Sunday, July 23, 2006

I HATE saying No!

A few years ago, a certain bank (and perhaps its significant that I actually can't remember which one it was) ran a series of adverts claiming for itself a role as `The bank that likes to say "Yes"!'
Though I'd draw the line at booking a series of prime time slots, I guess I'd pretty much seen myself as representing a `church that likes to say "yes"'. After all, as Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians "in [God] it is always yes",- and I've set out to be as accommodating and positive as is humanly possible, trying always to include, rather than to remove barriers rather than set up assualt courses.
So you'll understand that I find it pretty hard when I can't see anything to say except "No".
The question put to me by a very sincere and determined mother, who had fought more than a few battles with her husband's family en route to her daughter's baptism was
"Is it OK for an unbaptised atheist to be a god-parent?"
Pretty clear, that one, you'd think. It's hard to make promises on behalf of another that you're not willing to make for yourself...and anyway, you'd think that a card-carrying atheist wouldn't much want to be party to shackling a poor defenceless babe to the whole machinery of the Christian Church. I showed the mum the place on the baptism forms where it states very clearly that all godparents should have been baptised (and ideally confirmed) and explained the possibility of the atheist expressing her love and concern for the baby by standing as a sponsor. I suggested, too, that I'd be very willing to talk through questions of faith and perhaps baptise the non-god-parent in a double ceremony, if that was her wish.
A few days later, the person in question phoned me and we talked for a couple of hours. Rather heart-breakingly, she was desperately concerned to show me her credentials as a good person, to assure me of her committment to her family, her community, even to the restoration of her local church-yard...I welcomed all this warmly, and did all I could to assure her that it wasn't her fitness to be a mentor for the babe that was at stake. I explained to her too the legal requirement that all godparents should have been at least baptised....I talked about the way people are introduced to clubs generally by those who are already members. I offered, as the conversation continued, to baptise her too, and she said she would think about it. When I put the phone down, I felt that we'd explored all the issues thoroughly, and she seemed in a happier frame of mind than she had been.
So I was disappointed when the mum phoned to say that X had decided against being even a sponsor, that she thought the church was being totally legalistic and unreasonable and might not even attend the service.
In the event, she did, and we had another long conversation afterwards...We parted friends, I think, but I'm not sure that she understood even so where I was coming from. So I'm home now, wondering if I should have simply allowed her to stand up as a godparent, and not entered her name on the registers...whether a subterfuge would have been the kindest option here. I'm praying, though, that in having been unhelpful for her in this way, I may have, as she said, prompted her to think through the whole question of faith and committment more seriously, for herself and for her small daughter. She doesn't live locally, so I may never hear the end of the story...but I shall pray for her, even if she would hate that....and wish so much that I could have said "Yes".


reverendmother said...

I think you did the right thing--in fact I think you did say Yes, actually--you said no in order to say a 'larger' yes, namely, a yes to the fact that Christians are called to an identity that is unique. You weren't condemning the person in question, simply reinforcing the particularity and distinctiveness of the Christian life.

That is to say, the Christian life *should* look different than the world--that it often doesn't is a topic for another time.

Songbird said...

Kathryn, it sounds like you handled it just right, given the requirements of your church and the status of the potential godparent.
I think unchurched people tend to equate being godparent with being guardian. My brother, who was christened and confirmed, has hardly ever set foot in a church again except for weddings and funerals...and baptisms. He is a godfather several times over. I find the whole thing very odd. He got into a huge contretemps with an Episcopal priest, a friend of the family, who would not agree to baptize his third child. Why? Because brother and wife are not only not Episcopalians, they are not members of any church. We have the disadvantage of having clergy in the family who were willing to do these things for us, and with neither of them available (and I was not yet ordained) they asked the friend. Now they are both "off" church--as if they had been "on" before--and my sister-in-law is openly hostile to all clergy. This has to be based in a complete lack of understanding of what we are doing when we baptize or stand as a child's godparent.

revabi said...

Hey, I think you did the right thing too. And I don't think it is being legalistic. But from the outside looking in I am sure it looks that way.
What was her beef about saying yes to Jesus? I don't think I would want someone being a god mother to my kids if they had not said yes to Jesus, and living a committed Christian life.

