A Guide for Godparents – Everything You Need to Know

For Christians, to be asked to be a Godparent is a great honour. It can also, however, be a daunting request. Prospective Godparents should therefore acquaint themselves with exactly what will be asked of them and prepare themselves for the task.

What exactly is a Godparent?

A godparent is a person who aids in a child’s spiritual education and development. Such an undertaking will comprise many different aspects.

Teach Christian values

One of the most crucial roles of the godparent is to impress upon the child the importance of Christian values and if possible, the scriptural justification for these values. Among these values are respect for the sanctity of life, compassion and tolerance. If you do this, then the bulk of your work as Godparent is already done; all of the other roles stem from this.

Teach Christian philosophy

When the child is old enough, you might wish to talk to them (or they may wish to talk to you) about how these values can inform ethical questions such as those surrounding divisive topics like abortion and euthanasia. In such questions, these values sometimes find themselves at odds with one another – as do the Christians who hold them.

You should encourage free thought and challenge the child to reach their own conclusions rather than prescribing yours. Their way of looking at things may be entirely at odds with yours. It may be that you learn as much from them as they do from you!

Children can often pose questions that no adult would – out of some sense of pragmatism. It may be that you come to realise that you aren’t as sure about what you believe as you had previously thought.

Here are a few classic questions:

“Why is there so much suffering in the world?”

“Why do good things happen to bad people?”

“How did God come to be?”

“What if we’re praying to the wrong God?”

These questions have puzzled the most brilliant Christian thinkers for centuries, so do not feel dispirited if you find yourself unable to answer to them. They are difficult and will probably never be answered definitively! If you are about to become a Godparent, it would perhaps be wise to devote some thought to them yourself. You might be fielding them sooner than you think!

Prayer

Part of your role as Godparent is to instruct the child as to exactly how and why Christians pray. This should include both an explanation of the language of formal prayer and instruction as to exactly which prayers are spoken when.

As well as providing instruction in prayer for the child, you will also be expected to pray on their behalf. If you are already in the habit of praying, then this is not a difficult task – indeed, it might be one you had planned on doing in any case.

Teach through example

The ideal godparent should lead through example in all things spiritual. If you tell your spiritual charge to do one thing and then do precisely the opposite, then the message is highly unlikely to be taken seriously.

Be able to cite scripture

As well as the more general points thus far addressed, a Godparent should also have pretty decent knowledge of the holy book from which all of this teaching is derived. If a small child doesn’t understand part of a sermon or picks up some more extravagant ideas and teachings, a good knowledge of the scriptures will help you give better advice and direction.

The Christening itself

During a child’s christening, prospective Godparents, along with the parents, will be asked to make a number of promises. The content of these promises is, in Anglican ceremonies, largely the same. The conducting priest will ask two questions:

“Will you pray for them, draw them by your example into the community of faith and walk with them in the way of Christ?”

“Will you care for them, and help them to take their place within the life and worship of Christ’s Church?”

To both of these questions, both parents and Godparents must reply: “With the help of God we will.”

The priest will then ask the child questions and it will fall to you to answer them on behalf of the child. These will include renouncing Satan (in modern ceremonies Satan has come to be synonymous with everything bad; as such he may not be referred to by name) and affirming Christ as the child’s Lord and saviour.

If you do not feel comfortable speaking on behalf of the child, then you might wish to discuss this with the priest and the parents before the ceremony takes place. Later in life, many Christians baptised into the religion as children reaffirm these vows at a ceremony known as a confirmation.

It is important that you appreciate the gravity of these promises before you make them. A great many secular couples ask friends to become Godparents, without taking the religion that seriously themselves. It is important that you discuss your role with the parents.

If you do not feel that you will be able to provide the necessary scriptural guidance, or you feel that you simply aren’t the wise, thoughtful person they obviously imagine you to be, then you should probably let them know about it before you make a vow before God.

What do I need to buy?

Like most of those invited, Godparents are in most cases expected to buy gifts for the christening.  The most frequently bought gifts, as one might expect, are bibles and prayer books – though these gifts are often given for their sentimental value more than anything else.

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The Importance of Christenings to the Christian Faith

Infant baptism is a Christian tradition spanning thousands of years. The reasons to perform the ceremony have changed slightly during that time. What motivates Christian families to get their children baptised and – perhaps more interestingly – what motivates families who are otherwise quite unreligious to do so?

Christians

In the Christian faith, the baptism of infants takes place for a number of reasons. Among Christians, there is furious debate – so what follows is by no means a definitive version of the faith, but rather a short exploration of what motivates a Christian to have their child baptised.

  1. 1.       Declaration of faith by the believer

With a few exceptions – such as Baptists – most Christian denominations practice infant baptism. Obviously an infant cannot declare their faith – which is why the confirmation ceremony was created. Instead, a christening inducts a new member into the church family and affirms that the child will receive proper spiritual guidance from the Godparents (who may or may not include the parents).

  1. 2.       Induction into a community

In a contemporary understanding of the ceremony, this is perhaps the most important rationale. The child will be welcomed into the wider family of the church and Christendom as a whole and finally into humanity.

  1. 3.       Wash away sin

For centuries, an idea has run through Christian thought: that all humankind is born with the stain of the original sin taken from the story of Adam and Eve. The trouble is that this idea is difficult to reconcile with the more figurative interpretation of Genesis advocated by most Christians. And so the washing away of sins becomes more of a metaphor.

Though, of course, where there is sin, there is…

  1. 4.       The threat of hell

The truth is that few modern Christians are motivated by fear of hell. While historically the idea of eternal hell has been crucial in enforcing religious observance, the modern Church of England is keen to downplay the significance of baptism in what may or may not happen after death. Critics of religion are often keen to point out that such an idea is morally unjustifiable and modern British Christians tend to agree (though their American counterparts, for the most part, do not). This makes sense; after all, it seems hardly likely that a loving god would inflict such a punishment on an innocent infant.

