Orthodox America


ORTHODOX PRACTICE  - Choosing God-parents


An answer to the question:
Is it proper to have more than one sponsor at baptism?

The institution of sponsors (god-parents), who serve as witnesses and guarantors for the faith of the person being baptized and are obligated to edify him in the rules of Christian life, has existed since the first century of the Christian era. Church literature of the second suggests that the sponsors of the first centuries were usually deacons, deaconesses, hermits, virgins, and in general persons dedicated to the service of the Church and thus capable of edifying the newly-baptized in the truths of the Christian faith and its ethical principles. According to the "Apostolic Canons" (3, 16), a male Christian was obliged to take one deacon, and a woman one deaconess as sponsor. This practice has been maintained in the Church ever since, i.e., a person baptized is required to be sponsored by one person of the same sex. According to the Rudder (ch. 50, pt. 2), the person baptized, "when he leaves the saving bath, must be received by one faithful person."

In the early history of the Russian Church, until the fourteenth century, it was customary to have only one sponsor, and it is only in the fifteenth century that the practice of inviting two god-parents-a man and a woman-was established. In the course of time this practice of the Russian Church received legal sanction not only on the basis of established custom, but also through later directives of the Holy Synod, although even to this day in principle only one sponsor is necessary. Our Book of Needs, which contains the service of baptism, mentions only one sponsor in the prayers for mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, and the forgiveness of sins of the Augmented Litany which is said twice, after the reading of the Gospel and at the conclusion of the Order of Ablution for the eighth day.

It is self-evident that the sponsor at baptism can be only someone who is Orthodox in faith and, in addition, who knows at least the main tenets of the Christian faith and its ethics, as well as the meaning of the mystery of baptism and of the vows which are given in the name of the baptized which are to be conveyed and explained to the latter when he has reached maturity. Thus, the sponsor at baptism cannot be: a) a minor, i.e. a boy younger than 15, or a girl less than 13; b) someone ignorant of the faith; c) someone guilty of overt sins, or in general a person who in the opinion of the community has fallen in his moral life; d) a schismatic; or e) a heretic.

In extreme cases, when it is impossible to find an Orthodox person to be the god-parent, the baptism can be accomplished without a special sponsor, and the priest serving can take his stead, or the reader, or their spouses, according to the sex of the candidate for baptism. The practice of allowing the sponsor to be absent is without canonical basis, since the sponsor is required by ecclesiastical rule to be present during the actual accomplishing of the mystery, to give the required responses for the infant or child being baptized, to read for him the Symbol of Faith (the Creed), to walk with him around the font, and thus be solemnly committed before God and the Church to helping the person sponsored to be a true Christian.

It is also necessary to note that parents may not be sponsors of their own children; on the contrary, should this occur, the very matrimonial bond of the parents should be dissolved in accordance with Canon 53 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, since sponsorship creates a spiritual relationship considered by the Church in this canon to be more important than "the union according to the flesh."

(Translated from the Russian by Timothy Fisher from "Questions and Answers in Explanation of Church Piety and Care for Souls"; reprinted from Orthodox Life, No. 4, 1984; Jordanville, NY)

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