Birth celebration without religion offered: Andrew Brown looks at an alternative to baptism for parents who do not want a church ceremony

A NEW non-religious ceremony celebrating the birth of a child has been launched to replace baptism for the atheist and agnostic families of the 1990s.

Lord Young of Dartington, who, as Michael Young, started the Consumers' Association and the Open University, said yesterday that the new rite he was proposing would concentrate on the parents' duties to the child. It would be suitable for unmarried couples, or for single parents.

'There have been very few proposals about how to reassert family values in a practical way. More and more children are being born without the significance of their births being publicly recognised.'

The old religious rites of passage were no longer much used and might no longer be available to many people. One-third of all births in Britain were now to cohabiting couples, Lord Young said. Only 27 per cent of babies born are now baptised into the Church of England and a further 14 per cent into the Roman Catholic Church.

Three ceremonies will be contained in a book to be published next month. They have all been tried, one in a private house; one in a church hall; and one in a Polish restaurant in Leeds.

At one of the cermonies, the parents were asked: 'Will you shelter and protect your sons for as long as they have need of you? Will you surround them with affection and love? And will you support and encourage them in times of trouble and make as sure as you can that no harm befalls them?' This service need not be for the naming of infant children: it could just as well be used to welcome adoptive children or step-children into a new family. 'We just hope that the people who go in for this will be a little more closely bonded and a little less likely to break up.'

The organisation founded to promote these cermonies, the Family Covenant Association, based in Pershore, Worcestershire, is proposing other measures to strengthen cohabiting unions. Lord Young will introduce in the Lords, and Frank Field, a noted Anglican MP, in the Commons, Bills to extend parental responsibility automatically to fathers who put their names on the child's birth certificate.

The Bills' sponsors have also written to Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health, asking that a leaflet explaining the present legal position be placed in register offices, so that unmarried fathers who want to take legal responsibility for their children know the legal steps they must take to achieve this.

Lord Young said that the 75 per cent of unmarried fathers who signed their children's birth certificates probably thought they were acquiring legal rights and responsibilities by that step alone.

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