Not particularly religious

At the time of writing, most of the UK’s population consider themselves Christian – though it isn’t always clear what that means. The 2011 Census places the figure at 59%. However, another poll, conducted by IPSOS-MORI in 2012 found that 46% of Christians consider themselves Christians mainly on the grounds that they were baptised into the religion. This is in sharp contrast to the 18% who answered that they believe in the tenets of the religion. Interestingly, only 35% of those polled knew that the first book of the New Testament was Matthew.

Why is this the case? Well, the respondents are not lying to the census-takers; nor are they, as some might suggest, wrong to profess to be Christian. A more plausible explanation lies in the diversity of conviction among nominal Christians, among whom many variously doubt that Jesus was the son of God, or that he was crucified, or that he returned from the dead, or that he even existed.

One might expect to see these trends reflected in a decline in christenings. But while church attendance is dwindling, christenings remain constant. In an increasingly secular society, with increasingly secular values, it seems counterintuitive that christenings should prove so resilient. There are several possible explanations for this.

  1. 1.       The pressure of tradition

Tradition and cultural identity undoubtedly play a role; if umpteen generations which preceded you have been baptised, there is an expectation that you, too, should be. In Christian families, it is overwhelmingly likely that everyone present at a christening would have been christened themselves. It would be a bold move indeed to part company with a custom spanning thousands of years. Of course, familial expectations also undoubtedly play a role. Few would defy a devout grandparent in order to score an academic point. There is also the thought that parents do this to get their children into a good school where being christened into the family of God is a requirement.

  1. 2.       Doubt

In matters religious, most people have yet to make up their mind. Even the most committed believers still suffer from doubts on occasion. The same is assuredly true of those who don’t consider themselves religious, in spite of a strong belief in something. Perhaps, to them, the metaphysical claims of the Old Testament seem a little implausible – perhaps the idea of sin seems a little far-out. And yet, they believe that there is something more – they are simply hesitant to assign it a label. In this respect, infant baptism seems to have received the benefit of theistic doubt.

  1. 3.       Why not?

Among believers, christening is a way of inducting a new member into a broader community. I suspect that a similar motivation lies behind more secular couples electing to have their offspring christened.

To have no ceremony at all would be something which very few would countenance. The prospect of a secular ‘baby naming ceremony’ – empty of all tradition and shaped only by the whims of the parents – would give pause to even the most fervent atheist. It seems entirely appropriate that an occasion such as a birth should be marked with a ceremony of some sort where all the family comes together to celebrate – a christening seems as good an opportunity as any.

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Christenings: Frequently Asked Questions

Prospective parents and in particular those from Christian backgrounds, may be considering whether or not to get their child baptised and the significance of doing so. Confusion is understandable; the intricacies of the ceremony can appear daunting, especially to parents who aren’t particularly religious themselves. What follows are a few answers to questions commonly asked about the ceremonies. We will deal here principally with practices common in the Church of England; other denominations of Christianity may have their own various idiosyncrasies.

Family Christening Portrait

What is a Christening?

The term ‘christen’ means to admit someone as a Christian. This is almost universally done through baptism – or immersion in water. The two terms are used interchangeably – some churches may announce that they are to hold a ‘baptism’; others may announce that they are to hold a ‘christening’.  There is no substantive difference between the two.

From where do Christenings originate?

In Christianity, the ceremony’s origins date back to Jesus’s baptism by John in the river Jordan, but baptism had long been practiced before then. The crucial difference between Christian baptism and its forebears is that it is open to everyone, rather than just those of a certain lineage. It holds significance for a number of reasons, not least of which is the washing away of our original sin.

What actually happens in the ceremony?

The specifics of the modern ceremony are fairly constant throughout the Church of England. The priest will bless some water and pour it over the baby’s head and then make the sign of the cross over them using a special oil. Promises will be made, by both parents and godparents (more on them later), on behalf of the baby. Finally, the church may also present the parents with a gift – usually a candle. The ceremony will invariably include some hymns and readings – the parents will be able to choose which. In the case of infant baptism, the immersion is only partial – for the obvious reasons of safety and practicality. Baptisms involving adults involve full immersion in water.

When do Christenings take place?

Christenings take place as part of the Sunday service, though they can be scheduled for other times if the parish allows it.  If you would like to arrange a christening at a different time, then speak to your local priest or vicar.

Am I allowed to have my baby christened?

In the Church of England at least, the answer is almost always yes. The Church welcomes families of every shape and size. You do not have to be married, you do not have to attend church regularly, and you don’t have to have been christened yourself. In this sense, the church is remarkably accommodating.

Does the Christening give my baby a name?

While the priest will use the baby’s name in the ceremony, christenings do not give baby’s names.  This is given when the birth is registered and then in confirmation when they are teenagers (if they wish to go through with this).

When can I have my child christened?

While most ceremonies take place shortly after a child’s birth, the truth is that a child of any age can be christened. While there is no upper age limit, once a child is older than seven they will generally be expected to make the promises themselves, rather than having their parents do it on their behalf.

What exactly is a Godparent?

A godparent is someone who aids a child’s parents in religious upbringing, though in secular households the role of godparent might be broadened to include ethical training as well. A godparent will help a child think about big concepts which might otherwise escape them. Parents should therefore select godparents they judge to be of excellent moral character.

When it comes to godparents, the Church of England is a little less flexible than it is when it comes to the parents. Godparents must themselves have been christened and they must also be of sufficient age to make promises on a child’s behalf.

The church stipulates that a child should have ‘no fewer than three godparents and at least two of the same sex as the child’. Since parents can be godparents, this means that a baptised couple need only have one additional godparent – though in many instances, it may be better to have more than one.

Where does a Christening take place?

