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The Law in Relation to Infant Baptism

Bishop Colin Buchanan 

 A “right” to baptism? 

The Church of England is the established Church of the land, and it is in part governed by statute law.  Thus it is the law of the land which gives parishioners of each parish the right to get married in their parish church, a right which is irrespective of whether they are baptized or not, whether they believe or not, whether they would call themselves Christians or not, whether the vicar likes them or not, whether they are ready to undergo preparation or not.  So we ask: does the law give a similar “right” to parishioners asking for baptism for their infants?  There are many, both inside and outside the life of the Church, who think the answer is “yes”.

But in fact the answer is “no”.  The Church of England has since the 1960s had power to make its own rules about infant baptism (and baptism, it must be remembered is a biblical sacrament of the gospel of Jesus Christ - unlike marriage, which includes certain requirements of law, and cannot really require elements of faith in Jesus Christ).  This means that an application for baptism by one or both parents of a child will be handled by a wholly church process, one which does not have a possibility of appeal to statute law in relation to “rights” by anyone who is aggrieved.  It is in fact a careful and caring process. 

Process and conditions 

The clergy of any parish are expected by the Canons to receive for baptism children brought them by parishioners (it is less simple for non-parishioners).  There are, however, conditions attached.  These are (perhaps somewhat oddly) set out first of all as requirements of godparents.  The parents should provide at least two godparents of the same sex as the child and one of the other sex, who should be

            i)          baptized and confirmed;

            ii)         such as to fulfil their responsibilities faithfully, by both their care of the child and their example of godly living.

            A different Canon then says that the same responsibilities rest upon the actual parents.  So the conditions are comprehensive. 

Responsibilities and conduct 

The actual baptism should occur within the main Sunday service.  A date need not be fixed at the time of application, as delay is allowed for the parents to be prepared by the clergy to understand the meaning of baptism and to take upon themselves the specifically Christian responsibilities of parenthood.  These are set out in the Common Worship baptism service in questions to the parents and godparents:

           “Will you pray for them, draw them by your example into the community of faith, and walk with them in the way of Christ?”

           “Will you care for them, and help them take their place within the life and worship of Christ’s Church?”

These questions show that in many lives considerable preparation may be needed before the parents can set an “example” of belonging to the community of faith, and can help their children live within the worshipping life of the Church.

These factors may make for “delay”.  But parents who believe they are being improperly delayed may, according to the Canons, appeal to the Bishop.  His decision (after he consults the minister) is then final, and there is no further appeal to Canon or civil law.

1 Please note that this is a very compressed statement.  I originally wrote in 1992 a 16-page Grove Booklet, Infant Baptism in the Church of England, which contained the texts of the Canons of the Church of England and the ASB infant baptism rite on its left-hand pages, and commentary and exposition of these texts on the facing pages.  It is still in print, but the ASB baptismal liturgy is now superseded by Common Worship texts which are somewhat different.  Simultaneously with this publication I am writing a further Grove Booklet, 163 in the Worship Series, Infant Baptism in Common Worship, and this contains the full text of the Canons as well as an exposition of the new baptismal service (and a defence of the principle of infant baptism). 

2 There are limitations in relation to those who have been divorced, who have not the same rights, and, of course, the marriage service used, if the ceremony happens in church, has to be a lawful Church of England one, and therefore fully Christian. 

3 Godparents are not a substitute for parents in the bringing up of children as Christian, though the minister may properly expect to prepare them for their role, and may delay the baptism for this. 

4 There is a similar emphasis in the “Commission” (CW p358). 

5 It is, for instance, unclear whether unmarried parents should be expected to marry each other as part of preparation; and it is not defined as to whether parents ought to be already joining Christian worship themselves if their responses to the questions are to be credible.  But then the Canons also do not say that parents must not be engaged in adultery!  These issues will never be the subject of specific itemization in the Canons, but have to be handled under the general issue of ‘godly living’ required of godparents and parents, reinforced by the questions asked of them in the baptism service.



In a 2009 Ian Robins challenged  what seemed to an authoritative (and wrong) statement of the law.   Click here for response.



Canon Law relating to Initiation    
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