Alternative baptism - spare me another meaningless ceremony

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MY CHILDREN have names - names we gave to them without their consent; names that directly or indirectly bind them to continuity with their parents' history. Neither of my children, by their own choice, use their given first names socially.

Quite separate from this, both my children were baptised; they went through a rite de passage, entirely without their choosing, that was important to their parents. Their godparents were - at least at the time of the christenings - "committed" Christian communicants who could with sincerity take those oaths on behalf of the babies. They believed in the Holy Trinity and salvation through Christ; and they found an honest way of repudiating the power of the "world, the flesh and devil" on the children's behalf.

A quarter of a century later, my children have continuing relationships, or have found a use for, three-quarters of their godparents. These relationships are not more important than the relationships they have voluntarily formed with other adult friends of their parents - but I suspect they may have been a model for that.

I am pleased (and proud) about the close relationships my children have with individuals who are of my and their father's generation, and whom they know because of our friendships: this is good for all of us.

One of the reasons for having "official" godparents is that they affirm positive inter-generation connections. Even if the particular godparents chosen aren't, in the long run, supportive adults, they still signify (even through the crude Christmas-present tenor) the possibility of a good relationship.

It is healthy for children to know that there are other important adults in their lives than those who happen to be their biological parents - and particularly as the extended family disappears in sociological and geographical fragmentation. So I have intrinsic sympathy with the suggestion, made by Lord Young of Dartington yesterday, that children who don't have the good fortune to have Christian parents should have an official way of acquiring some extra involved and committed adults in their lives.

But hang on. Nothing in Lord Young's proposal for the state to provide a "naming ceremony" which is both secular and significant is about the needs and well-being of children. The proposed ceremony, he tells us, is a "very important occasion for parents and grand-parents and families generally".

The idea behind god-parents (apart from the religious obligations they traditionally undertook) was to provide children with a counter-balance to their parents. Interestingly, an old word for a godparent was a "gossip" [god sib = god relation (as in sibling)]. A gossip was originally a woman who stayed with a mother through her labour in order to take care of the child, while the mid-wife had a primary responsibility to the mother. A useful division of labour.

Are parents really prepared to see their children as autonomous individuals with rights parallel to their own - as full and free members of society rather than their possessions? If so, then a new rite in which parents would publicly promise to share the responsibility for, and care of, their children with the wider society would be valuable.

In France, I am told, godparents have a legally recognised advocacy role for the well-being of their godchildren. Appointing "guardians" or "gossips" or "social-parents" or "advocates" - the right name is a problem - here, and giving them real authority in the child's life, would be interesting and important.

But a ceremony on its own, with no legal or faith content, is unlikely to create a new connection between families and society.

Lord Young's proposal is a hopeless attempt to bring the institutions of Christianity to bear in a secular society.

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