Cracking the godparent code

I am blessed to have many godchildren. Seven, in fact. I witnessed their baptisms, pray for them daily, and am either engaged in their religious instruction or ready to be in the case their parents need the assistance. Of all my vocations, being a godmother is one of my very favorite. My children have very special godparents who serve that role for them.

This summer, we’ve had several readers submit stories about the way the media use the term godparent. In fact, the issue has been raised so much that I figured we had to go ahead and look at it.

One submission was this one from The Guardian:

Steven Spielberg’s summer cruise around the coast of Sardinia in the company of his god-daughter Gwyneth Paltrow and friends has entered choppy waters after he fell foul of watchful Italian beachgoers, a vigilant coastguard and Italy’s strict rules on having fun.

And here’s a more recent piece from the Associated Press:

Amy Winehouse’s 15-year-old goddaughter performed an outstanding set at the Big Chill music festival, mirroring her late mentor by closing her show with a cover of Winehouse’s “Love Is a Losing Game.”

Dionne Bromfield got teary-eyed when she performed the song, barely able to sing its last few words, though the crowd cheered her on.

“She was an amazing singer,” Bromfield said. “She was not only my godmother, but she was my mentor and my boss as well.”

Readers have asked about whether these terms have different uses in real life versus celebrity life.

Traditionally, “Godparent” is defined as “a person who stands sponsor to another at baptism.” Encyclopedia Brittanica explains:

… One who stands surety for another in the rite of Christian baptism. In the modern baptism of an infant or child the godparent or godparents make profession of faith for the person being baptized (the godchild) and assume an obligation to serve as proxies for the parents if the parents either are unable or neglect to provide for the religious training of the child, in fulfillment of baptismal promises. In churches mandating a sponsor only one godparent is required; two (in most churches, of different sex) are permitted. Many Protestant denominations permit but do not require godparents to join the infant’s natural parents as sponsors. In the Roman Catholic Church godparents must be of the Catholic faith.

OK. So Gwyneth Paltrow has said that she was raised by a Jewish father and Quaker mother and that it was a nice way to grow up. She’s raising her children Jewish although her husband is from a Christian background. Steven Spielberg is Jewish. So I’m very curious what the context is for referring to him as her godfather.

Amy Winehouse was Jewish. I’m unsure about Dionne Bromfield’s religion. She’s been referred to as Winehouse’s goddaughter for many years.

Do non-Christian religions ever use the term “Godparent”? It seems that there are a couple of roles in Judaism that could be translated as godparent. This is from Wikipedia, so take it for what it’s worth, but here are some examples:

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) or some santeros aside from his co-godparents may have an oluo (babalao, 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”).

Chinese traditions
Some Chinese communities do practice the custom of matching a child (the “god son/daughter”) with a relative or family friend (who becomes the “god mother/father”). 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.

OK. So Jews do have some roles that could translate as godparent but they are for circumcision sponsors, so that wouldn’t explain the Paltrow-Spielberg situation. So what’s going on here? Are we redefining the term? If so, what is this term that so clearly means “baptismal sponsor” supposed to mean when used in celebrity journalism? Can anyone explain it to the readers who have submitted variations on these examples?

Image via Wikipedia.

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  • astorian

    I’ve wondered the same thing many times- Elton John has long said that he’s the godfather of John Lennon’s son Sean, but I don’t believe Sean was ever baptized into any church, so the term surely has no religious meaning.

    However, MANY secularized people have thrown away the baby (faith) and held on to the bathwater (religious trappings and traditions), so to speak. I don’t doubt that there are atheists who’ve selected “godparents” for their kids, just because they think of it as a tradition, and as an honor to pay to close friends.

    Similarly, American Jews have often adopted Christian traditions, while altering them or pretending they were something else (“Chanukah bushes,” anyone?). Even in nations like Japan, which has NO strong Christian traditions, Christmas has become a popular holiday. If nonbelievers can adopt Christmas as their own, it’s not hrd to pcture nonbelievers adopting customs like godparents.