In the vast majority of cases, christenings will take place in the parish local to the family. In some instances, however, the parents may desire that the ceremony be held at another parish – perhaps one which holds significance for the family. Look out for a directory of suitable Christening venues coming to the site in the New Year.

Are Christening’s free?

Church of England parishes will perform the ceremony for free; it is common, however, for families to make donations to the parish. There are costs associated with the ceremony, such as that of the robes your child might wear and the family party which almost always accompanies the ceremony.

I wasn’t baptised as a child. Can I get baptised now?

The answer to this question is invariably yes. It is far rarer for adults to get baptised but arrangements can definitely be made. If you would like to become baptised, then speak to your local parish priest.

I was baptised as a child.  Can I do anything further?

The main criticism of infant baptism is that a child has no say in the matter. There is undoubtedly merit in this objection; after all, you can hardly be expected to hold to a promise made when you were only a few months old. In many cases, the child does not grow to have any strong religious conviction. In some cases, however, the faith of a baptised child becomes particularly important as an adult.

Many Christians seek to reaffirm these promises later in life, in a ceremony known as a confirmation.  In this ceremony, the bishop will ask the candidate a series of questions, such as whether you have decided to turn away from evil and turn instead toward Christ. These promises will be made in front of the congregation, who will in turn promise to help you to keep them by offering their support wherever possible.

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What are the origins of Infant Baptism?

Baptism and the FontInfant baptism was not practiced at the time that Jesus was around and instead arose a few centuries later. There is no mention in the New Testament of an infant being sprinkled with water it was only really in later life that this was done, nor was there any suggestion that it would be a good idea. However, there is no explicit instruction that only adults should be baptised, either. This is one of many instances where the bible is open to interpretation.

That said, few would dispute that infant baptism (or christenings) was not practiced at the time of Jesus. And yet in the modern world, Christians routinely baptise children. Which poses the question: where did this new trend originate from and why?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these questions are contentious and much debated among historians – and among wider Christian circles. There are many competing theories as to the origins of infant baptism.

One of the earlier mentions of the practice is by Carthaginian thinker Tertullian, who also puts forward the idea of a godparent who might aid in overseeing the child’s spiritual development.

Christianity spreads across the Empire

One school of thought views the prevalence of infant baptism as a by-product of a broader change in Christianity. The religion became more and more closely wedded to the state, as it spread across the Roman Empire under Constantine. Eventually, Theodosius I would make Christianity the empire’s official religion– but the religion would take root among the roman population long before that.

The focus of baptism thereby shifted. Whereas before, individuals would come willingly to Christianity, it was now possible to be born into it. Baptism was no longer a matter of personal choice; if you were a child of Christian parents, it followed that you were a Christian and would be baptised as such. This could be for many different reasons such as to remove ‘original sin’ or in the unfortunate case of infant death the belief that it will help send them on to heaven rather than being stuck in purgatory.

One consequence of Christianity becoming so wedded with the Roman Empire is that the emperor became endowed with authority in religious matters. This meant that the emperor was able to pass ordinances which fundamentally altered the way in which the religion was practiced. Some of these ordinances endorsed infant baptism and so the practice became more widespread and common.

Many of these practices concerned original sin.

The washing away of original sin

Washing away of original sinOne factor that cannot be underestimated is that of ‘original sin’ – that which was committed by the first woman, Eve, in the book of Genesis, when she tasted the forbidden fruit. The bible holds that that all human beings bear responsibility for this infraction. The power of sanctified water to ‘wash away’ this sin is one of the purposes of a baptism.

While many modern Christians view both the account put forward in Genesis in more metaphorical terms, there was a time in which sin was taken very literally indeed. It was a matter of grave concern to Christian parents, for whom the prospect of hell was very real and persuasive.

One popular idea was that baptism washed away all sins committed beforehand – but not those committed afterward. People would therefore elect to wait until they were literally on their deathbed before being baptised. Constantine himself was one famous adherent of this practice.

Of course, this tactic was dangerous, in that it posed the not inconsiderable risk that sudden death might rob you of the chance to be baptised. This risk made infant baptism all the more appealing.

Child Death

During the first millennium, child mortality rates were far higher than they are today. For every child born, there was a likelihood that some would die – mostly through causes completely unknown to the parents – infections, viruses and genetic disorders would take lives seemingly at random.

During this time, child death was a fact of life. That said, it was undoubtedly a cause of great stress to the parents of such children. In the face of conflicting views surrounding the efficacy of infant baptism, it seems likely that parents would elect to baptise their child, in order that they be sent to heaven – however remote the contrary possibility might be. After all, faith can be a powerful comfort and healer.

The differences between adult and child baptism

It is tempting to think of adult baptism as having transformed into child baptism, since the two ceremonies both involve immersion in water and the pledging of vows. But the two are, in actuality, wholly distinct acts. When an adult is baptised, he (or she) is expected to verbally renounce Satan and to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and saviour. A child, by contrast, can make no such renunciations and declarations. These pledges are instead made by the parents and godparents. Child baptism is therefore a conditional act, contingent on the child receiving religious instruction as it grows older. Later in life, a baptised child may wish the make the same pledges spoken in an adult baptism. The ceremony of confirmation was therefore introduced in order to afford such children the chance to do so and carry on their faith of their own volition.

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Understanding Christian Denomination

Christianity began life as an apparently harmless sect within a remote outpost of the Roman Empire. It spread with a speed and tenacity which few anticipated. The idea that a God could have a human son wasn’t new among Romans – Roman emperors had been making that precise claim for a long time. And the concept of an afterlife in the Elysian Fields or in the depths of Hades were well entrenched, but Christianity arrived at just the right time, when Romans were experimenting with numerous other cults (Zoroaster and Mithras for example) and were responsive to new ideas. Droves of Romans abandoned Jupiter, Venus and the other old Gods for the new religion and Christianity spread throughout Europe.