I hear how hard it was for you, but good for to take the stand. See I think that is what you did you brought her to a point that she needed to think about, and come to as far Jesus in her life. And you probably helped that mom with her family battles as well. God does say yes to us, its us that says no to him.

Rev Sam said...

You did absolutely the right thing. In fact I've just tightened up our baptism policy, to require desiring parents to attend church over a period of three months. What's the point in joining if you don't join in?

PS it was the TSB.

Fiona said...

I don't think it was so much YOU who couldn't say yes, but her. She had the choice of saying yes, either to Jesus and baptism and the whole works, or to the idea of being honest and accepting where her beliefs and those of the church which was welcoming the child differed and going for the option of being a sponsor. She couldn't. You were only too willing to say yes, but it takes two.

Jonathan Hunt said...

Of course you were right. Who knows what good may come from your stand?

Caroline said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Caroline said...

said it on friday (I think) and will say it my everso humble and unholy opinion you were right. I simply don't understand why someone who is any case a close blood relative (grandmother) should also need/ want/ have anything to gain from/ ahave anything to give as being a godparent too. and to lay calim to atheism at the same time is just plain wierd.

on the other hand i kind of struggle with the sort of requirements that you are suggesting Rev Sam, and unless the parents actively deny a Christian faith I think it's a slightly different issue and does close a 'window of opportuntiy',

St said...

Intersting post. Took me back to my own first curacy. Have blogged a bit about an unusual pastoral situation I once had. It was always my view that whatever hoops you set for people to jump through before baptising their infant they usually agreed.

You have obviously met someone who is sincere in their beliefs and not willing to be a hypocrite, having been challenged to think about it, thus their refusal to be baptised themselves.

You will have to live with any gossipped reputation, that you refused to allow a nice person to be a godparent, this gives you.

see-through faith said...

You refused to allow a nice person to be God mother -and did exactly the right thing in a very very loving way.

to have said YES would have been wrong. A godparent is not a guardian they are a spiritual guardian ... you can't do that if you don't share the faith.

bless you ... I hope this lady will hear what you really said.

Lorna said...

PS I'm also inclinded to go along with Rev Sam ... for me it's important to know that you are baptised INTO a community of believers - a community that wants and needs you to be part ... and not just a card-holding absentee member.

I'm not sure how I'd measure it -and I do understand that it maybe different where you are - but I'm also not in favour of marrying people just cos they want a nice church to get married in.

That said I'm not an Anglican priest and really don't know where you are allowed to draw the line.

I think the window of opportunity given by baptisms is to invite the parents (and potential godparents) back into a living faith with Jesus and that does involve church life - not necessarily attendence every Sunday - but being an active member in the congregation, where worship is part of that at least.

Dr Moose said...

Trying not to be involved in me-tooism, but you did do the right thing.

I wouldn't quite say that I actively counsel against baptism for children of unchurched families, the opportunities are good and important, but I think we actually need to learn to say "no" more often.

I rarely have any idea about the actual "faith community" membership and activity of godparents, who are more often than not unconfirmed anyway. It's probably an area we could all do well to seriously think about, and see what a proper response might be. (For once canon law might actually be right!)

Yes, most times people will respectfully listen to what you say, beleive what they want and jump through the hoops.

That said we had a slightly tighter Baptismal Policy in my last place - strongly recommending a Thanksgiving preceding the Baptism and a Reception afterwards. It meant we had to change the nature of a service from Communion to Morning Worship; which was far more inclusive for the lapsed, fringe and unchurched. The point is, it worked! families became part of the church family over the 3 months or so it took, and we saw growth. (Sad to say I think it's stopped again now...)

I'm more impressed when I find principled stands - people who actually think it through and decide that a Thanksgiving really is the right and honest option. It's happening more and more in MLPK.

You did right. Now leave it to the Boss (No. Not Wonderful Vicar!)

Mumcat said...

I think Songbird hit on something really important and that is the difference between being a godparent and a guardian. Perhaps the answer is as some parishes do, namely have the prospective godparents attend at least one class with the parents where their role is fully explained. It isn't about "getting the baby done" as a ritual but a real commitment to the church on the part of everyone.