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


Placed between the Rite for the Burial of the Dead, the Commination and the Prayers to be Used at Sea among the Occasional Offices in the back of the Book of Common Prayer we find a short rite which bears the rather long title: The Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth, commonly called the Churching of Women. Though its practise has mainly died out in the past years, the rite has survived all major prayer book reforms and is also, though in a modified form, to be found in the 1979 version of the American Prayer Book and in the Alternative Service Book. More recently historians have noted the lack of scholarly work on this topic. In the context of my own theological work, that of feminist theology, I often find it all too quickly despised as yet another expression of the church's misogyny. It is understood as an expression of the common understanding of women, and especially women who give birth, as defiling and ritually impure. But as a more detailed study of the rite itself and its history shows, the case is more sophisticated than that.

In the first part of the following paper I want to look at the history and significance of the rite in different contexts. In the middle section I want to look at the rite itself and its different parts, before, in the final section of this paper, I want to propose some theses for a contemporary re-consideration of the Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth. I want to take the historical and liturgical study of this rite as the basis for some suggestions for a feminist reconstruction of liturgical tradition. In this paper it seems best to concentrate on the Western tradition and to use the Eastern tradition, where the rite is far more prominent and more widely used than in the West, mainly for reasons of comparison.

Section One: Development and Historical Background of the Rite

The idea that a woman who has recently given birth is to be set apart and then re-introduced into religious and social life by means of a special rite is not a specifically Western, let alone Christian, idea. While the amount of time for which a childbearing woman is set apart varies from two to 200 days, such rites are found in a number of cultures. Two reasons are most likely for this common practice: On the one hand all things having to do with birth and death, in other words with life as such, are understood as awe-inspiring and causing fear. On the other hand we have to take into account a far more practical reason too: in a rural or agricultural society this could also be a simple means of protection for the new mother who would otherwise have been put back to work within a short period of time after giving birth [Marshall 1989, 51]. It is quite impressive to see what a considerable amount of protection was given for pregant woman in the Middle Ages, going as far as pregant women being exempt from fasting and the beating of a pregnant woman being subject to ecclesial punishment [Franz 1909, 188]. It is therefore not much of a surprise that the church also provided a specific rite for childbearing mothers.

William Coster suggests that because of the ubiquity of the rite one could presume its origins as a response to popular beliefs rather than as an originally Christian invention [Coster 1990, 377]. Keith Thomas in his important book Religion and the Decline of Magic argues in a similar direction when he says that it would be a fairer view to understand the ritual as the result of superstitious popular opinions rather than as its cause [Thomas 1971, 43].

The biblical background for a Christian practise of the rite is to be found in Leviticus 12 where a woman who gives birth to a son is counted as ritually unclean for 40 days and for twice as long after the birth of a female child. After that period of purification she is to go to the temple and bring the required offerings for the priest to make atonement for her. The distinction between the birth of a male or a female child is not maintained in the Western tradition while in the Eastern tradition only a male child is carried behind the iconostasis at the performance of the rite on the fortieth day after childbirth [Franz, 222].

In Luke chapter 2 it is recorded that the Virgin Mary also followed this custom of bringing her new-born son into the temple and being purified, one of the texts also read at the celebration of Candlemas which in the past also provided an annual occasion to preach about the need for women to follow the custom of churching.

In the Jewish tradition we find rites of naming and a rite of the child being taken to the synagogue for the first time. On the next occasion after the birth of the child the father of the child is asked to read the Torah in the synagogue, something which is practised to mark special occasions in the life of individuals. A woman is considered ritually unclean until her purification in the mikvah, the ritual bath which is also used for the purification of menstruating women as well as in the case of proselytes and those who had been in contact with the dead.

While it is assumed that similar customs must have existed earlier, the rite of purification of a mother after childbirth did not find its way into prayer books of the Western Church until about the eleventh century. Prior to the eleventh century there was the custom of the mother having to wait for being able to attend church after childbirth but no ritual expression of her return [Arx 1979, 65]. The custom that both the mother and the new-born child come to church together and have prayers said over them is much older. Yet as a particularly Christian rite it could only develop in the context of infant baptism. The earliest prayers for the occasion are those taken from either the marriage rite, the blessing of the bride or the marriage bed or they resemble prayers for the sick without specifically mentioning pregnancy and birth [Franz, 190]. These were performed in the house of the mother and are distinct from the reintroduction of the church. This distinction is maintained in the Eastern Tradition. Various popular rituals developed around childbirth, among these the cult of St. Anna, the mother of the Virgin Mary and the custom of placing little pieces of paper with blessings written on them on the womb of the mother. Originally the rite meant a 'churching' of the child rather than focusing on the mother as does the one we are studying. Some remainders of this tradition are to be found in the Prayers for the Mother and Child Forty Days after Birth, an occasion which is celebrated in the Orthodox church up to the present day.

Yet we know that the question whether a mother who had given birth recently should enter the church or not has been debated long before the eleventh century. The most prominent example is Pope Gregory the Great's letter to Augustine of Canterbury, as we find it in the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England. Augustine had asked among a number of other questions: 'how long after she has brought forth, may she come into the church? and then adds in the end: 'All which things are requisite to be known by the rude nation of the English.' Gregory answers that even if she came the very hour after giving birth she was not committing a sin, but rather forbidding her to come would turn the punishment she was bearing for the sin of Eve into a crime. But the Christian tradition is not clear and uniform on this question. It seems that Gregory remained an exception and traditions like those of the penitentials which strongly suggested the need for purification became more influential. In the fourth century Hippolytus records that a mother who had just given birth was to be seated among the catechumens. Emperor Leo in 460 forbade women to take communion within 40 days after the delivery, but did not count it as a grave sin, if they did in case of emergency [Stephens 1854, 1751f].

