Fiona Mountford

The rise of the secular godparent

The rise of the secular godparent
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I always knew that I didn’t want children, but also always knew that I wanted godchildren. Lots of them. One of the less-discussed aspects of the decline of the church in our secular age is the fact that this precious relationship, more than a millennium old, is increasingly scarce. Previously godparents were there to ensure a child’s spiritual development, as well as to have in reserve some handy grown-ups should something awful befall the parents. All this is still important, but the role has shifted. Its primary benefit now is to provide a wonderful extrafamilial link that spans the generations, creating an instant and enduring bond between a child and the wider world.

My parents knew that I would be an only child and so threw tradition to the wind by gifting me five godparents (it used to be customary to enlist two godparents of the same sex as the child and one of the opposite). Mum and Dad signed up the best men and women they had for the role — all of them non-believers, incidentally — and they swiftly became the aunts and uncles that I never had. My relationship with them has defined, and continues to define, the contours of my emotional life. I now have four godchildren of my own, ranging in age from 27-year-old Louisa (I was a gymslip godmother, I hasten to add) down to Clara, who is two and a bit. Two of them have birthdays within a week of each other in early January, meaning that the December/January gifts bill has always been hefty.

Why do I set such store by this increasingly arcane — in the eyes of the world at any rate — relationship? Its prime value lies in its liminality, connecting a child to an adult who is neither a parent nor a teacher. The adult therefore is no direct authority figure — no question of quarrels or detentions — but an interested grown-up who nonetheless needs to be taken seriously. It opens up to children a new way of communicating with the adult world and, dare I say it, greatly enhances their social skills in the process. I knew that I had become a person in my own right, someone who was worth taking seriously, when I was 12 and my godparents David and Doreen invited me to lunch for the first time without my parents.

I have never looked back in my relationship with them. This past, very strange Christmas Day, I sat in the garage with Doreen — with the doors flung open for Covid-compliant ventilation — and we drank Veuve Clicquot. I was delighted to repeat this most agreeable exercise for her birthday in the spring, while David exhorted us from the warmth of the kitchen to put another layer of clothing on.

The lovely thing about godparents is that, growing up, you can talk to them about the kind of topics that are too awkward to discuss with your parents. When a young man of Louisa’s acquaintance started behaving in a distasteful manner, I gave her my honest opinion and then took her out for a large glass of red wine.

If you are extremely lucky, godparents can be up for adventures, too. Some years ago, spurred on by watching the BBC drama Fortunes of War, I announced to my mum that I wanted a city-break in Bucharest. I got only two words in reply: ‘Call Doreen.’ I did, and we went on the first of what turned into five glorious jaunts to the more remote corners of eastern Europe. In Kiev, Doreen and I developed something of a vodka habit. In Warsaw, we went on a walking tour of the former Jewish ghetto in temperatures of -14°C. Only the most unflappable sort of seventy-something would traipse uncomplainingly around the dusty outskirts of Tirana looking at Socialist Realist statues.

There are some, of course, who use godparents as a means of social climbing, selecting the swankiest connections they can for their babies. I hold no truck with such tactical manoeuvring; there must be a solid basis of real affection between parents and the godparents they select, otherwise the bond is unlikely to prove enduring. All I can hope is that when, in a couple of decades’ time, Clara’s mother hears of a particularly outré travel request, her reaction will be ‘Call Fiona’.

That’s not a good sign
‘That’s not a good sign.’