Baptism and Godly Living

by Philip Jones

‘Godparents shall be persons who will faithfully fulfil their responsibilities … by the example of their own godly living’ (Canon B23(2)).

It has been reported in the newspapers that a vicar has refused to baptise a baby because its parents are not married to each other.

Yet Canon B22(4) is clear that

‘No minister shall refuse … to baptise any infant within his cure that is brought to the church to be baptised, provided that

[1] due notice has been given and

[2] the provisions relating to godparents [not parents] … are observed’.

Godparents must normally be baptised and confirmed, though the minister may dispense with the requirement of confirmation (Canon B23(4)).  But that is not all. Canon B23(2), quoted above, implies that the officiating minister must also be persuaded of their suitability to act as godparents.

Ecclesiastical law can decide who a child’s godparents may be, but not who its parents may be.  (That is determined by natural law, of course, or by secular law in the case of adoption.)  However, Canon B22(3) provides that

‘The minister shall instruct the parents … that the same responsibilities rest on them as are in the service of Holy Baptism required of the godparents’.

This suggests that the vicar has the right, indeed the duty, to exhort unmarried parents to regularise their union.  It is clear, however, that having godly living parents is not a pre-condition of a child’s baptism.  (It is, after all, the child that is being baptised, not the parents.)

If the vicar has no right to refuse baptism in these circumstances, does his refusal amount to disciplinary misconduct?

In the case of Bland v Archdeacon of Cheltenham (1972) 1 All England Reports 1012, the Court of the Arches held that a deliberate refusal to baptise (as distinct from a failure to baptise due to forgetfulness or laziness) should be charged as an offence of disobedience to ecclesiastical law rather than as neglect of duty (p.1016).  It also held that ‘evinc[ing] a clear and final intention not to baptise the child if and when brought to the church for baptism … would constitute a refusal’ (pp.1017-1018).

However, the alleged refusal to baptise in Bland occurred before the present revised canons had come into force.  The case was therefore governed by the canons of 1603, which make no provision for godly living by either parents or godparents.  Canon 68 of 1603 bluntly provided that refusal to baptise should be punished by 3 months’ suspension.  As the Court of the Arches noted, this penal provision does not appear in the revised canons.  On the contrary, the revised canons provide a different procedure.  This apparently had a twofold purpose

(1) ‘to provide some relief from the strict letter of the law as in canon 68’ and

(2) ‘to avoid any indiscriminate baptism of infants, without going to the opposite more rigorous extreme’ (p.1018).

In other words, the policy of the revised canons was to provide guidance and support to clergy who have a conscientious objection to a particular baptism, or who find themselves dealing with problematic parents.

Thus Canon B22(2) provides that

‘If the minister shall refuse or unduly delay to baptize … the parents … may apply to the bishop … who shall, after consultation with the minister, give such directions as thinks fit’.

There is no longer a prescribed penalty for refusal to baptise, or even a threat of disciplinary action.  Moreover, the bishop is required to consult the minister before giving his directions, not merely to hear his side of the story.

It is therefore arguable that an incumbent’s refusal to baptise will not, without more, constitute disciplinary misconduct.  Any misconduct will depend on the bishop’s directions under Canon B22(2).

If the bishop directs the incumbent to administer the baptism, and the incumbent still refuses, then he will be guilty of misconduct.  However, the bishop might direct only that the incumbent should permit another clergyman to officiate in his place, out of delicacy to his scruples.  Then there will be no misconduct (provided, of course, that the incumbent does not obstruct the other clergyman).  Or again, the bishop might direct that the baptism be delayed to allow the incumbent to give further instruction to the parents.

Despite the broad wording ‘as he thinks fit’, it is unlikely that Canon B22(2) empowers the bishop to support an outright refusal to baptise a baby merely because of disapproval of the parents’ lifestyle.  That would be to impose a condition of baptism that is not found in ecclesiastical law.  The dictum in Bland quoted above suggests that the bishop’s power is limited to agreeing that the incumbent may delay the baptism.  It is true, however, that any delay may be indefinite, in which case there may be little practical distinction between delay and refusal.