From Stephen Godley
Passing on the faith
Because I was a deacon while I was studying in Greece, I was assigned to a local parish. And it was indeed local: just around the corner from our student accommodation, the parish of Saints Constantine and Helen under the redoubtable care of the parish priest Father Thomas. My duties included the regular liturgical services on Sundays and feast days as well as baptisms and weddings, usually held on Sunday afternoons.
Arriving one Sunday afternoon for a baptism, I asked Father Thomas, “Where’s the baby?” In reply he simply pointed to a man who could have played front-row forward for a rugby team. It seems Victor, for that was the young man’s name, had been born outside Greece, but of Greek parentage and had somehow missed out on being baptised as an infant. The baptismal service proceeded as usual, that is, in exactly the same way as it would for an infant, with a few allowances for Victor’s size. (I still have a wonderful image of Victor in a white robe standing in the (large) font and the diminutive Father Thomas standing on a chair beside him.) For the Orthodox Church makes no distinction between infant and adult baptism. There is only one form of service. This extends even to the fact that Victor had a godfather.
Now it might seem strange that adults are required to have a godparent in baptism. Surely they can answer for themselves. However, the way the Orthodox Church looks at it is that, while a person may be physically and mentally mature, they are still an infant spiritually and consequently require help and guidance from someone mature in the faith, namely a godparent or – the term I prefer in English – a sponsor. My preference for this term is not mere pedantry because the role of this person is akin to that of a guarantor, promising that he or she will see to it that the spiritual ‘infant’ will grow in the faith. Symbolically the sponsor carries a lighted candle during the baptismal ceremony as a sign of the faith he or she will hand on to the godchild.
I hope that what is beginning to emerge is the importance the Orthodox Church places on the relationship between sponsor and neophyte, and consequently on the role and responsibilities of the sponsor or godparent. There is the obvious responsibility of caring for a godchild if something should happen to the parents, and this care may well extend to the material as well as the spiritual. But there are further responsibilities.
The principal spiritual obligation is education in the faith, which will include encouraging and accompanying the godchild at church attendance. Orthodox baptism includes chrismation and so an Orthodox Christian may receive Holy Communion as soon as they are baptised. The Greek custom is for the godparent to take the neophyte to church on the first Sunday after the baptismal service to receive the first communion and it is common to see godparents carrying the lighted baptismal candle in the queue for Holy Communion. A conscientious sponsor will see to it that their godchild receives the Sacrament regularly: on major feast days and of course, on the feast of the saint for which the godchild is named. It used to be a wonderful old custom that the newly baptised would take as their name in baptism that of the saint of the day on which they were baptised, and so the celebration of the name day would also be a celebration of the day of baptism, when they were born again into the kingdom of Christ. Unfortunately, this is happening less and less, but a good godparent will remember to observe the baptismal day as well. Indeed, my Lebanese grandmother knew the date of her baptism, but not of her birthday!
If an Orthodox sponsor is fulfilling his or her duties responsibly, it is obvious that the relationship with the godchild is extremely close and indeed, in some sense, absolute. The Orthodox Church acknowledges the serious nature of this relationship in that the children of the one sponsor are the equivalent of brother and sister and hence in the eyes of the Church are forbidden to marry.
Some people are aware that, especially in the Greek tradition, the godfather of the groom (not his brother or best mate) is often the ‘best man’ at the wedding. Again, a better term for ‘best man’ is ‘sponsor’ as the role is similar to that in baptism. The sponsor is to guarantee that the marriage will be a true marriage in the faith of the Church. Of course, this role can also be carried out by a woman sponsor, presumably the godmother of the bride. Again, the lighted candle, a symbol of the faith that is to be passed on to the newly married couple is carried by the sponsor(s) at the wedding.
What enormous responsibilities we take on if we agree to be the godparent of a child, responsibilities that are sometimes neglected, even if something does befall the child’s parents. I wonder do we always appreciate the enormity of the task.