As William and Kate prepare for this week’s christening of Prince George, Dani Garavelli asks why the ceremony and choice of godparents can be so fraught
THE WAY some royal commentators have greeted the news of William and Kate’s supposed first choice of godparents for baby George you’d think the couple had asked the Child Catcher and Cruella De Vil to do the honours for their first-born as opposed to a couple of old university pals.
For want of blue blood, financier Fergus Boyd and interior designer Emilia D’Erlanger have been dismissed as “unexpected, off-the-wall” candidates for a role more traditionally performed by nobility, and a sign that, once again, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge are determined to do things their own way. Moreover, they have spurned the traditional venue, the music room at Buckingham Palace, choosing to holding the christening in the much smaller Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace, they have kept the guest list so intimate that – shock, horror – some key members of the Royal Family, including Princess Anne, have been left off.
Though being a royal, baby George is likely to have half a dozen godparents (the slightly more aristocratic Hugh van Cutsem Jr is a dead cert and Harry and Pippa are also in the running), it seems some noses have already been put out of joint. Indeed, it’s all so frightfully non-U, you half expect Maggie Smith – aka the Dowager Countess from Downton Abbey – to pop up with a sniffy put-down about the corrosive impact of social change and the rise of the middle classes.
What with the replica of the intricate lace-and-satin gown made for Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, Victoria, in 1841 being brought out for him to wear and the Royal Mint issuing a set of coins to commemorate the occasion, the christening of George Alexander Louis will still be a world away from the more humble services that take place up and down the country. Yet, even in those families where the celebratory spread is more likely to consist of sausage rolls and beer than smoked salmon canapés and champagne, organising the event can be a source of familial disharmony and in many households there is no more contentious issue than who should be named as godparent.
On Mumsnet on any given day you can be guaranteed to find someone in meltdown over whether DH’s sister should take precedence over their closest friend as godmother, or if Uncle Joe, who swears like a trooper and hasn’t set foot in a church for 40 years, is really an appropriate person to guide their innocent bundle through the choppy waters of adolescence. The choice of godparent can be a test of the balance of power within a couple, the hierarchy within a group of friends and a statement about the kind of values you hope your family will embody. The episode of How I Met Your Mother in which Lily and Marshall force Barney, Ted and Robin to compete for the role of godparent to Marvin by means of an impromptu gameshow may be an exaggeration, but so difficult is it for some people to make a decision, they keep deferring until the moment has passed and their children are starting secondary school.
These days, though, it’s no less tricky for those who are asked to take on the role. It’s all very well being flattered, but what are you signing up for and what will the penalty be if you default on your commitment?
According to etiquette experts Debrett’s, the on-the-day duties are confined to gushing. Your task is simply to “radiate effusive excitement and awestruck delight about the new baby. Greet its every burp and whimper with enthusiasm, gloss over its more unfortunate behaviour, exclaim over the beauty of its dress, shoes, shawl and compliment the parents extravagantly on the choice of name.” It is important you make the day as happy as possible for the parents because it is the last opportunity for them to revel in public approbation before reconciling themselves to the mundanity of a life spent changing nappies and mopping up sick, the Debrett’s guide says. “It is your job to defer reality for just one more day.”
So far, so straightforward. But what level of input, both financial or emotional, will be required in the long-term? Although the role has traditionally been a Christian one, with godparents expected to play a part in inculcating their charges in the beliefs of their own particular denomination, it has also involved an element of patronage, with parents choosing influential friends to flaunt their own status and in the hopes they will use their influence to help propel their offspring up the social ladder. This financial aspect was captured in the fairy godmother figure of the 17th century, who had the power to transform her charge from rags to riches with a wave of her wand.
Though the Church tried hard to shift the focus from the godparents’ social to their spiritual obligations, traces of this practice remain today, particularly amongst celebrities, who tend to look to showbusiness royalty to steer their children to a better future, with varying degrees of success. With Steven Spielberg as godfather and Sophia Loren as godmother, it’s hardly surprising Drew Barrymore had her breakout role at the age of six (she played Gertie in Spielberg’s ET), but their guiding hand didn’t stop her dabbling with drugs before she hit her teens.
Liz Hurley has taken no chances with her son’s future. Trumping even Joan of Arc (who had just five), Damien has no fewer than six godparents, including Elton John and David Furnish, while Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng covered all the bases by asking a range of luminaries including Tony Blair, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman to step up to the plate for their daughters Chloe and Grace.
