So, anyway, you get an invitation to a christening. These are family occasions of great significance to those who choose to participate in them, sometimes because of genuinely deeply-held religious convictions, but just as often because of long-standing family tradition or adherence to perceived social norms, that sort of thing. And often the people who choose to participate are friends and want you, the aforementioned atheist, to be there and share their day with them. So what do you do?
The short answer to that is: you must do what your conscience dictates. Personally I don't find that I feel it necessary to refuse to attend altogether; that strikes me as a bit churlish. There are limits to what I'm prepared to participate in once inside the church, though - most obviously, if anyone ever asked (and I don't suppose they would) me to be a godparent to their child I would have to thank them politely and sincerely for thinking of me and then decline, given the nature of the vows you have to make. In the event of the untimely demise of the parents I'm good for all manner of support, but I'm not going to promise to bring up the child in the Christian faith. And I don't buy that whole thing of: well, just say the words, it doesn't really mean anything. No, if you're going to the trouble of setting up the framework in which these words are said, then they do have meaning, and promises are important things which I take very seriously.
Like I say, though, it's only someone exceptionally oblivious to my views on these matters that would ever ask me to be a godparent, so a much more likely scenario is just that I'll be a member of the congregation. Obviously that makes it a bit easier to "lose" oneself, but there are still rules:
- I don't get involved with the massed responses to the various protestations of faith and rejection of Satan and all his minions and that sort of stuff;
- I'll have a bit of a sing if it's a tune I know - I mean, why not? That bit about the "purple-headed mountain" in All Things Bright And Beautiful gets me every time, though;
- I don't get involved with the whole ingestion of bread products thing, however many people who've parked themselves on the wrong side of the pew from me might have to squeeze past me to get out. And none of that "just a blessing, please, father" stuff either; I'm staying firmly in my seat;
- In the unlikely event of some groovy vicar engaging me in conversation during (or indeed after) the service about some aspect of the liturgy I will not give nodding consent, either explicitly or by omission, to any of the Goddy stuff. We came perilously close to having to implement this rule at the weekend as the vicar was doing the rounds of the various children in the congregation asking when they'd been christened; if he'd got to Nia we might have had to have a conversation he wouldn't necessarily have relished.
Where the circumstances are more directly under my control I'm prepared to be a bit more hard-nosed about it, though, so stuff that I deemed non-negotiable was:
- I wasn't going to get married in church
- I wasn't going to have Nia christened