Filling in the Baptism Register

This morning I had an e-conversation with Gavin Collins, the Archdeacon of the Meon in Portsmouth Diocese, on the legalities around the decision to enter two mothers in the baptism register. He kindly agreed to share publicly his thinking around the decision to have two mothers recorded.

Picture © Portsmouth Diocese

Picture © Portsmouth Diocese

While it would not be appropriate for me to go into the personal circumstances of the couple involved in this case, I was happy to be able to confirm that there was not a father whose name appeared on the birth certificate or who had any other legal or other parental rights over the child. One of the women was the child’s birth mother, and so clearly should be entered as “mother” in the baptism register. The other partner has formal co-parental rights and responsibilities that have been recognised by the courts and social services, and so while she had not formally co-adopted the child, I was satisfied that there were formal parental rights that were sufficient to make it appropriate for her also to be entered as “mother” in the baptism register.

To my mind, the fact of the women having a civil partnership would not have been of itself sufficient to enable the 2nd woman to be properly described as “mother” – that would technically make her “step-mother” as the civil partnership carries the same legal status as a marriage – but the fact that she has formal co-parental responsibility recognised by the courts and there was in this case no legal father, present or absent, was the decisive factor.

Although the baptism hasn’t yet taken place, my understanding is that the register will be filled in with the name of the second mother in the space marked “Father”, but with the prefix “Mother: ” first. This practice would mean that the second mother was not appearing “in place of the father” but rather as an accurate description of the family setup.

The Archdeacon, a solicitor before ordination, was keen to point out that before he agreed this arrangement he did inquire whether there was a known father with any parental rights. If that had been the case then he very likely might have offered a different direction to the parish. It was also mentioned that the fact that the couple were in a civil partnership was not a deciding factor – a woman who enters into a civil partnership with a biological mother becomes the de facto “step-mother” to the child, but that does not bring with it automatic legal rights. However, in this case it was clear to the Archdeacon that there were formal parental rights for the non biological mother which meant it was reasonable to enter her name in the register.

This, the first case of its kind in Portsmouth Diocese, raises some interesting issues for the Church of England. As Archbishop Justin pointed out answering a question at the opening of the Evangelical Alliance’s new building, we are in a new context in the 21st Century and we need to work out how to adapt to that. That doesn’t mean that we change our doctrine, but it does mean, like the generation before us working out how to interact with divorced and step-families, we need to understand how the local parish deals with the new kind of family relationships that are emerging, especially those that have statutory backing.