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 demand...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".