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The Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth, commonly called The Churching of Women

Section Two: The Rite Itself

The Western Tradition

In the following section I want to give an overview of the different elements which the rite contains and show how they have changed.

To give an impression of the medieval tradion of churching I first want to look at a text from the Manuale Eboracense. It contains all the elements typical for the rite in the Roman tradition. The ceremony starts at the church porch where the mother waits for the priest to arrive with two servers carrying candles and holy water. Sometimes the mother held a burning candle too which reminds of the candles used at Candlemas, a liturgical feast closely connected with the churching rite. The priest says a prayer of thanksgiving and asking for eternal life for the mother and two Psalms and then leads her into the church saying a prayer of access. What is of particular interest here is the close connection between the churching rite and sacramental piety. It was common practice in the medieval church that women were encouraged to participate in the sacraments, and especially the sacrament of the mass, to ask for protection in childbirth. Often special masses were read like the Mass of the Blessed Virgin or the Mass of the St. Margaret who was understood as a saint to call upon in the perils of childbirth. In this rite we find a benediction, a blessing with the holy bread during the mass following the churching. This practice is not to be found in the Sarum rite which was the most widely used and later provided one of the sources for the Book of Common Prayer.

In the Missale ad Usum Ecclesiae Sarum the rite is kept very short. It began at the door of the church, ante ostium ecclesiae. There the mother, covered by a veil, knelt and waited for the priest to arrive to say the prayers over her that she may be allowed back into the church. The priest said Psalms 121 and 128 followed by the Gloria Patri and the Kyrie as well as the Our Father, the so-called lesser litany. These were followed by two special prayers for the occasion, one said antiphonally with the woman to be churched and the other a collect which gave thanks for the safe delivery and asked that the mother obtain eternal life. The mother was then sprinkled with holy water, before she was led into the church by the priest who said: 'Enter into the temple of God, that thou mayest have eternal life.'

In the Roman rite this form was more or less maintained until the Second Vatican Council. There the rite was to be performed as soon as possible after the birth of the child [Arx, 65].

As I mentioned earlier the 1549 Prayer Book provides more or less a literal translation of the Sarum rite with only slight alterations. Though the rite is called one of Purification the actual text does not necessarily suggest a ritual impurity of the woman after giving birth. Only the rubrics and the introductory preface were added, while Ps. 128 was omitted. The woman is still mentioned as the one who comes to be purified, not as the one who comes to give thanks. She is to offer the chrisom, a little white cap or cloth given to her child at baptism to protect the annointing given to the child, and other accustomed offerings. Also she is encouraged to take communion at the mass which followed. The rite is moved from the church porch to the nave to a place near the choir door.

Apart from the title the first thing to be changed in the 1552 version was the place where the rite was to be performed. The woman no longer had to kneel outside the church but now was to kneel in a convenient place near the altar. A number of churches had so-called churching or midwife pews where the woman, along with her midwife, was to kneel while the priest said the prayers from the reading pew [Addleshaw 1948, 84]. This simple change of places is in fact a major step forward as it is an outward sign that ritual impurity of a childbearing woman is no longer presumed.

The actual rite itself begins with a preface said by the priest which explains the occasion. The preface is followed by Psalm 121. Concerning the use of psalms in the rite it must be pointed out that they became prayers of the mother alone and were not said by the whole congregation verse and verse about. Psalm 121 is followed by the Gloria Patri and the Kyrie as well as the Our Father. In the latter only the line 'But deliver us from evil' and the Amen are said by the mother. What follows are the responsory prayer and the collect which are the same as in the 1549 prayer book.

The changes are not so much in the actual words of the rite but rather in terms of its circumstances and actions. I have already mentioned the change of the location. The woman is also no longer to come veiled and she is no longer sprinkled with holy water. Before she had to offer the chrisom given to the child at baptism where the mother was normally not present since she was yet unchurched. In the 1552 version of the prayer book the chrisom was no longer given to the child but the value of the chrisom long remained the measure for the amount of money to be offered. There is some debate recorded about the offerings which of course provided an additional source of income for the priest. The American Prayer Book proposed that those offerings should be used for the relief of women in child bed.

Several changes are introduced in the 1661 version of the Book of Common Prayer. These begin in the wording of the introductory rubric where several clarifications are added. The rubric mentions that the woman should come 'at the usual time after her delivery'. There is no uniform opinion about how long this usual time was to be. It was, as a number of other things, very much left to the rule of the local custom. But an average of about four weeks can be assumed.

The demand for the woman to come 'decently apparelled' no longer referred to the veil the woman used to wear but simply meant that she was to come in an attire worthy of the occasion, which, as I mentioned earlier, was one of the major ones in her life. The veil was in fact one of the most disputed aspects of the churching. The puritans saw it as a remainder of Jewish rites of purification while under the reign of James I a woman could still be excommunicated if she demanded to be churched unveiled.

The rubric no longer mentions a particular place where the rite is to be performed but points to local custom or the orders of the priest performing it. This points to wider feature of this rite. One author commented that nowhere else in the Book of Common Prayer was there so much freedom left to the priest. This also pertains to the time when the rite is said. Some had it immediately before the communion or following the prayers or the General Thanksgiving or immediately before the sermon or, as Archdeacon Sharp suggested, after the Nicene Creed, but there is no particular order about it.

