DO PROMISES about religion made in church matter? Or can they be seen as part of a general assertion of spiritual goodwill, in which the religious small print doesn't really count?

This was the problem facing Joanna, a non-believer, who had been asked by a believing friend to be godmother to her child. Despite the fact that she didn't believe in God, both her husband and her friend insisted that she should set her doubts aside and accept. But Joanna wasn't so sure.

And quite rightly, according to many readers who were shocked that she could even contemplate accepting an essentially Christian role. Frances Gilyead of Cirencester spoke for many when she wrote: 'As an atheist how could Joanna possibly stand up in church and make solemn promises on the baby's behalf about a religion that means nothing to her? To do so would be hypocritical and utterly inappropriate.'

Lucy Amos of Bath agreed. 'I'm afraid the attitude of the friend and the husband simply shows the christening ceremony up for the sham it often is: a group of people standing round the baby (cameras at the ready) making promises that mean nothing to them, and the whole performance, like many weddings, merely an excuse to dress up and have a party.'

The only technical qualification for being a godparent is that you must be baptised yourself. But during most ceremonies you are asked to turn to Christ, declare your belief in the Christian faith, and bring the child up in that faith by your prayers, example and teaching. If Joanna can't do that, thought Verity Ferguson, a lay reader from the Bradford diocese, then she should explain her doubts to her friend, 'pointing out that she is not rejecting her or her child, or denying her friend's faith, but acknowledging its worth by not making promises she cannot feel free to honour'.

But maybe Joanna doesn't 'honour its worth'. If she is a hard-line atheist, then maybe she could argue to herself that any promises she makes within church are not ones to be kept. If she does feel, however, that her friend's faith is worth honouring, then isn't she half-way to a spiritual life, and aren't her doubts a sign that she is the very kind of upright and morally questioning sort who is ideal to be a godparent?

When Pat of south London and her husband were asked to be godparents, they had the same doubts as Joanna. They aired their anxieties to the minister. 'He simply said we should not make any responses that we were not happy with. So we didn't'

Or Joanna could fudge the whole issue completely, as did a friend of Linda Bellairs of Okehampton, Devon, who simply made 'token muttering sounds which satisfied the congregation and also her own sense of what was right when it came to the bits that she felt morally unable to say. She was, and is, very happy to be godmother to her friend's child, but explained in advance to her friend that she in no way wanted to associate herself with Christianity'.

Were we asked to take part in some Satanist baptism it would be very easy to say no. But although many of us might not wish to answer 'yes' to the question 'Do you turn to Christ?', we may not actually want to answer 'no', because that would imply that we reject Him altogether. Uncertain mutterings may be the only answer, because what many of us want to do is acknowledge Christ but not turn to Him - er, kind of, if you know what I mean.

Gill Schofield of Stockport has argued herself into seeing a godparent as embracing a broader role than the one implied by the church: 'Being a godmother is much more than making sure the children go to church and read the Bible. It's about guiding the young person in being a good, well-

mannered member of the community, respecting others' opinions and understanding right and wrong.'

If she just couldn't cope with either muttering or looking for loopholes, perhaps Joanna could refuse to take part in the church service, but agree to some more secular role. Readers variously suggested new titles: unofficial godmother, honorary aunt, ungodly mother, goodfather, or one even suggested making Joanna a guardian instead. But as a gawd-knows godmother of seven, and an honorary godmother of one (a secret pact between him and me), I know that it is partly the public and spiritual declaration of this relationship that makes it so close. The secret, secular relationship is simply not so strong.

Most vicars who wrote in were against the idea of non-Christians being godparents, but readers provided plenty of evidence of ministers who bent the rules when consulted. Consultation with the vicar did seem to be the answer - so perhaps Joanna should leave it to the vicar and, like Stewart Fleming of Glasgow, hope that he would declare, on hearing how morally conscientious she was: 'Never mind if you don't believe in God - your friend and her God believe in you]'


Dear Virginia,

We have some friends who are vegetarian and very anti-smoking. They are very generous and social and often ask us round - but only give us vegetarian food and ask us not to smoke in their house. We have just got a cottage in the country and they are constantly asking when they can come down. My husband smokes constantly and says he is not going to stop if they visit. I feel angry at the idea of providing vegetarian meals for them for a whole weekend, since they never provide special meals for us when we go to them. And yet I feel it is very unwelcoming to ask them to make their own meals. I expect I will cave in and pander to their tastes, but I know I shall feel extremely resentful. How do other people feel about what my husband calls the dictatorship of the veggies and the anti-smoking brigade?

Yours, Sandra

All readers' comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Please send your comments and suggestions to me at the Features Department, The Independent, 40 City Road, London EC1Y 2DB; fax 071-956-1739, by Tuesday morning. And if you have any dilemmas that you would like to share, let me know.