For a thousand years or so after those early years, Christianity proceeded– with a few refinements here and there – as one homogenous, indivisible block. You either believed that Jesus was the Son of God or you didn’t.

But now, there are many, many different denominations. The differences between them are sometimes subtle. So, where did they all come from?

To attempt to summarise a faith with anything approaching concision is to invite the scorn of its adherents. It is, after all, almost impossible to distil Catholicism into only a few paragraphs. Nevertheless, what follows is a brief journey through Christian thought – so that perhaps, the next time you are introduced to a seventh-day Adventist, you’ll at least have the vaguest notion of what that means. A short summary is preferable to ignorance of the rich tapestry of religious belief that exists in our modern society.

Although there were many divisions and secessions in the early church, such as the creation of the Egyptian Coptic church, the first and most significant divergence in Christian history occurred in the 11th century, during a period modern historians refer to as the Great Schism. During this period, Western Catholicism broke away from Eastern Orthodoxy – a geographical separation which endures to this day. It is best to examine these two categories first.

Catholicism

The Catholic Church is an organisation with an extremely rich and varied history with the largest membership at around 1.2 billion people. Its laws and doctrines are hugely convoluted – to attempt to describe them in detail would be foolhardy; it is sufficient to say that it is generally more authoritarian and socially conservative than its cousins. It does, however, hold several key features which distinguish it from other faiths:

Apolistic Succession

Catholic doctrine holds that, when founding his church, Christ appointed St. Peter as its head. Today, the bishop of Rome – or, as he’s more commonly referred to, The Pope – is viewed as St. Peter’s successor. The structure of the church is therefore hugely hierarchical: The Pope sits at the head, and beneath him sit a handful of cardinals and beneath them sit archbishops, deacons, bishops and priests. Unlike those of other Christian denominations, the catholic priesthood is composed entirely of celibate men – largely because Jesus was a celibate man.

Transubstantiation

This is the belief held by Catholics that, when a bishop repeats the words attributed to Jesus at the last supper, bread and wine can literally transform into the flesh and blood of Christ – though without exhibiting any outward change in appearance. Catholics would certainly hesitate to term this effect as ‘magical’.

Opposition to Contraception

The Catholic Church opposes artificial methods of contraception, such as condoms. This is in order to prevent sex being solely a means of pleasure – which is viewed as inherently sinful.

Opposition to Abortion

The Catholic Church also vehemently opposes abortion. They consider human life sacred from the moment of conception. Catholic opposition to Stem Cell research is based on the same reasoning.

Orthodoxy

Unlike Catholics, Orthodox Christians do not hold St. Peter to be foremost among the apostles. They believe that that the scriptures have been misinterpreted on this point and that Jesus was not talking specifically about Peter, but rather every one of the disciples.

This seemingly minor change has profound impacts of the way a church is organised. While the Catholic Church conforms to an extremely rigid hierarchy, Orthodox churches are instead ruled separately – through a series of national institutions. However, unlike protestant churches, they are all closely bound together and virtually all of them share the same communion.

Baptists

Baptists, unlike most other Christians, believe that only professing believers should be baptised, rather than unwitting infants. They therefore only baptise willing adults. They do not, however, consider baptism a sacrament (something which is necessary to get into heaven). Baptists believe in religious freedom, as they believe that religion should be between the believer and God. The Baptist Church and associated congregations boast over 100 million members worldwide.

Protestants

During the 16th century came a series of events which utterly transformed Christian thought in Europe. This change became known as the Protestant Reformation. Unlike Catholics, Protestants defer to no central authority – other than scripture, and, by extension, God. This freedom has led, as one might expect, to the growth of many different branches within Protestant Christianity – more so than any other religion.

Lutherans

Martin Luther was a German friar and theologian who, among others, prompted the protestant reformation. Luther had a number of problems with the Vatican’s modus operandi – among them its practice of selling salvation in the form of ‘indulgences’, with which any sins could be disregarded and the indulgent permitted to heaven.

He elucidated these complaints in 1517, in a writing called ‘the ninety-five theses’ – which he nailed to the front of his local church and disseminated copies, which spread quickly throughout Europe. This incident is now regarded by most historians as the beginning of the protestant reformation.

Luther held that scripture was the sole basis for Christian faith and that no huge church was necessary. The Catholic Church took exception to this and responded by banning his work throughout the Holy Roman Empire and threatening him with excommunication if he did not recant his beliefs.

Luther was placed under arrest and ultimately forced into hiding. He would make good use of the time, however. Up until that point, the Bible had only been made available in Greek and Latin – languages which hardly anyone spoke. Luther translated the Bible into German so that everyone could read it. Luther’s Bible quickly spread throughout Europe and the result is modern Lutheranism.

Anglicans

Christianity arrived in England following the Roman occupation. Although culturally it had absorbed some local Celtic custom, the church in England adopted the Catholic faith controlled by Rome following Augustine’s mission in the 6th Century. The break from Rome came nearly 1,000 years later in 1534 when Henry VIII declared himself supreme leader of the Church of England – an act that enabled him to divorce his wife and appropriate the church’s great wealth.

The Anglican Communion represents over 85 million Christians worldwide – some see it as offering egalitarian Protestantism, for others it provides non-papal Catholicism – a diverse group.

Presbyterians

Presbyterianism is heavily influenced by the work of John Calvin, a French theologian. In Presbyterianism, churches are run in a democratic manner, with elected elders holding authority alongside ordained ministers. The movement can, for the most part, trace its origins back to Scotland during the reformation.

Presbyterian beliefs are similar to those of other groups within the protestant movement: that God is sovereign over everything, that scripture is his word, in the power of faith and in the priesthood of all believers.