    Interesting sidebar: in Italy, the term for godfather is “cumpari.” But, contrary to what Mario Puzo led us to believe, “Cumpari/Godfather” was an affectionate nickname that a Sicilian peasant would use for a pal, NOT a term of deference and respect for someone he feared (like a Mafia boss).

  • tmatt

    Do some research on that Sean baptism issue. I’d be stunned if you don’t find the Church of England back there somewhere.

  • Dave

    Even in nations like Japan, which has NO strong Christian traditions, Christmas has become a popular holiday.

    Japan has had a significant Christian presence for more than 400 years.

  • Nicole Neroulias

    Some parents bestow the term “godparent” on the close friend they want to raise their children if something were to happen to them (the biological parents).

  • Bill

    Interesting question. We have two girls, grown women now, whom we knew before their mother began to show. We watched them grow. There was no doubt to anyone, including the girls, that if needed, we would have taken the children in and raised and loved them as our own. They are Reformed; we are Catholic. There was no ceremony and no formal Godparent relationship. Yet, we saw this as a sacred duty as well as a blessing. We pray for them every day. When the girls traveled with us, it was just easier to introduce them as Goddaughters. I suppose we could have said they were nieces, but that wasn’t technically true, either. Goddaughters is closer to the truth, although a small voice sometimes whispers that I am an imposter.

  • Mollie

    Very interesting, everyone. Of course now I have even more questions. For instance, do we think someone actually thought Amy Winehouse would be a good choice to raise their child in the case of parental death?

    Would Steven Spielberg have actually raised Gwyneth Paltrow? Inquiring minds want to know!

    Just kidding.

  • Chris Jones

    a small voice sometimes whispers that I am an imposter.

    Perhaps, but you have fulfilled (and are continuing to fulfill) the vocation of godparent as an imposter far better than the vast majority of “real” godparents.

    My own sons’ godparents never have any contact with them, and I should be very surprised if the godparents feel any spiritual responsibility for them. I suppose that means that we chose the godparents poorly, but I think it is typical.

  • Nicole Neroulias

    Some people choose godparents partly for their money/connections/influence (think “The Godfather”) — or, simply because that person is their best friend at the time (the same person you would have as your maid of honor or best man, which is how the Greeks usually do it anyway). That might have been the case with Amy Winehouse, depending on when she was chosen.

  • astorian

    Dave- I’m familiar with St. Francis Xavier, and I know that there are SOME Japanese Christians. The fact remains, they’ve always been a small percentage of the population. Christmas has not become a big deal in Japan because of its Christians. It’s become a big deal because even Japan’s Buddhists, Shintoists and agnostics have come to like Santa, Rudolph, big trees, and presents. Baby Jesus is an afterthought, at best.

    As for Sean Lennon… I’m open to the possibility that he was baptized somehwere, but I’ve never seen any indication of that. John Lennon was a long–lapsed Anglican, Yoko Ono isn’t a Christian of any kind, and Elton John is downright hostile to Christianity. I find it hard (though not impossible) to believe that John, Yoko and Elton actually went through with a C of E baptism ceremony.

  • Matt

    They are Reformed; we are Catholic. There was no ceremony and no formal Godparent relationship.

    In my experience of infant baptism in a Reformed church, the only adults taking part in the ceremony are the parents and the minister. Are we the only tradition that practices infant baptism without godparents?

  • Matt

    We do have a part where the entire congregation vows to assist the parents in the Christian nurture of the child.

  • Ann Rodgers

    I know plenty of people who don’t practice a faith of any kind, but have their children baptized in order to either appease the grandparents or continue a family tradition. (Ask any Catholic priest about the requests that they get.)
    An addendum about the qualifications for a Catholic godparent. At the baptism one Catholic godparent is required. A baptized Christian of another tradition may also go forward as a witness (as long as the Catholic sponsor is present)and participate in the ritual. Canonically that non-Catholic isn’t a godparent, but in real life the family will refer to him or her as one.

  • Elijah

    Interesting note: I am the (Protestant, Lutheran at the time) godparent of a Catholic child. Wonder how I slipped under the radar? And, that child’s Catholic parents are the godparents of my elder daughter.

