In developing policy about the kind and level of access that ought to be provided to Baptismal, Marriage, and Burial Registers, it is important to think about the expectations people have in giving the information necessary to complete these registers. They do so because we request this information when we are preparing to provide the sacrament or rite they are seeking. These individuals then expect us to treat this information with care. Indeed, in debates at the General Council Executive in 1992 and 1993 and at the 35th General Council in 1994 about whether to permit The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to microfilm the Baptism, Marriage, and Burial Registers found in the Central Archives, the word “trust” was used in relation to the information in these Registers, e.g., “individuals have ‘entrusted us’ with this information.” Some information found in the Registers may be available in other ways, depending upon the particular information, the inquirer, and the length of time since the event recorded in the Register occurred. Some of it would not readily be found elsewhere.
Who would be likely to make requests for information found in a congregation’s registers? Most requests fall into one of three categories. First, an individual may need proof that an event took place at a particular time. For example, an individual may need to prove that he or she was married on a particular date to a particular person, and so they ask to see and to make a copy of the relevant entry or they ask some church official to make this copy for them. Second, an individual doing genealogical research wants to go through these Registers as part of gleaning the information necessary to further their work. Third, individuals, groups, or institutions may wish to copy entire Registers for any of a number of possible purposes, e.g., collecting large amounts of genealogical data for commercial reasons, an academic project, or to aid in the religious rituals of another faith tradition.
Guidelines Already Established by the United Church
In the early 1990s, in response to the requests noted above of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to microfilm the Baptism, Marriage, and Burial Registers in the United Church Archives, the United Church determined that it would not allow such microfilming by this religious tradition. The decision was re-affirmed by the General Council Executive in the late 1990s. While a particular concern at the time of those debates was the use that would be made of the records by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the spirit of the decision was that we needed to respect, and to hold with trust and care, the information individuals have given to us. At the 1994 General Council, it was also proposed that those bodies holding such records elsewhere in the church be encouraged not to permit wholesale copying of these records for the same reason.
In light of these decisions, any request to copy entire Registers, by any individual or group and by whatever means, should be denied unless and except there exists a legal obligation to provide the said records. This guideline includes organizations like ancestry.ca.
Best Practices for Other Requests
Since congregations receive requests for access to their records from time to time, what would be some best practices in responding to such requests? Specific guidelines are provided in the last section of this document about how to respond to requests, but it helpful to think about the kinds of requests congregations and other bodies holding these Registers receive.
Sometimes a request will come by e-mail, telephone, or letter, asking the minister or a designated church administrator or official to provide a copy of a record where the individual making the request was involved in the particular sacrament or rite for which a certified transcript of the record is being requested. Such requests should be fulfilled to the extent possible given the time and resources of the person who would respond to such requests. It is permissible for a congregation to charge a fee for the provision of a copy of such a record.
Sometimes an individual will come in person asking for such a record. Ideally, a congregation would have someone—the minister, a member of the staff, or a volunteer—who would look through the Register or Registers involved and provide the necessary document. Again, it is permissible for a congregation to charge a fee for such a service.
Sometimes an individual doing genealogical research will ask to be able to go through all of a congregation’s Baptism, Marriage, and Burial Registers in that individual’s quest for information about the members of a particular family. It is important to note that in such cases the individual should have access only to the individual’s own records or to the records of family members who are deceased. They cannot have access to the records of any person, even a family member, who is still alive without the expressed, written consent of such individuals. Therefore, no individual should be given unsupervised access to these Registers; readily available technology (e.g., a cell phone) enables a full copy of these Registers to be made very quickly. Ideally, the congregation’s representative handling such requests would ask the individual for the name(s) about which information was desired, and that representative or a delegate would go the Registers and compile the desired the relevant information, bearing in mind the above strictures about the records of persons who are still alive. Another approach, which is more time-consuming but would also be acceptable, would be to allow the individual to go through the Registers while under the supervision of an observer from the congregation. Again, a congregation is permitted to charge a fee for this service.