The preface remains mainly the same, but Ps. 121 is replaced by Ps 116 or alternatively Ps. 127 which makes a direct reference to children as a gift of God, but is of course written from a man's perspective. The rest of the service remains unchanged. The specific vocation of women is no longer mentioned in the final collect. The 1928 revision of the prayer book did not bring major changes. Two additional prayers were introduced, also a prayer in case of he death of the child and a blessing.

The 1661 version of the prayer book provides the basis for the American Prayer Book of 1789 and its later revisions. Here the rubric points out clearly that the rite is to be used at the discretion of the minister. Psalm 116 is shortened to a hymn which is followed by the usual prayers.

Modern Rites

In the remainder of the present section I want to look at some more modern forms of the rite and compare the Western tradition to similar practices in the Eastern Orthodox church.

The 1979 American Prayer Book presents a rite which is called A Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child. Here the focus of attention shifts again from the mother of the child to the whole family [Hatchett 1980, 443ff]. What is celebrated is the joy over new life which has come to the family by birth or through adoption. The family is seen as part of the whole congregation which welcomes the family in their midst and shares their joy and prays for the new or enlarged family.

The place of the service is a public service, normally the Sunday Eucharist, but others like Morning or Evening Prayer are also possible. The order also allows a shorter celebration to take place either at home or in hospital if there is a case for it.

The 1979 office starts with a preface where the celebrant introduce the occasion and invites the congregation to join into the joy of the family over the new- born child. The rite of adoption also provides a formula for the inauguration of the new relationship between parents and child where both parties are asked for the expression of their mutual acceptance.

What follows is an act of thanksgiving which consists of a choice of psalms or the Magnificat and a prayer of thanksgiving in which the emphasis is not on thanksgiving for a safe delivery but on thanksgiving for the birth of a new child which is the theological focus of the whole service. The Magnificat had been used in several medieval offices before but had never been included in the prayer book rite before.

Several additional optional prayers are offered which include a version of the 1549 thanksgiving for safe delivery, a prayer for the parents and prayers for the baptised or unbaptised child.The office then concludes by a blessing of the whole family and the peace which leads to the parish Eucharist.

The Church of England's Alternative Service Book goes in a similar direction as far as the theological emphasis is concerned. In addition to that the theological focus is expanded to the praise of God as creator. The rite itself had been the topic of some major discussions in the general synod in the 1960s and early 1970s [Jasper 1986, 345]. The decline of the use of the rite of churching, apart from perhaps some odd parishes in the North Midlands, was acknowledged as was the need of the construction for a service of thanksgiving for both parents. 'What is required is a simple Service of Thanksgiving for safe deliverance, and that the child is born normal, coupled with a prayer that the parents may have the guidance of god in the moulding and shaping of the new life that God has entrusted to them' [Synod 1974, 480]. The synod proposed to abolish the churching service altogether and to create a completely new service of Thanksgiving. In the end the synod authorised a formula of three services: a thanksgiving after birth, a thanksgiving after the adoption of a child and a set of prayers after the death of a newly born child or a still-born child. The rites of thanksgiving is encouraged to take place as part of the parish Eucharist but may also be a separate service.

The Eastern Rites

Finally I want to take a quick look at similar tradition of the Eastern orthodox churches. Here we find prayers on three different occasions, a blessing on the day of the birth of the child, the naming of the child on the eighth day after birth and the prayers for mother and child in the church forty days after birth. This is similar to the original praxis of the western church which later merged the three rites into one.

The primary focus is on the mother and her joy about a new child coming into this world. The other theological focus in the rite is on the prayer for forgiveness of sins. Here, as Schmemann points out, it is not the sinfulness of conception or the sinfulness of the individual mother which is concerned, but rather the sinful state of the world into which her child is born [Schmemann 1974, 131-47]. The prayers also mention the pure motherhood of the Theotokos who is specifically asked for her intercession.

On the eighth day after birth the child is given its name, that means that the focus of this second and more liturgical ceremony is on the child. The prayers on this occasion resemble those at the reception of catechumens and are meant to prepare the child for baptism. The naming ceremony is theologically understood as the acknowledgement of the uniqueness of the new child and expresses the church's taking responsibility for the newly born child. The ceremony takes place on the eighth day after birth, with the eighth day being a symbol for the completeness of the kingdom of God.

On the fortieth day after birth mother and child go to church together for the first time. The rite performed then is a mixture, or else a confusion of two originally independent aspects, the first public appearance of the mother after birth and the first visit to the church by a new-born child. If the child is alive a prayer for the child is said first and then a prayer for the mother on the completion of her forty day after which the mother is made worthy again to enter the church. The child is carried through the various parts of the church building where special prayers are said in each part. In the case of a male child the baby is also carried into the sanctuary where the priest says the Nunc Dimittis making the allusion to the presentation of Jesus in the temple on his eighth day. The final form of the rite, as it is celebrated now, suggests mother and child being one, being a family which forms yet another cell of the church.

