02 June 2015, The Tablet

Should a priest refuse to baptise the child of unwed parents?

by Fr Ashley Beck

Last week the Daily Mail reported on a vicar who has allegedly refused baptism to a child because his parents are not married. There is some confusion about the facts as the Anglican Diocese of Chester has claimed that the vicar, Revd Tim Hayes, has not in fact refused to baptise the child. The parish appears to be thriving and the policy the vicar has outlined – which is, it would seem, to ask for baptism to happen after the couple get married (which he has offered to celebrate free of charge) – has been in place for over 20 years.

All of us in ordained ministry have faced this problem. For Catholics we know that simply being unmarried would not be grounds for refusing baptism, and Pope Francis early on in his pontificate roundly condemned priests who did this; such grounds would really only be evidence that parents had no intention of bringing their child up in the Christian faith. On the other hand the Catholic Church and other Christian communities are entitled to ask parents to be properly prepared for the sacrament, and classes for this are increasingly common.

St John's church, DukinfieldIn my parish in south-east London, where we have about 100 baptisms a year, on the parents’ application form we ask when and where they were married; in the group sessions before the ceremony, the importance of marriage is stressed. If parents are undertaking to bring their child up in the Christian faith there is a problem if Christian teaching about marriage is a matter of indifference to them – so clergy and others should not be hesitant about raising the issue (for Catholics it is also often discovered that the parents are not validly married). Our responsibility is to help people grow in the faith; but at the same time we would not refuse baptism after a couple has attended the course.

The quotation from the child’s mother, Heather Lawrence, about local schools is instructive (perhaps one of them is a Catholic school). She said: “There are three schools in our catchment area and two of those require you to be baptised to get into. It doesn't matter what religion you are, but they do require you to be baptised.”

In my parish we have an excellent and popular primary school; occasionally we have had four-year-olds being baptised not long before the closing date for applications, and centralised control of admissions policies by dioceses and local authorities make it hard to discriminate against people who jump the queue in this way.

Some years ago I wrote a very controversial article in The Tablet (‘Whose school is it anyway’, 9 October 2010) arguing that Catholic schools and clergy who write references should be able to take into account whether parents are married – and I was roundly attacked by two of the most senior figures in Catholic education in this country. But a big issue remains here: do we really care about marriage?

Ashley Beck is Assistant Priest of Beckenham in south-east London and chaplain of St Mary’s Primary School in that parish. He is also Programme Director in Pastoral Ministry at St Mary’s University, Twickenham

Above: Revd Hayes' parish in Manchester

What do you think?


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User comments (6)

Comment by: Jane
Posted: 10/06/2015 00:41:47

Could you face Jesus and say "I refused to baptise a child". All the excuses in the world count for nothing when anyone is turned away from the church. Who knows where that baptism will lead, it seems to me that a little more faith in God and the Holy Spirit is needed. Conditions and judgemental attitudes are emptying the churches. Welcome is needed, the rest will follow.

Comment by: Jim McCrea
Posted: 09/06/2015 20:37:12

Is baptism a reward for good parental behavior, or an initiation of a new member of the church?

Have the sacraments become gifts to be controlled by man, or gifts from God?

Comment by: Leo Sprietsma
Posted: 05/06/2015 21:09:33

I still remember, in my first priestly assignment, having a man come in to arrange for the Baptism of his 6th child. When I enquired as to the Parish of his marriage, he replied –

Oh, Father, we were never married in the church. Before you do that, it has to be "Serious!"

that response is rather like the response of the Apostles to Jesus' requirement about no divorce. "It would just be better not to get married!"

Some people do seem to take the Catholic prohibition of divorce to a "logical" conclusion. If not married in the church, then divorce would not be counted.

They don't seem to worry about the fact that, officially, the Church considers them to be living in sin during the first marriage just as much as if it were a second marriage.

Comment by: johnofthecross
Posted: 03/06/2015 18:46:48

r u seriously asking such a ridiculous ?

Comment by: Achany
Posted: 03/06/2015 07:48:48

I do feel very strongly that the child should be baptised for its own sake, although the parents must also be instructed in the need for a Christian education for their child and, if unmarried, persuaded to marry. The latter persuasion must include instruction in the meaning of Christian marriage and all it entails.

In my own family I have succeeded in persuading my son and daughter-in law to marry and the next step is the baptism of their two children. I have high hopes that this will take place as my daughter-in-law is turning towards the Church after an atheist upbtinging.

Comment by: Aloysius Beebwa
Posted: 02/06/2015 19:11:02

Yes, the passing of Charles Kennedy is a national loss. He was definitely wise and courageous given his prophetic position against the illegal and disastrous war on Iraq in 2003! It must have intensified his suffering! Perhaps through his deep contribution, there will be grounds for reconciliation and discussions and hopefully healing for those whose livelihoods were shattered both near and far. His personal contribution could be a seed for peace in a fragile world. May he rest in peace.
Aloysius Beebwa

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