also informally address the other as his godparent or godchild, a gesture often initiated by the older person.
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In earlier times the role of godparent carried with it a legal responsibility for the child, should he or she become orphaned. Today, being a godparent is not legally binding and carries no legal rights, although godparents may also serve as legal guardians for children if this arrangement is documented in a valid will.
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You’re welcome to invite one or two Godparents to take part in the baptism service, though this is optional and matter of personal choice.
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The dictionary definition of godparent at Wiktionary