Among the hoi polloi, the role is more likely to involve birthday cards, occasional day trips and, if you are lucky, the forming of a special bond that will broaden the child’s horizons. Janet Street-Porter has written about her relationship with her godmother, who took her to the ballet and encouraged her to read Paris Match. At their best, godparents can be confidantes, allies and a shoulder to cry on. That’s quite a responsibility and, if you doubt you have the staying power, you should probably say “No”, not only because it’s fairer but because you may well find yourself judged for failing to live up to expectations.
That was Martin Amis’s great mistake. Years after agreeing to take on the role for cartoonist Mark Boxer’s daughter Claire, he was berated by Boxer’s widow Anna Ford for dereliction of duty. Amis, she said, had spent so little time with Claire as a child that when she came to study his books at university, she had no idea he was her godfather. “We invited you to lunch,” Ford wrote in an open letter to Amis. “You paid scant attention to Claire (didn’t even cough up the statutory five bob expected from godfathers!) and she hasn’t heard from you since.” Oh the shame.
In these, increasingly secular times, there are also sensitive issues around faith to consider. Those who feel a christening is inappropriate can opt for a Glistening, a Sip and See (a southern US alternative to a baby shower) or naming ceremony, tailored to their own requirements. Often these ceremonies will include rituals such as the lighting of candles or the pouring of water, but these ceremonies will have a metaphorical as opposed to religious significance (the planting of a seed for example could represent both the laying down of roots and future flourishing). “The way I normally work is to ask the couple to tell the story from conception through to where we are right now,” says Humanist Society Scotland celebrant Tim Maguire. “It’s very much like a wedding in that it’s about you expressing your thoughts and hopes for your child.”
In secular ceremonies, the parents will also choose role models, but call them guide-parents or “odd parents”, the latter term implying these representatives are expected to bring a different, off-beat, almost subversive dynamic. This subtle shift in attitude is mirrored in literature. Compare traditional fairy godmothers – genial old ladies who help girls fulfil their dreams – with JK Rowling’s portrayal of Harry Potter’s godfather Sirius Black. Far from keeping Harry on the straight and narrow, Sirius encourages him to take risks and break rules: he is a corrupting influence. This must surely have been the logic behind Patsy Kensit’s parents’ choice of Reggie Kray as godfather to their daughter (although, given that was a generation ago, perhaps they just took the whole Mario Puzo thing a bit too literally). As far as Prince George is concerned, naughty Uncle Harry, whose fun-lovin’, dipsomaniac qualities have got him into many a scrape, is surely perfectly placed to play chief mischief-maker in his nephew’s life.
Though the number of secular ceremonies is increasing, more babies are still christened in church (there were 5,147 baptisms in the Church of Scotland in 2012, 411 of them adults). So what should you do if you – as an agnostic or atheist – are asked to take a key role in a religious ceremony, particularly if it involves being asked to answer “I do” to questions such as: “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?”
According to the National Secular Society, some atheists are prepared to go through the ritual for the sake of their relationship with the parents and child. But sometimes the gap between the parties cannot be bridged. “We’d never discussed faith before and had no idea how sincere [the other couple] were in theirs,” Jill Dykes Ramsay told the National Secular Society about being asked, along with her husband, to be godparents to a friend’s child in a Scottish Methodist Church. “Was the christening mainly an event to celebrate the child’s birth and appease some religious elderly relatives or was it spiritually important to them? We had strong misgivings about what we might have to say during the ceremony too.
“So we told our friends how flattered we were, but they should know we’re atheists and we left it to them to decide how to proceed. In the end they withdrew the offer. A bit awkward but best for all concerned.”
The question with all naming ceremonies, religious and otherwise, is how to make them memorable without losing the plot. As a host of celebrities have proved, it’s very easy to go OTT. When their sons Brooklyn and Romeo were christened, the Beckhams constructed a private chapel in the grounds of their Hertfordshire mansion and held a star-studded ceremony to which godparents Elton John and David Furnish – yes, they get about – turned up in a silver Rolls-Royce. The aforementioned baptism of the Murdochs’ daughters took place on the banks of the River Jordan and was followed by a three-day tour of Egypt led by Jordan’s monarch Queen Rania.
Compared with all this, the royal christening is going to feel quite low-key, even if the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, is conducting proceedings: just an intimate 45-minute service, with a handful of photos released afterwards. Anyone bemoaning the quality of the godparents should just be grateful William and Kate appear to have drawn the line at asking old friend and entrepreneur Guy Pelly, who recently made a sexually explicit film to promote his new nightclub. And anyone worried by the move to St James’s Palace should breathe a sigh of relief that it isn’t being held Hollywood-style on a wind-swept beach, at sunrise, with runes and crystals to symbolise peace and hope – and Elton on the piano. Now that really would be a departure from convention. «