Presence or Presents?

Henrietta Bredin on the pitfalls of being a godparent

The Lady, 22 December 2009

How many of us have been wracking our fevered brains over the past few weeks to come up with good ideas for Christmas presents for godchildren?

Being a godparent is, by definition, a Christian responsibility. The duties involved are quite clearly laid out:

  1. Pray for your godchild regularly
  2. Set an example of Christian living
  3. Help him/her to grow in the faith of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in which he/she was baptised
  4. Give every encouragement to follow Christ and fight against evil
  5. Help your godchild to look forward to confirmation

Well, can anyone put an unequivocal tick against many of the above? Indeed, are we really expected to do so when asked to take on the role? The term has become a much more woolly and generalised one, losing most of its godly connotations along the way.

Apparently the whole business began in early Roman Christian times when a patronus (very Harry Potter) or protector was chosen for a child by its parents. It's serious stuff, as Uncle Bryn points out in the first episode of the new series of Gavin and Stacey, clutching an enormous prayer book: 'I've just read the christening service - it's very dramatic you know, almost like an opera.'
'DO YOU renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?'
'DO YOU renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?'
That's some pretty high-octane renouncing.

It has to be admitted that, as children grow up, they tend to view godparents chiefly as an additional source of Christmas and birthday loot. At its best though, the relationship is an excellent one. Someone who isn't family but who takes a genuine interest in a child's doings and its welfare. As a friend of mine said sternly, 'It's about presence, not presents.'

What it does reflect quite clearly is the state of your own friendships, and presence can be a problem. I've got one godchild I hardly ever see because his mother and I, although once close, have drifted apart over the years, live miles away from each other and lead completely different lives. We haven't fallen out, we just don't manage to keep regularly in touch. As children, my brother, sister and I were fascinated by our respective godparents - why had they been chosen, how did the choice reflect upon us? Some of them were obviously great friends of our parents and frequently around but others seemed remote and mysterious. My sister had an American godmother who seemed wildly exotic and sent intriguing un-English presents including, once, a subscription to a character-improving childrens' magazine which we found completely hilarious. My brother had a godfather who turned into a godmother, which was very confusing indeed.

Discussing the godparenting business with a number of different people I find that there are some unspoken rules. 'It's absolutely not on to ask someone to be a godparent over the phone,' said Lizzie. 'You have to do it in writing so as to give people a chance to think it over properly. It's incredibly hard to say no but there's no denying it's potentially a big responsibility and it is expensive in the long run.' And anyone over the age of 40 can be extremely fierce on the subject of thank you letters. Woe betide the ungrateful godchild who doesn't get round to putting pen to paper. Just in case you're wondering; no, an email really isn't good enough.

Some people get rather competitive about how many they manage to accumulate, as if it's proof of their personal popularity. Nicholas Coleridge is on to that one in his page-turner brick of a novel, Godchildren: 'It's like being invited to loads of parties. Proves how popular you are. Everybody likes to be able to say 'I've got 20 godchildren'. More the merrier.'

Singletons get considerably more than their fair share of godparenting invitations, perhaps on the assumption that they might make generous bequests in their wills, or that without children of their own they'll have plenty of time and affection to spare. One bachelor of my acquaintance has seventeen, poor man, but he trails way behind the Prince of Wales, who had 31 at the last count. There are trophy godparents of course, rather obviously chosen for reasons of glamour, rank or wealth. Members of the Royal family bring major cachet but it not done to ask - the form is that they graciously propose themselves. When Rosa Lawson's daughter Domenica was born with Down's Syndrome, her friend Princess Diana asked if she could be godmother saying, with touching generosity, 'You'll need all the help you can get'.

At the back of one's mind when agreeing to be a godparent is the thought that you might need to step in and help in some way if the worst happens, if a parent becomes seriously ill, or dies. In less tragic circumstances, of divorce or separation, godparents can also come into their own. As a godparent you can offer a different perspective, you can encourage godchildren to confide in you, and you may be able to offer the odd word of wisdom. You must, however, never ever split on them. If they tell you things they won't tell their parents, you just have to keep shtum.

And when do your obligations stop? At confirmation (if confirming occurs)? When they're 18? 21? Is it a godparent's duty to mark a godchild's rite of passage in some way? Nicholas Coleridge has his anti-hero godfather-from-hell Marcus Brand take his three godsons out to dinner in Paris before presenting them with a prostitute for the night apiece, which is a pretty sleazy way to carry on. My extremely generous opera-loving friend William takes each of his godchildren to Glyndebourne for their 18th birthday, whether they show any signs of interest in opera or not. They have to dress suitably, they get a slap-up dinner and if they enjoy the show as well that's a bonus. Another friend, following exactly the same guiding principle, but having rather different interests, takes them to the dogs.