Orthodox America

  Concerning Godparents

Question: Who should be invited to be the godparents of a person who is to be baptized? How many godparents should there by? 

ANSWER: The practice of godparents, witnesses or sponsors of a person who is to be baptized, and who are to instruct the person in the rules of Christian living, has existed from the first century of the Christian era. The first written information about godparents is attributed to the second century. ,In the first century of Christianity the godparents quite often were deacons, deaconnesses  [1], hermits, virgins and, in general, people who dedicated themselves to serving the Church and who were able to instruct the baptized in true Christian faith and its morals.

          In the Russian Church, up to the 14th century, only one godparent was required at a baptism. And only from the l4th century did the custom of inviting two people, a man and a woman, to be godparents, come into being.. With time this custom received full acceptance in the Church .... Nevertheless, as a matter of principle, even up to today, the necessity for only one godparent remains--a person of the male gender for a man, and a person of the female gender for a woman. Our Book of Needs, according to which the Sacrament of Baptism is performed, recognizes only one godparent in the prayer, "Further we pray for the mercy, life, peace, health, salvation, and the remission of sins of the servant of God (name), the Sponsor" (signifying only one person). This petition is said twice, once after reading the Gospel and then in the Office of Ablution.

         It is understood that the sponsor must be a person of the Orthodox faith, who knows well the main truths of the Christian faith, its morals, the essence of the Sacrament of Baptism, and the essence of the promises which the sponsor affirms for the baptized before the person becomes of age. Therefore, a male sponsor cannot be younger than 15 years, and a female sponsor younger than 13 years. They cannot be ignorant in the Faith, known sinners, or anyone who conducts an immoral life, dissonants from the Faith, or people of another faith.

    In extreme instances when it is impossible to find an Orthodox sponsor, baptism can be performed without a special sponsor. In this case the sponsor will be substituted by the priest who performs the service, or the reader, or their wives, depending on the gender of the person baptized, The sometimes exercised practice of choosing a sponsor in absentia, has no canonical basis, since, according to Church rules, the sponsor has to be present during the service of the Sacrament of Baptism and must give the proper answers for the baptized (if a child), read the Creed for him/her (if a child), walk around the baptismal font (if a child), and give the solemn promise before God in church that the person he/she is sponsoring will be a true Christian.

      It is important to remember that the natural parents in  no instance can be sponsors of their own children because, in that case, according to the 53rd Canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, their marriage would have to be annulled. This is because sponsorship establishes a spiritual relationship between the two people involved, and is recognized by the Church as more important than the "union of the body." 

(Translated from a book on Questions and .Answers; reprinted from "Orthodox Way," October 30, 1983)

(Recommended reading for godparents: "Exhortation by the Priest to the Godparent at Baptism," in Orthodox Life, July-August, 1979) 

[1] Deaconnesses were young virgins who dedicated their life to the Church, took care of the church itself and were involved in all kinds of philanthropic work of the Church. They adhered to strict ruIes both of prayer and in their personal life.