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.
In 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