Pentecostal

The First Pentecost is described in the New Testament, in the book of Acts. The account holds that the Apostles were attending a gathering in celebration of the Jewish festival of Shavuot, when the Holy Spirit descended and entered the body of everyone present, causing them to speak in other languages – or at least, that was the explanation proffered by St. Peter.

Pentecostal Christians believe the Holy Spirit acts largely as it did then and can enter the body at any time. They also believe that Jesus:

  • Can save people from hell.
  • Baptises you from the Holy Spirit.
  • Can heal wounds.
  • Will one day return.

Pentecostalism is an evangelical tradition, or one whose adherents actively try to persuade nonbelievers to join them.

Methodists

Methodism was created much later than other protestant movements. It was founded in the eighteenth century by John Wesley and later curated by his brother Charles. Methodists believe that everyone can be saved and – more distinctly – that everyone must be saved. The religion’s emphasis lies largely with helping others, especially the poor and needy, which explains the prevalence of schools and hospitals said to be Methodist.

Quakers

Quakers (or ‘friends’) are a family of different movements who each believe in a ‘priesthood of all believers’. They believe that God’s revelation is ongoing and that believers need only liaise with Him directly to experience it. Quaker gatherings are, relative to those of other faiths, hugely informal – emphasis is placed on caring for one another and sharing goals for the world.

Church of Latter-Day Saints

The denominations thus far discussed have been broadly similar – but the Church of Latter Day Saints is certainly unique. While the supernatural origins of Christianity are shrouded in mystery a great deal is known about the origins of Mormonism. It was founded in 1820 by Joseph Smith, who, with the help of the angel Moroni, found and translated some golden plates which describe Jesus’s visit to North America.

Mormons believe, contrary to most of Christian tradition, that there was no ‘creation’ at the beginning of everything and that God and human beings are essentially similar – though at different stages of development.

The term ‘Mormon’ stems from one of the sect’s holy books, The Book of Mormon and was initially employed as a pejorative – though Mormons are now, generally speaking, happy to accept the label.

Non-denominational

Non-denominational Christians are, as one might expect, those who do not associate themselves with any particular group, this makes up around 2.5 million people.

These are just a few of the vast amount of Denominations around the world, do you belong to any of these or one that has not been described, or something completely different?

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Royal Christenings Traditions Pomp and Ceremony

Royal Souvenir First Tooth PotWith the royal family having recently announced that the Duchess of Cambridge is carrying a second child, the nation’s attention and indeed that of the world, is affixed once more on all things regal. In sharp contrast to royal weddings, funerals, and coronations (which are necessarily grand ceremonies of state) royal christenings tend to be private affairs, with just a few close relatives present.

Consequently, royal christenings throughout history are not as well documented as the other occasions mentioned. Though we know enough about them to know that some were not quite so modest. The christening of Elizabeth I featured heralds and ringing trumpets.

Many of the late Georgian and Victorian christenings were overblown affairs, with increasingly elaborate props and guests from all over the world. Intimacy, then, is a feature only really present in the christenings of more recent monarchs. Elizabeth II was attended by nine people, that of Queen Victoria herself by just seven.

What actually happens?

The ceremony is usually – though not always – conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury and proceedings transpire in a particular order, in a time usually a little under half-an-hour. The ceremony commences with a selection of hymns, before the infant is brought into the room by the Head Nurse, accompanied by the mother’s lady-in-waiting. The child is then handed to the godparent and then to the archbishop. The Archbishop then asks for a name, before proceeding to pour holy water from the font over the child’s head while declaring ‘I baptise you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’.

Another hymn is then sung and those present leave the room in the same order that they entered, and are ushered into another room where the register is signed.  A reception then follows, in which everyone enjoys light refreshments and cake.

Royal christenings are distinct in that they feature three special items, which have been present in almost every royal christening since that of Princess Victoria in 1841.

The Honiton Lace Robe

The gown first worn by Princess Victoria was directly inspired by her mother’s wedding dress from the preceding year. When Victoria the elder needed a gown for her daughter’s christening, she turned to a lace-maker from Honiton, East Devon – though the precise identity of this lace-maker is disputed.

It has been used by more than sixty individuals since its debut 173 years ago and the colour of the satin has now faded from white to cream and the linen has now worn out.  As one might imagine, this costume is delicate and requires extremely careful maintenance along with occasional reparative work. Following every outing, the outfit is hand-washed in sterilised water.  It is then dried, wrapped in black tissue paper and stored in an airtight container in Buckingham Palace.

The Lily Font

Even by royal standards, this is a breathtakingly opulent font. It is made from gold-gilded silver and is around seventeen inches wide and seventeen inches tall. Its border is comprised of elaborate lilies, while seated cherubim flank its base. Victoria commissioned the font in 1840, allegedly on the sole grounds that an illegitimate child had been christened in an earlier one. In 1960, the font was moved from Windsor Castle to the Tower of London, where it now resides.

The Holy Water

While having a priest bless the water has long been within the means of most families, the royals have traditionally gone a step further and had their water taken from the river Jordan, where Christian tradition holds that Jesus Christ was baptised by John.

Victoria

Victoria’s christening took place in the Cupola Room at Kensington Palace at around three o’clock in the afternoon of June 24th, 1819. The ceremony was unusual, not only in that it was sparsely attended, but in that no-one present knew what the baby’s name would be.

While Victoria’s parents had come up with a shortlist of names, the decision ultimately rested with Victoria’s father’s brother: the Prince Regent, George IV. George despised his brother and flatly rejected all four of the names put forward, declaring that the child should not be given any name currently used by the royal family. When the Archbishop came to ask George for a name, he replied with ‘Alexandrina’, after the Russian Emperor Alexander I.

And so Victoria was christened ‘Alexandrina Victoria’. Though the name ‘Drina’ persisted throughout her childhood, but she always preferred to be called by her second name and after she became queen, she often got her way.

