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Church of Ireland Synod: No admonition of clerics refusing to baptise children born out of wedlock

24 May 2024

Tim Wyatt reports from the Church of Ireland Synod in Armagh

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THE Synod declined an opportunity to admonish clergy who refused to baptise children born out of wedlock, on Friday evening, when it voted down a private member’s motion.

The motion from Dr Patricia Barker (Dublin & Glendalough) stated that priests must not refuse or unduly delay the baptism of an infant on the grounds of the marital status of the child’s parents.

Before Dr Barker could introduce her motion, however, an attempt was made to rule it out of order as contravening common law. The Archdeacon of Dromore, the Ven. Mark Harvey (Down & Dromore), quoted Canon 26, which said that if a priest refused to baptise a child, the parents could apply to the bishop for a resolution. Archdeacon Harvey said that this created a constitutional right for clerics to deny or delay baptism according to their conscience. He suggested that Dr Barker’s motion would contravene this right, as well as disregard the authority of the bishop to resolve such disputes.

The Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd John McDowell, as president of the Synod, ruled that the motion did not contravene the meaning of Canon 26. He did, however, note that the motion did not have any power to affect the discipline of baptism, which was controlled by the liturgy and by Canon 26. These could not be changed except by a separate synodical process, through a two-year Bill. He also informed the Synod that when the motion was put to the vote it would be by orders, with a 50-per-cent majority needed among both the clergy and the lay members.

Introducing her motion, Dr Barker said that there had been several accounts of priests’ refusing to baptise children born out of wedlock, or to single parents in recent years. Her motion asked the Synod to affirm what she believed was already part of canon law regarding the baptism of infants.

Quoting the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Williams, she said that the Church’s law must be consistent and clear. If some babies in certain parishes could not be baptised because their mothers were unmarried, that was neither consistent nor equitable, she argued. She also quoted the Anglican Communion’s Principles of Canon Law, which state that “no minister may without lawful cause refuse or unduly delay baptism of a child in their cure, whose parents or guardians desire baptism.”

The motion was seconded by Lynn Wright (Kilmore, Elphin & Ardagh), who said that she was “passionate” about the rights of children born out of wedlock, and was saddened some were denied the “sacrament of baptism”. “Jesus would not have refused a baby baptism,” she said.

Lucy Michael (Dublin & Glendalough) said that baptism did not simply initiate children into the Church, but also worked to cleanse them of original sin. “A child’s innocence is only guaranteed in our faith through baptism,” she reminded the Synod. How, then, could any child be refused baptism? The Early Church baptised entire households, without reference to gender, parentage, or marital status. As the child of non-believing parents, she had herself been baptised only thanks to her grandmother and a priest who gad asked no questions about her parents. A child turned away by a parish before being able even to walk or talk would never return to church, she warned.

Joe Deverell (Meath & Kildare), backing the motion, said that, even if it required two years of Bills to amend the canons, the Synod should do it. “Just remember, none of us got to choose who our parents were.”

Canon David Gillespie (Dublin & Glendalough) said that he was troubled that such a motion was required, as no parish he knew would refuse any child baptism. “We should welcome all families that come, whatever shape that family takes,” he said.

The Revd Sam Johnston (Down) said that, while the motion came from good pastoral motives, it would upset the delicate balance between pastoral care and theological doctrine. The existing regulations offered a pathway for clergy to navigate complex baptismal issues, trusting their wisdom and discernment, he argued. Refusal of baptism was not prohibited by the Church.

The Revd Mark Lennox (Down & Dromore) said that he had never refused any child baptism in 15 years of ministry, but still had doubts over the motion, which, he feared, might bring clergy into conflict with their ordination vows.

Janet Bray (Tuam, Limerick & Killaloe) announced that she had been born out of wedlock in 1953, in an Ireland that was very hostile to unmarried mothers. Despite this, her mother had had her baptised before she was given up for adoption. “I could not imagine a Church that would refuse any child baptism, or any woman the comfort of that,” she concluded, receiving a long round of applause.

Joy Little (Kilmore, Elphin & Ardagh) told the Synod how two of her grandsons had been born close together, and were baptised together, despite one having unmarried parents. Had the rector had refused to baptise the boy born out of wedlock, she was confident, her entire family would have left the Church.

The Revd Catherine Simpson (Down & Dromore) said that baptism was offered to infants on the presumption that their parents would bring them up in the church fellowship and teaching of the gospel. That was why parents were asked serious questions in the liturgy about submitting to Christ as Lord. “I’m concerned that we need to be really clear about what we’re asking people to commit to,” she said. The motion was asking clerics like her to baptise “without due diligence”, which could be “pastorally reckless”. She would vote against the motion.

Phyllis Grothier (Cashel, Ferns & Ossory) said that nothing in the motion would take away a priest’s ability to have conversations with parents before and after baptism and expect an ongoing relationship with the Church. Baptism of babies created brilliant opportunities for outreach, she argued.

Responding to the debate, Dr Barker told the Synod about her time working at a rape crisis centre, and helping a woman who had fallen pregnant after a rape. She carried the baby to full term, and approached a rector for baptism, fearful and uncertain about the response that she would have. But the priest listened without judgement, without asking whether she was married to the baby’s father, and simply accepted her and her baby. “He did more for her healing journey in one afternoon than we have done in months of therapy with her. That is the Church that I want to belong to.”

The motion was lost by 69-72 among the clergy, and 144-83 among the laity.

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