Article from Spring 2006 Taonga magazine

(pages 36 &37) - copied onto this site with permission

Baptism and marriage: a necessary union?

Edward Prebble agonizes over the canons

What would you do? A couple came to me and asked me to take their wedding. She was known to me, as she had been to Sunday school and youth group over the years and wanted to be married in “her church”. However, because of strong opposition by her mother, she had never been baptised. The groom came from a totally non-church background and had certainly not been baptised.

I looked up the canons, and was reminded of my obligation to ascertain that at least one of the parties is baptised or desiring to be baptised. The bride did not want to be baptised, as she felt that would be cheapening the sacrament of baptism. I knew I could not go to the Bishop, as he doesn’t have the right to tell me to break the canons of the church.

I discussed it with a number of colleagues, and discovered that nearly all of them have, from time to time, found themselves in a similar position. Either they find that pastoral considerations make them want to bend the rules, or they decide not to ask the question.

One Evangelical colleague found that he had to turn down worshipping parishioners from families who are uncomfortable with the practice of infant baptism, and accept people who were brought to the church as babies but have not darkened the doors of the place in the 30 years since. So I took the wedding, and a very fine, happy, Christian ceremony it was. The couple are still together and keep some contact with the church. I’m sure I made the right decision. But I broke the law.

Two years ago, General Synod agreed to set up a commission to investigate this question. That group found absolute agreement on the teaching of the church; there are excellent grounds for regarding baptism as the qualification for a wedding in church.

But as we shared our pastoral experience, there was a huge range of practice. In Tikanga Pasefika, especially in parts of Fiji where the interface with non-Christian religions is so important, the church insists that both parties are baptised. In Tikanga Maori, where the great majority of young people from Anglican families are baptised, it would be very rare for an exception to be made. But every Tikanga Pakeha priest of any seniority has found her/himself having to weigh up immediate pastoral issues against the law of the church.

So the commission brought back to synod this year aproposal that would allow exceptions to be made.

There was strong debate, but the argument that won out was that there needs to be some mechanism to allow us to make exceptions when they are justified.

It was agreed that General Synod is not the right place to judge issues of pastoral practice – those questions need to be decided as near as possible to the actual situation, with the officiating priest and with the bishop. So the new canon allows exceptions to be made “in unusual pastoral circumstances in consultation with the appropriate Episcopal authority.”

Will this open up floodgates of applications from non-Christian folk who just want to use our pretty churches? I doubt it; I have confronted this situation only once in 22 years of parish ministry.

But it is good that General Synod decided that we could trust our bishops and priests to work out how to administer our rules sensitively, so that good outcomes can follow. After all, we all believe in Christian marriage, at a time when large sections of our society do not. It’s unwise for us to put unnecessary barriers in the way of couples who are asking us to be involved with them at such an important stage of their lives.

A response by Bosco Peters to this article
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