Venues

Throughout history, British monarchs have built and used a variety of venues for the occasion. The last royal christening (that of Prince George in October last year) was carried out in the Chapel Royal at St. James’ Palace.

For the house of Windsor, the music room in Buckingham palace has long been a favoured venue for the ceremony and four royal babies have been christened there:  Charles, Anne, Andrew and William. In each instance, the ceremony was performed by the then-Archbishop of Canterbury.

The current monarch was officially welcomed into the world on 29th May, 1926 – around five weeks after her birth. According to historian and royal biographer Sarah Bradford, the queen cried so much that “her nurse dosed her with dill water, an old-fashioned remedy, to the amusement of her uncle, the Prince of Wales.”

Cakes

No overview of royal christenings would be complete without at least a brief mention of the various christening cakes that have been created for the occasion, the most ostentatious of which seems to be that presented to Edward VII, which The Times compared to a ‘coliseum of sugar’ and reported as being around two-and-a-half feet wide and over four feet tall.

In keeping with tradition, most royal christening cakes are made from the top layer of the parents’ wedding cake. William’s was one such, though the fact that the top layer alone was sufficient to feed 182 veterans of the Falklands war should give some indication of the enormousness of Charles and Diana’s wedding cake.

 

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Planning a Christening

Planning a Christening and preparing for the party afterwards can seem a bit daunting. We have outlined below a few ideas we have picked up over the years that may make the whole experience less overwhelming and far more fun.

CHOOSING THE CHURCH

For continuity in the future, it is a good idea to choose a local church. Not only will this be helpful logistically in the run up to the ceremony and on the day, this is also the church your children will get to know over the years – a welcoming, local second family. The Church of England has a useful site to help you locate and contact your local parish church at:

www.achurchnearyou.com

If you have connections with a parish church close to your original family home, the vicar would be happy to discuss holding the service there.

Contact the church and arrange to meet the vicar when you will be able to book a date for the ceremony and discuss any queries you may have. When choosing the day, bear in mind other events or family occasions – you don’t want to have a clash of dates. And book a date some time in advance to allow guests time to fit it in their diary. The weekends around Easter are always popular for Christenings, as are the Summer weekends when the weather is better for parties in the garden at home.

Visit the church – you will receive an warm welcome. Also, why not make a trip to the church toddler group when you will get to know some of the other parents you will probably meet at the service.

CHOOSING THE GODPARENTS

Most parents choose relatives or family friends. It is best to choose godparents who you expect to stay in contact with you and stay close to your family long into the future. Whoever you choose, you are asking them to make a life-long commitment to your child’s faith and emotional wellbeing. You need to consider:

  1. You must choose a minimum of three godparents, although you may have more.
  2. Two godparents should be of the same sex as your child, whilst one should be of the opposite sex.
  3. You and your spouse can be a godparent.
  4. Godparents should already be baptised.
  5. You are not asking godparents to make a legal commitment or become legal guardians. Their role is as guides and mentors in your child’s spiritual and religious journey throughout life.
  6. Consider whether your chosen godparents will be comfortable making the promises and commitments in the church service detailed below.

PREPARATION

Here are a few suggestions that may help you avoid one or two logistical hiccups:

  1. DON’T book the church or print the invitations until you have checked whether the future godparents are free on the day.
  2. Think carefully about the guest list and how it will affect the budget. How many children will be there and of what ages? If there are a lot of children, you may need to consider special food and entertainment.
  3. If you want one of the godparents to propose a toast at the party after the Christening, ask them well in advance so they have plenty of time to prepare.
  4. Photography: Don’t rely on somebody taking some good pictures by chance. Ask a guest who knows what they are doing to take responsibility for taking a few photos at key parts of the ceremony. Some people enjoy having a role and will take on the project with pleasure. Do check with the vicar that the church is happy for photographs to be taken during the service.
  5. Invitations, whether printed and posted or emailed, should include the date, time, location (of both the church and the party), directions, RSVP (include a date to RSVP by) and dress code (if there is one). If you don’t wish to receive presents, or would prefer gifts to charity, you can let guests know in the invitation.
  6. Do any of the godparents want to be involved in the preparation – they could be very helpful support. Would they like to meet the vicar or find out more about the service?
  7. Where to hold the party: The majority of families hold a small party at home after the ceremony, although a local restaurant, hotel or village hall may be preferable for larger numbers, so review your guest list before making a decision. Budget could also be a big consideration – set yourself a limit and stick to it.

THE CEREMONY

During the Christening ceremony, your child will be baptised with water and welcomed into the family of the church. The ceremony often takes place as part of an existing church service such as a Communion or a family service. Key parts of the service include:

  1. The Decision/Promises: Godparents and parents make declarations and promises
  2. Signing with the Cross: The sign of the cross is made on your child’s forehead – usually with a special oil
  3. The Baptism: As you gather round the font, the vicar pours blessed water over your child’s head. It is at this point the vicar will use your child’s name.
  4. Light in the world: A lighted Christening candle is often presented to the child during the service with the vicar saying: “Shine as a light in the world to the glory of God.”
  5. Prayers, Hymns & Readings: As with most church services, there will be a variety of prayers, hymns and readings during the ceremony.
  6. You may find it useful to review the complete service at: www.churchofengland.org/media/1190836/holy%20baptism.pdf
  7. Baby’s gown: You may like to dress your child in a traditional Christening gown, especially if it is a gown that has been used by other family members in the past. In some families it is customary for the godmother to provide a gown or an item of clothing. There is however no obligation to use a gown and many parents choose something smart that the child is used to wearing. A comfortable, contented baby at a Christening can be far more relaxing for all concerned than a flustered, irritable little bundle, unaccustomed to a formal gown. The main thing to remember is … babies grow – a piece of clothing that fits when you start planning the Christening may be rather snug on the day.
  8. Dress Code: There is no formal dress code for the adults, but many families like to dress up for the occasion. Suits or jackets for the men and elegant outfits for the ladies. Imagine a relaxed informal wedding rather than “red carpet” glamour.