Section Three: Perspectives for a Re-consideration

In his article 'Purification, Thanksgiving and the Churching of Women' David Cressy writes: 'The churching provides a topic in which liturgy, law and custom come together as part of the recombination of social and traditional history' [Cressy, 107]. Cressy writes this from the point of view of an historian. But Cressy's statement could provide the starting point for a renewed study of liturgical traditions in the context of childbirth which goes beyond the merely historical perspective, but also serves as a basis for a study of both feminist theology and liturgical theology.

First of all one has to state that the historical development of the rite commonly called the churching of women provides an interesting case study in the history of liturgy. It shows how closely together and yet how diverse theological development and popular perception are. The above analysis has hopefully showed that it was not until about the middle of this century that the idea of ritual impurity of women as the basis for such a rite could finally be counted as eliminated and thereby opened the way for a reconstruction of the rite.

It is also a starting point for a study concerning questions of 'women and liturgy'. While the rite of the churching of women is often despised by feminist theologians as a sign of the church's misogyny and not considered worthy of further analysis and while at the same time much feminist theological work on liturgy remains primarily concerned with questions of language Cressy's understanding of the churching as primarily as women's occasion could be the basis for a possible reconsideration. Popular customs like the excessive feasting after the churching of women developed around the liturgical occasion which perhaps itself was developed as a response to popular demand. Though this is not to deny expressions of misogyny in Christian theology or the re-introduction of ideas of female impurity altogether, here may be the core instance of how women at an early stage created their own place in the church's liturgical celebration and found recognition of their own experiences as by no means trivial but worthy of public thanksgiving.

From a feminist point of view I would argue for a new liturgical appreciation of the female experience of giving birth and motherhood as long as it does not presuppose an understanding of motherhood as the only possible female experience. There are a number of examples for feminist rituals for the birth of a child [1] , but I found most of them not very satisfying and therefore argue for a re-consideration of a possible re- interpretation of the old rite of thanksgiving after childbirth. An interesting example of a thanksgiving rite which takes into account some feminist ideas is the Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child of the Uniting Church in Australia. [2]

As I pointed out above historical evidence shows that the churching can in fact be understood as an example of women making liturgical space for themselves and their own experiences, though perhaps despite other original intentions. Yet this 'making of liturgical space' must on the other hand not be overestimated as of course on the liturgical side women remained passive and had no say in how the rite was to be performed or what it contained. Here a reconstruction which builds on the existing rite without denying its value altogether is necessary. Feminist liturgical study not only consists in the writing of new rituals but also in a rediscovery of the roots within the existing Christian tradition. Liturgical theology must on the other hand also be more than the defence of the existing. As I have tried to show for the case of the rite of the churching of women it is to find itself in constant dialogue with the situation of the people it seeks to serve in order to find expressions of worshipping God. Here Christian feminist liturgical theology could learn valuable things from Jewish feminist theology and its theology of reading women into the covenant and thus developing Jewish theology [Plaskow 1990].

We also have to note the shift in the theological understanding of the service. Here especially the results of the discussions in the General Synod of the Church of England are a valuable source. In the Church of England's Alternative Service Book as well as in the 1979 American Prayer Book the existing service was changed to one of thanksgiving and blessing which focused on the whole family including prayers for the parents. Starting from the existence of the perhaps in fact obsolete service of the Churching of Women, we might want to reconsider the need of special prayers for parents. While infant baptism focuses on the child and possibilities of blessings for children who are not baptised as infants are also discussed, such a service would acknowledge the importance of parenthood and place Christian parenthood within the Christian community. While I also strongly favour the practise of baptism in the Sunday morning service as the centre of parish life, what could be taken from the old practice of churching would be its place in the Sunday morning parish Eucharist.

The old practice of thanksgiving for the birth of a child could also theologically point to a closer connection between events of natural life, like the birth of a child, and the life of the church, the parish Eucharist [3].

In this paper I have tried to use the history and development of the rite of Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth, commonly called the Churching of Women as an example for several considerations concerning liturgy and history, liturgy and theology and also liturgy and feminist theology. As I have hopefully made clear I am not trying to argue for a re-instatement of the rite of the Churching of Women as such. In that I disagree with Walter von Arx who writes that the only thing in favour of the rite is tradition. While I strongly disagree with such a static understanding of tradition, I do agree with his argument that the fact that the ritual impurity of women is widely forgotten could lead to a situation 'where a specific blessing could be introduced which would constitute a genuine act of thanksgiving' [Arx, 71]. The argument I have been trying to make is for an understanding of liturgy not as a defence of the existing or tradition as such, but as in the constant process of responding to the need of worshipping God and finding expressions for the latter which reflect and appreciate the experience of the people liturgy is meant to serve. This is no less true for feminist liturgical study if it understands itself as both reworking the existing tradition and finding ways of worship which respond to the need of worshipping God who transcends both sex and gender and whose being is at the same time expressed in both male and female ways.

Natalie Knödel, University of Durham. April 1995

Hypertext markup provided by Michael Fraser, CTI Textual Studies, University of Oxford
Copyright © 1995, Natalie Knödel. All Rights Reserved

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