As I mentioned earlier from about the eleventh century onwards rites of purification are to be found in liturgical books. Other than in the Eastern tradition, where mother and child are seen as one unit, the attention in the Anglican tradition and its predecessors shifts to the mother alone. The child does not get a mention in the rite and was usually brought to church by the father or the midwife, but neither the father nor the child had to be there necessarily. As typical example I want us to take a closer look at the Missale ad Usum Ecclesiae Sarum, mainly because it provided one of the main sources for the Book of Common Prayer. Here we find something called the Benedictio mulieris post partum, ante ostium ecclesiae. Though it is called a benedictio what we find here, after prayers for pregnant and labouring women, is a rite of purification as the beginning of the ceremony at the church door and the use of holy water show clearly. While there are hardly any parallels in the continental reformed tradition [Schmidt 1989, 108], the rite is slightly altered and translated into English for the 1549 prayer book where it is simply called The Ordre of the Purification of Women. Keith Thomas sees it as 'another semi-magical ceremony which the Anglican church seemed reluctant to discard' [Thomas, 68]. The major shift in the tradition happened in the development of the 1552 prayer book where any notion of purification is dropped and the rite is renamed 'The Thankesgiving of Women after Child-birth, commonly called the Churchynge of Women. This marks a clear shift in the theological concept of the rite. Yet, the shift was to remain mainly theological. It is quite evident that in popular perception the superstitious belief that a woman should keep away from both church and society was retained. The rite became a very prominent subject of controversy for the Puritans who on the one hand saw the rite as smelling of the Jewish law of purification, as they expressed it in the 1570 Admonition to the Parliament and as a remainder of the popery on the other. They questioned the need to see something as natural as the birth of a child as a reason worthy of special thanksgiving. One of them pointed out that if we would take everything as an occasion for prayer and thanksgiving we would be praying all the time and there would be no time left to work. Richard Hooker, not without wit, replied: 'Surely better to be like unto those heretics which do nothing but pray, than those which do nothing else but quarrel' [Hooker 1836, 554].

For those mainly concerned the practice of churching was by far not an imposition of the male church on women, but something sought after by women themselves. It was not only understood as the restoration of a woman to church and society after a time of isolation, but also as a welcome occasion for excessive feasting with her 'gossips'. Cressy points out that women actually looked forward to churching as a social occasion, a collective female occasion, the conclusion of the month of privilege after childbirth [Cressy 1993, 110]. For men it marked the end of a month during which they had to take care of the domestic affairs, commonly referred to as the 'gander month' [Cressy, 114]. And it was after all a ceremony which focused on the mother herself, not on her husband or the child, a ceremony which acknowledged her labours and the perils of childbirth. 'In its customary operation it was her occasion, even if the church strove repeatedly to make it theirs'[Cressy, 146].

Such an interpretation shows that it is in fact necessary to reconsider the significance of the rite of churching, before one all too quickly despises it as primarily misogynist. Yet, that should not diminish the significance of the popular perception which, despite major theological changes made to the rite, until considerably recently retained some notion of purification. Here we see how theology and popular perception can in fact differ. But an understanding of the rite of churching as a women's rite can provide the basis for a re-interpretation which understands childbirth as an important, and despite the achievements of modern medicine, still dangerous enterprise, where in fact help and prayer, and as a consequence thanksgiving, is needed. It could also point to the fact that, along with the emphasis on the child in baptism, parents need the prayer and the blessing of the church community too. Later the presence of the woman's husband at her churching was encouraged and for example in the Revised Roman Rite which omitted the churching rite altogether we find a blessing of the parents at the end of the baptismal rite.

But the Puritan criticisms also deserve some attention for a reconsideration of the rite. Despite the misogyny inherent to Puritanism, which cannot be denied, what is proposed here is an understanding of sexuality, and in this case female sexuality, as something natural and in fact by no means defiling [Coster, 141]. But this does not mean that the occasion of childbirth is not one worthy of thanksgiving and blessing.

The importance of the rite as far as popular perception is concerned becomes most evident through the fact that during the Interregnum, when the prayer book was forbidden, women still secretly continued to seek out ministers to perform the rite for them. The use of the rite was restored after the Interregnum. Cressy states that after the restoration it almost became a test of conformity to ecclesiastical discipline [Cressy, 141]. An increasing number of Non-Conformists refused to be churched. After the exhaustion of the reformation controversies the practise of the rite started to become increasingly insignificant which led to its ultimate decline. It also found its way into the American Prayer Book of 1786.

A number of special cases are to be mentioned here. The rite could normally only be done to a woman who had given birth legitimately. If she had conceived out of wedlock she was forced to repent in front of the whole congregation, preferably on a Sunday, before she could be churched. According to common custom the rite was also performed when the child was still-born or had died immediately after birth. This shows that the focus of the rite was on the mother who had given birth, not on the child or the father. While the churching was normally performed by a priest in the parish church there were exceptions of women being churched at home or even by their husbands, but there were normally a number of objections to these anomalities. There are also records of a debate whether a woman who had died in giving birth should be buried on the church graveyard if she had died unchurched. Popular custom occasionally had another woman undergoing the ceremony for the woman who had died, but such practice was not favoured by the church. It was eventually decided that an unchurched woman could be buried, but in a number of cases they were burried in a special part of the graveyard and superstitious belief had it that women betwen 15 and 45 were not supposed to be going to that particular part of the graveyard [Franz, 241].

Go to Section Two: The Rite Itself

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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