AFTER THE CEREMONY

The party after the ceremony is a wonderful occasion of friends and family, where some of the most important people in your life and that of your child are gathered, so enjoy it. Don’t turn it into an emotional and physical assault course. Here are a few thoughts when planning the party.

Christening Gifts: For safety and security, plan where you will put any gifts that people bring to the party. A helpful niece or nephew might take responsibility for looking after the pressies. And remember, when you do get round to opening them, have a pen and pad of paper handy to note down who gave what … it’s easy to muddle things up.

Don’t forget to ask the vicar to the party. Vicars are very busy people and they probably won’t be able to make it, but it can be so easy to overlook them in all the whirl of planning and preparation – an invitation is often appreciated.

A small speech or toast at the party is traditional and often expected. Plan ahead and ask someone (usually a godparent) to propose a toast well BEFORE the event. If you spring it on them on the day, they will be ill-prepared and won’t thank you for it. If the budget is tight, you don’t have to splash out on Champagne for the toasts, a dry Cava or Prosecco works just as well and is often preferable.

The food, drink, theme and location of your party will depend on your budget and your guest list, so we’ve outlined a few thoughts below to help with your budgeting.

YOUR BUDGET

To help you plan ahead, here are a few things you may need to budget for. You may find there are more added costs to consider than you think:

  1. Dress: Apart from what your child will wear at the Christening, think about what you, your spouse and your other children will wear on the day
  2. The Church: Is there a fee? Do you want to make a charitable donation? Flowers and decorations?
  3. The Party doesn’t have to be expensive, but here are the main costs to consider:
    >  Invitations
    >  Food & Drink
    >  Fizz for the toast
    >  Balloons & Decorations
    >  Table Decorations and Napery
    >  Christening Cake
    >  Entertainment
    >  Venue Fee
  4. Presents: You may be planning to buy something substantial for your child like an engraved silver cup or some silver jewellery, but also consider a small thank you gift for the godparents and maybe the grandparents. A little memento for the other children at the party is also a nice idea.
  5. Unexpected additional costs can include: Professional photographs or video; Musicians & entertainers; Putting up guests and relatives overnight who have travelled a long way; Transport and parking … and of course, the holiday you will need when it’s all over.
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Popular Names for Baby Girls

Looking at the latest publication of the Top 100 Baby Names in England & Wales from the Office for National Statistics, there seems to have been very little change to the top five girls names over the last couple of years – but there have been some big movers over the last decade. Ten years ago Amelia and Lily weren’t even in the top twenty – they are now some of the UK’s most popular names for baby girls. Sadly, some names have disappeared altogether including: Bertha, Blodwen, Gladys and Muriel – you will also struggle to find a Gertrude or a Marjorie at the playgroup.

So, who is in the top five and why are they so popular?

1. AMELIA
Amelia has shot up 24 places in the last ten years to take the number one spot. Unlike Emily (which has a Latin root), Amelia is a variation of the Germanic “Amalia” and is often associated with a hard-working, diligent character as well as a fruitful and productive nature. The Georgians brought the name to England in the 18th century and many royal princesses carried the name. Forty years ago the name hardly featured in the top 100 and its current resurgence is difficult to link to any recent cultural or media trends.

We are pretty short of famous personalities called Amelia. So, while the first one to come to mind is probably Amelia Earhart, here’s one for the pub quiz: The famous actress Minnie Driver was Christened Amelia Driver.

Other diminutives include: Mel, Milly, Amy
Foreign alternatives: Amélie, Amalia, Emilia

2. OLIVIA
Olivia is one of those English names (like Wendy) where we can be pretty confident of its origins. Up until 1601 the name simply didn’t exist, then, William Shakespeare, looking to name a character in his play Twelfth Night, coined the name for the wealthy Countess Olivia who falls in love with “Cesario”. Thought to be Shakespeare’s feminine version of the boy’s name Oliver, the derivation is from the Latin word “Oliva”, meaning olive. For this reason, the name is associated with peacemakers but also strength and reliability.

Ok, we can all name one famous Olivia who sang “You’re the One That I Want”, but can you name two more celebrities called Olivia?

Other diminutives include: Liv, Livvy, Livia, Ollie
Foreign alternatives: Olivie, Vivi

3. JESSICA
Jessica has been in the top ten girls names for the last twenty years or so. The exploits of one Miss Jessica Ennis in the 2012 Olympics will probably ensure it stays there for the next twenty years. Amazingly, the origin of the name Jessica is attributed to an English playwright we have already mentioned here … yes, William Shakespeare is credited with coining the name Jessica as well as Olivia. In The Merchant of Venice, Jessica is the daughter of Shylock. Shakespeare is thought to have adapted the biblical Hebrew name Yiskah which was also spelt “Jeska” in some contemporary bibles. The Hebrew word means “foresight” and the name is now associated with an organised personality who plans ahead.

Jessica Ellen Cornish was born on the 27 March 1988 … you know her by another name … you’ve seen her on The Voice … yes it’s singer songwriter Jessie J.

Other diminutives include: Jessie, Jess
Foreign alternatives: Jessika, Yessica

4. EMILY
Although similar to the name Amelia (which has Germanic roots), Emily is thought to come from the Latin romance languages. The meaning is often cited as “rival”, but another interpretation could be “contender”, “equal” or “peer”. So Emily is her own person, independent and up for a challenge. A very feminine name that was number 2 ten years ago, but still very popular. Corresponding boy’s names include Emile and Max (Maximilian has the same root).

Mini factoid: Hermione Granger actress Emma Watson was Christened Emily.

