Lucy McDonald on the christening dilemma facing secular parentsMy daughter’s first visit to a church was for her christening.She was nine months old and it says something about her parents’ lackadaisical religious convictions that she had not been before.
My husband is Catholic and I am Church of England, both of us hugely lapsed, and it took us months to decide that just in case God does exist we had better formally introduce her.We had both been baptised (in my case, not until the age of seven, but more on that later) and considered it a rite of passage for Elizabeth, too.
Religion would provide the context for an event to celebrate her life, honour friends as godparents and throw a party.The choice of a church christening put us in a minority among our friends. Of eight babies born around the same time as Elizabeth only three, so far, have had a religious baptism.Two mothers admit this has less to do with ecclesiastical fervour than securing a place at the local church school.
Two are having non-religious naming ceremonies and have appointed non-godparents, while the others have disregarded the tradition altogether.Statistics reflect our waning relationship with the church. In 1980, there were 226,000 Anglican baptisms, 25 years later there were 151,000.The story is the same in the Catholic church: around 75,000 in England and Wales in 1981 and 62,500 today. In contrast, the number of baby-naming ceremonies is rising and now approaches 10,000 a year.
Two thirds of local authorities offer them, as does the British Humanist Association.Its chief executive, Hanne Stinson, says: “Non-religious parents often want to mark their child’s birth but many feel a church ceremony would be wrong.A few years ago they may have gone along with a christening to keep relatives happy or because there were no other options, but many are no longer prepared to be hypocritical about something so important.”Andy and Franki Cleeter fall into this category. The couple from Barton-on-Sea, Hampshire, are not religious and so marked the births of Eloise, five, and Rowan, two, with naming ceremonies.
Andy, a teacher, says: “We really wanted to shout about the arrival of our children, but a baptism was out of the question, so we decided to organise a ceremony ourselves.“We had a big party for Eloise on her first birthday. Her grandfather conducted the ceremony, friends and family read poems and ‘special friends’ were appointed. At 4.45?pm, the time of Eloise’s birth, we released balloons.”Naming ceremonies are also popular among couples of different faiths who cannot decide which to choose. Had this option been available in 1974, when I was born, my parents might not have divorced.
They rowed for seven years over whether I should be baptised as a Catholic (my father) or as an Anglican (my mother). It is hard to say who won the war, but this battle was won by my mother, leaving the vicar with the problem of how to dunk the head of an overexcited seven-year-old in the font.Once the last sausage roll has been eaten and the last guest has departed, the best bit about a christening is the enduring legacy of godparents. Being asked is an honour and can cement friends into the life of the family for ever.Paul Butler, the Bishop of Southampton, has eight godchildren and believes it is not just a privilege but a responsibility.
He prays for his godchildren regularly and says: “Parents can’t raise their kids alone and need help and support, while children benefit from having other adults in their lives. Godparents are there to help and offer spiritual guidance.”A modern interpretation of this would be helping children to develop a moral code through which to tackle life’s challenges.Bobby Grieve, 19, is exceptionally close to his godmother, Kate Nielson, a television producer. “She’s like my second mother,” he says. “I’ve never had a dad around, so Kate’s a big figure in my life.” Kate says: “I like to think Bobby can come to me about anything. I try to lead by example.”If you hear someone refer to their “odd-parent”, they are probably not being rude. It is one of the new names for non-religious godparents. Others include guide-parent, mentor and guardian, but there are more individual names.
Despite firmly renouncing organised religion herself, novelist Serena Mackesy has five godchildren, two Catholic, one atheist, one Protestant and one Jewish.She hates being called godmother. “I’m a committed atheist and have a tendency at baptisms to roll my eyes and mutter about brainwashing,” she says. “I can’t be a real godparent on the grounds that I don’t believe in God. So, after much debate, I have become known as Mad Auntie Renie.”Lawyer Alper Deniz has a similar problem with his godson, three-year-old Oscar Bowker. “As a Muslim it doesn’t feel right to be called god-dad,” he says. “Instead, I prefer to go by the name of Allah-father.”