A godparent, in many denominations of Christianity, is someone who sponsors a child's baptism. Today, the word godparent does not always have explicitly religious overtones. The secular view of a godparent tends to be an individual chosen by the parents to take an interest in the child's upbringing and personal development, and to take care of the child should anything happen to the parents. A male godparent is a godfather, and a female godparent is a godmother. The child is a godchild (godson, goddaughter).
- 1 Christianity
- 2 Non-Christian traditions
- 3 See also
- 4 References
By the 2nd century CE, infant baptism had become accepted as a ceremony largely for the spiritual purification and social initiation of infants. The requirement for some confession of faith necessitated the use of adults who acted as sponsors for the child. They vocalized the confession of faith and acted as guarantors of the child’s spiritual upbringing.
Normally, these sponsors were the natural parents of a child, as emphasized in 408 by St. Augustine who suggested that they could, it seems exceptionally, be other individuals. Within a century, the Corpus Juris Civilis indicates that parents had been replaced in this role almost completely. This was clarified in 813 when the Council of Munich prohibited natural parents from acting as godparents to their own children.
By the 5th century, male sponsors were referred to as "spiritual fathers", and by the end of the 6th century, they were being noted to as "compaters" and "commaters", suggesting that these were being seen as spiritual co-parents. This pattern was marked by the creation of legal barriers to marriage that paralleled those for other forms of kin. A decree of Justinian, dated to 530, outlawed marriage between a godfather and his goddaughter, and these barriers continued to multiply until the 11th century, forbidding marriage between natural and spiritual parents, or those directly related to them. As confirmation emerged as a separate rite from baptism from the 8th century, a second set of sponsors, with similar prohibitions, also emerged. The exact extent of these spiritual relationships as a bar to marriage in Catholicism was unclear until the Council of Trent, which limited it to relationships between the godparents, the child, and the parents.
During the Reformation
Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin preserved infant baptism against the attacks of more radical reformers including Anabaptists, and with it, sponsors at baptism. However, Luther strongly objected to the marriage barriers it created, Zwingli stressed the role of parents and pastors, rather than the "witnesses", in religious instruction, and Calvin and his followers tended to prefer the sponsors to be the natural parents. A single godparent was retained in baptism at Geneva and among French Calvinists, but some followers of Calvin, most notably in Scotland and eventually the English colonies in America, rejected them altogether.
Numbers of sponsors
In the early church, one sponsor seems to have been the norm, but in the early Middle Ages, there seems to have been two, one of each sex, and this practice has been largely maintained in Orthodox Christianity. In 888, the Catholic Council of Metz attempted to limit the number to one, but proliferation seems to have continued. In early 14th-century Spain, as many as 20 godparents were being chosen. In England, the Synod of Worcester (1240) stipulated three sponsors (two of the same sex and one of the opposite), and this has remained the norm in the Church of England. The Council of Trent attempted to limit the numbers of godparents to one or two, but practice has differed across the Catholic world.
Church of England
The Church of England retained godparents in baptism, formally removing the marriage barriers in 1540, but the issue of the role and status of godparents continued to be debated in the English Church. They were abolished in 1644 by the Directory of Public Worship promulgated by the English Civil War Parliamentary regime, but continued to be used in some parishes in the north of England. After the Restoration in 1660, they were reintroduced to Anglicanism, with occasional objections, but dropped by almost every dissenting church. There is some evidence that the restored institution had lost some of its social importance as well as its universality.
At present, in the Church of England, relatives can stand as godparents, and although it is not clear that parents can be godparents, they sometimes are. Godparents should be both baptized and confirmed (although it is not clear in which Church), but the requirement for confirmation can be waived. There is no requirement for clergy to baptize those from outside their parishes, and baptism can be reasonably delayed so that the conditions, including suitable godparents, can be met. As a result, individual clergy have considerable discretion over the qualifications of godparents.
Roman Catholic Church
The Catholic institution of godparenthood survived the Reformation largely unchanged. A godparent must normally be an appropriate person, at least sixteen years of age, a confirmed Catholic who has received the Eucharist, not under any canonical penalty, and may not be the parent of the child. Someone who belongs to another Christian church cannot become a godparent but can be a 'witness' in conjunction with a Catholic sponsor. A witness does not have any religious role recognized by the Church.
Lutherans follow a similar theology of godparents as Roman Catholics. They believe that godparents "help [children] with their Christian upbringing, especially if they should lose their parents". Lutherans, like Roman Catholics, believe that a godparent must be both a baptized and confirmed Christian.  Some Lutherans also follow the Roman Catholic tradition that a Christian who is not affiliated with the Lutheran denomination may serve as a witness rather than a godparent.
The Orthodox institution of godparenthood has been the least affected of the major traditions by change. In some Orthodox churches (Serbian, Greek) usually the best man (кум, koumbaros) or bridesmaid (kuma, кума, koumbara) at a couple's wedding act as a godparent to the first or all children of the marriage. In some instances, the godfather is responsible for naming the child. A godparent to a child will then act as a sponsor at the child's wedding. Godparents are expected to be in good standing in the Orthodox church, including its rulings on divorce, and aware of the meaning and responsibilities of their role. They cannot be a minor, a parent of the child, or a non-Orthodox Christian.
In some Catholic and Orthodox countries, particularly in southern Europe and Latin America, the relationship between parents and godparents or co-godparents has been seen as particularly important and distinctive. These relationships create mutual obligations and responsibilities that may be socially useful for participants. The Portuguese and Spanish compadre (literally, "co-father") and comadre ("co-mother"), the French commère and compère, and the archaic meaning of the English word gossip (from godsib, "god-sibling"), describe these relationships. By extension, they can also be used to describe a friendship. The Spanish(Portuguese) words for the godparent roles are used for members of the wedding party—padrino(padrinho) meaning "godfather" or "best man" and madrina(madrinha) meaning "godmother" or "matron of honor"—reflecting the custom of baptismal sponsors acting in this role in a couple's wedding.
Literature and folklore
Godparents are noted features of fairy tales and folklore written from the 17th century onwards, and by extension, have found their way into many modern works of fiction. In Godfather Death, presented by the Brothers Grimm, the archetype is, unusually, a supernatural godfather. However, most are a fairy godmother as in versions of Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and The Blue Bird. This feature may simply reflect the Catholic milieu in which most fairy tales were created, or at least recorded, and the accepted role of godparents as helpers from outside the family, but feminist Marina Warner suggests that they may be a form of wish fulfilment by female narrators.
In the Yoruba religion Santería, godparents must have completed their santo or their Ifá. A person gets his Madrina and Yubona (co-godmother) or his Padrino and Yubon (co-godfather). A santero, aside from his co-godparents, may have an oluo (babalawo, initiate of ifa) who consults him with an ekuele (divinating chain).
There are two roles in the Jewish circumcision ceremony that are sometimes translated as godparent. The sandek holds the baby boy while he is circumcised. Among Orthodox Ashkenazi, the kvater (or kvaterin if female) is the person who takes the child from his mother and carries him into the room in which the circumcision is performed. Kvater is etymologically derived from the German Gevatter ("godfather").
Some Chinese communities practise the custom of matching a child with a relative or family friend who becomes the god mother (乾媽) or god father (乾爹). This practice is largely non-religious in nature, but commonly done to strengthen ties or to fulfill the wish of a childless adult to have a "son/daughter". In most circumstances, an auspicious day is selected during which a ceremony takes place, involving the god-child paying his/her respects to his new god-father/mother in the presence of relatives or friends.
The dictionary definition of godparent at Wiktionary
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