Other diminutives include: Em, Emmy, Milly, Emmie, Millie
Foreign alternatives: Emilie, Émilie, Emilia

5. LILY
Of all the girls names derived from flowers (like Rose, Violet and Daisy), Lily is by far the most popular. Lilies have always been closely associated with the Virgin Mary because of their pure white colour and the name still conjures up images innocence, virtue and purity. The name has grown in popularity over the last ten years, climbing 23 places to the number 5 spot. A few home-grown celebrities like Lily Allen may be partly responsible, but some commentators have also pointed to a more magical icon … Yes, Harry Potter’s mum was called Lily.

Other variants include: Lillie, Lilly
Foreign alternatives: Liana, Liliana

Finally can you explain this … Ten years ago hardly any girls were called “Lexi” – 1,659 other names were more popular. The name now comes in at position 46 (more popular than Rosie, Emma, Amy and Katie) … It is a pretty diminutive of Alexandra or Alexa, but why the sudden surge in popularity?

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Choosing Godparents

There are very few hard and fast rules about choosing godparents for your child, but there are probably three boxes you need to tick first:

1) The Church of England does ask that godparents have been Baptised. The Church also recommends that godparents are Confirmed, although this is not essential.

2) You will need a minimum of three godparents, two of the same sex as the child and one of the opposite sex. You and your husband/wife can be godparents, but there must be at least one additional godparent.

3) Godparents are not only making a personal commitment, they are also representing your child at the Christening, so the godparents have to be old enough to understand their role. It may seem attractive to ask a young cousin to become a godparent, but always consider whether they are mature enough to understand the promises they will be making.

Godparents are not taking on a legal obligation. They are not responsible in law for your child and are not obliged to care for your child should anything happen to you – You are not asking them to become a legal guardian. You are however asking them to make a lifelong commitment to your child’s spiritual and emotional wellbeing.

Remember, you are choosing someone who will be a spiritual and emotional guide for your child … It is easy to choose a godparent for the wrong reasons. Just because someone is wealthy, it doesn’t mean they will have the emotional maturity for the job or the commitment. Don’t choose somebody out of loyalty because they are an “old mate” or because you want to show them some recognition as a token of friendship. Also, just because someone has asked you to be the godparent of their child, it doesn’t mean you have to reciprocate and ask them to be a godparent in return. And, finally, think carefully before asking work colleagues, especially superiors, unless of course you are very close friends.

The bottom line: Choose a godparent for your child … not for you. You are choosing someone who you trust to provide encouragement in spiritual and church life and emotional support throughout childhood.

Try not to put your friends in a difficult position. Think about the character of the person you will be asking. If they are not churchgoers but are spiritually aware, they may be happy to make the declarations and commitments required at the Baptism. However if you are considering a friend who holds strong views about religion, or who would find the declarations at the service difficult to affirm, you may be placing them in the embarrassing dilemma of wanting to refuse, but not wanting to let you down at the same time.

Depending upon the church, the vicar and the service chosen, the godparents will be asked to answer a series of questions and make declarations on your child’s behalf … these vary according to recent changes in the service, but here is an example of the sort of responses you will be asking the godparents to say – will the godparents you are considering be happy to do this?:

Vicar: “Parents and godparents, the Church receives these children with joy. Today we are trusting God for their growth in faith. Will you pray for them, draw them by your example into the community of faith and walk with them in the way of Christ?”
Godparents: With the help of God, we will.

Vicar: “In baptism these children begin their journey in faith. You speak for them today. Will you care for them,and help them to take their place within the life and worship of Christ’s Church?”
Godparents: With the help of God, we will.

Vicar: “In baptism, God calls us out of darkness into his marvellous light. To follow Christ means dying to sin and rising to new life with him. Therefore I ask:

“Do you reject the devil and all rebellion against God?”
Godparents Response: I reject them.

“Do you renounce the deceit and corruption of evil?”
Godparents Response: I renounce them.

“Do you repent of the sins that separate us from God and neighbour?”
Godparents Response: I repent of them.

“Do you turn to Christ as Saviour?”
Godparents Response: I turn to Christ.

“Do you submit to Christ as Lord?”
Godparents Response: I submit to Christ.

“Do you come to Christ, the way, the truth and the life?”
Godparents Response: I come to Christ.

It may be worth reading those declarations again and considering whether the godparents you have chosen will be comfortable making these declarations. Recent changes to the service may have toned down the wording, but the underlying meaning remains the same – ask your vicar for a copy of the service your church uses.

And finally … and I speak from experience … If you are going to ask one of the godparents to make a speech, do warn them in advance. Even the best raconteur needs a bit of time to gather their thoughts … The more time they have to prepare for a speech or toast the more meaningful it will be.

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A Christening Service without Sin and the Devil

Recent changes to the Christening service suggested by the Church of England’s Liturgy Commission have once again got the media in a bit of a tizzy.

In trying to make the service more appealing to more people, the Commission is adopting more approachable language, with slightly less fire & brimstone.

Making church services more accessible seems like a worthy aspiration, but the Church has unfortunately been accused once more of “Dumbing Down” the Christening service. Godparents will no longer be asked to “repent sins” and “reject the Devil’, but will instead be asked to “reject evil”.

The current wording is part of a trial that will run for the first part of 2014 and has the blessings of the Archbishop of Canterbury the Most Reverend Justin Welby, but for lovers of the Book of Common Prayer this is yet another departure from tradition which in the past asked godparents to “renounce the devil and all his works”.

Unfortunately the Church finds itself in an unwinnable situation. On the one hand it has to open its doors to all and be as accessible as possible, but on the other hand, in the traditional liturgy it has some of the most powerful words and poetry ever written in the English language that resonates through over 400 years of our history – which is a lot to lose.

Of course, there is another solution … since a Christening is primarily about the child and family, why not let the family choose the wording they prefer. After all, the wider family of the Church seems to accommodate traditionalists and modernist pretty successfully in many other areas of debate.

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