  • Julia


    Maybe the priest didn’t ask about your religious status?

  • Kunoichi

    I found myself wondering about this when watching an episode of Criminal Mind. We don’t watch TV much, so most of the repeats are new to us and I don’t know how old this particular show was. The series is rarely favourable to religions; it’s usuall there as some criminal’s justification for their crimes and the like, but sometimes the team’s personal struggles are touched on. In general, religion seems to be viewed in a negative light.

    So it was a surprise to me when the character JJ, having just given birth and is being visited by her team mates in the hospital, asks Reid to be the baby’s godfather. There was absolutely no religion connection to the request. The scene struck me because the request was so isolated and out of context. Especially since the Reid character has said he didn’t believe in God.

    It left me wondering what on earth the script writers think being a godparent means. The celebrity examples in this post have me wondering even more.

  • bob

    The answer would seem to be very Anglican; the term “godparent” means whatever you want it to mean.
    In a formal sense my sister is godmother to a child baptized in the Church of England. The baby’s mother is a friend of hers, a religion teacher in English public school. She is also an atheist. That doesn’t stop her from getting her baby baptized, but the child has likely never again seen the inside of a church. So here is “real” godparenting for no purpose ever conceived of in christendom. We’re just noticing something the press doesn’t get about religion and many others don’t either.

  • Joel

    Interesting note: I am the (Protestant, Lutheran at the time) godparent of a Catholic child. Wonder how I slipped under the radar? And, that child’s Catholic parents are the godparents of my elder daughter.

    Elijah, if the other godparent was Catholic, then you didn’t have to slip under the radar. Only one of the two actually needs to be a practicing Catholic. My youngest has his aunt and uncle for godparents, and only the aunt is actually a Christian of any sort.

  • Bill

    Thanks, Chris. (#7) We have other Godchildren by the books, but in the case of one, I’m afraid we were chosen for convenience. I almost never see them, so I’m not much of a Godfather there.

    The Hollywood idea does seem a jumble. How can you have a Godfather without God? Sort of like using a cross purely for decoration.

  • Paul Clutterbuck

    I’m still close friends with my first schoolteacher from the 1970s, and I call her my godmother even though both of us are evangelicals with leanings toward Anabaptist or Mennonite traditions. Her second husband, who actually brought me to faith when I was 17, and who has since died, I call my godfather even though I doubt he ever attended a church that practised infant baptism. I’m now in my late 30s and still seek advice from my godmother as regularly as I do from my mother.

    Later, when I was sponsoring children through Compassion International, I called myself their padrino/padrinho, and referred to them as my ahijados/afilhados. I’ve always taken an active interest in their religious instruction, written to them regularly and prayed for them every day. To me it doesn’t matter which churches the children attend, and whether or not I agree with everything their churches teach, so long as they are Christian. In some ways it was a consolation for being childless, but also a way of reaching out and honouring those who had reached out to me.

  • Mike O.

    I’ve twice been asked to be a godparent by people who know I’m an atheist. I politely turned them down as I didn’t think it appropriate. That’s at least in part because most of my family is Catholic and I felt it might be a mockery of their beliefs.

    One of the people who asked me was a friend who never explained why he’d asked me. The other was a friend who upon asking me said it was more to be a helpful guide/mentor for the child outside of the family. I never asked either if I would be expected to perform in any religious ritual ceremony, but now I kind of wish I did.

  • Terry

    Regarding the question of Christian but non-Catholic godparents: the Code of Canon Law says that to be a sponsorat baptism (this is the word used, interestingly, not godparent) a person must be at least 16, baptised and confirmed, made their communion, and ‘live a life of faith which befits the role to be undertaken’ (para 874 sect 3). Sect 4 goes on to say that a Christian from another communion ‘may be admitted [as sponsor] only in company with a Catholic sponsor, and then simply as a witness to the baptism’.

  • Joel

    Thanks. … I don’t think my brother-in-law is baptized, and I know he’s not a practicing Catholic. He’s sort of a congenial atheist with no particular animosity. But he still was named as my youngest boy’s godfather, and nobody looked too closely at his qualifications.