Baptism, Canon Law and the Church

Leader comment in the Church Times on 31st August considered the issue of the Church of England’s baptism of children from families who do not regularly attend church.  This was in response to a ‘flurry of letters’ commenting on how best to balance the needs of the families and those of the congregation, whilst remaining inclusive.


There appear to be many within church congregations (and a few within the clergy) who are unaware of the requirements of the Church of England concerning baptism.  A lack of appreciation of the sacrament of baptism was also apparent in the judgement in C (A Child), Re [2012] EW Misc 15 (CC) (11 May 2012)  highlighted by Frank Cranmer here.

The sacramental nature of baptism is described in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion and the requirements associated with the baptism itself in Canon B 21 Of Holy Baptism  which states:

‘It is desirable that every minister having a cure of souls shall normally administer the sacrament of Holy Baptism on Sundays at public worship when the most number of people come together, that the congregation there present may witness the receiving of them that be newly baptized into Christ’s Church, and be put in remembrance of their own profession made to God in their baptism.’[emphasis added].

Importantly, the following Canon B 22 Of the baptism of infants, paragraph 4 is unambiguous in identifying the duty of the clergy,

‘No minister shall refuse or, save for the purpose of preparing or instructing the parents or guardians or godparents, delay to baptize any infant within his cure that is brought to the church to be baptized, provided that due notice has been given and the provisions relating to godparents in these Canons are observed.’

It is thus clear that the only legal reason for a priest to refuse to baptise a child is that the parents or guardians or godparents have not been given the required preparation/instruction, (although the exact details of this preparation are unspecified).  Where such refusals do occur and the parents often seek baptism in a neighbouring parish.  Whilst Canon B 21 §5 requires that:

‘A minister who intends to baptize any infant whose parents are residing outside the boundaries of his cure, unless the names of such persons or of one of them be on the church electoral roll of the same, shall not proceed to the baptism without having sought the good will of the minister of the parish in which such parents reside’, [emphasis added],

The goodwill does not have to be obtained, just sought. Some deaneries are now developing a joint baptism policy so that there is a common position between neighbouring churches, and parents will not seek to play off the requirements of one minister against those of another.

Nevertheless, even where there are no such problems and there is agreement on the baptism, the inclusion of the baptism ‘at public worship when the most number of people and come together’ needs to strike the balance between the existing pattern of worship and the importance of the baptism to the family and friends of the infant. The baptism ceremony is normally included in the parish Eucharist, but as the Church Times notes:

 ‘even the best programme of preparation does not extend to the whole of the baptismal party. Thus an all-together service can be long for anyone coping with an infant or toddler, the music is unfamiliar, the bread-and-wine business is baffling, and the dress code is unfathomable’.

Another factor is the size of the baptismal party which can be as great as 40+ and represent a sizeable proportion of the congregation.

The article suggests:

‘a separate service, perhaps with some members of the congregation staying on, which can be geared more precisely to the family’s interests and condition. It is worth remembering that the baptismal party is just as valid a manifestation of the Church as a regular congregation’.

However, the correspondence in the Church Times was initiated by a complaint about a service where the baptism rite featured ‘as an add-on just before the end’ and ‘showed a marked lack of interest on the part of the church’.

Clearly, it is almost impossible to satisfy everyone.