The ancient ceremony of the Churching of Women is no longer used in the Anglican Communion.

In recent years, the Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child has replaced it. These prayers are said during a Sunday service, which involves the whole family.

In the 20th century, both feminists and clergy objected to the Churching of Women which they believed denigrated women, suggesting the necessity for personal purification and supplication.

However, a two-part essay from 1995 by Natalie Knödel from Durham University questions whether postmodernists really grasped the ceremony’s significance. Whilst she acknowledges that it could be construed as being devised by men as a statement about women’s sin dating from Eve, her research has uncovered that, centuries ago, women considered it as their day to celebrate with each other.

Those who are interested in Church history and traditions or in women’s relationship with the Church will find Knödel’s essay ‘The Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth, commonly called the Churching of Women’ of interest: parts 1 and 2.

As I mentioned at the end of last week in my Candlemas post, Mary went to the Temple 40 days after giving birth to Jesus. This was after her ritual purification as mandated in Leviticus and Exodus. After her ritual bath — mikvah — on the appropriate day, she could once again be accepted into the Temple for public worship. However, the infant Jesus also had to be presented at the Temple on the same day. Joseph accompanied both; he might have been asked to read from the Torah. Whilst Catholics put the emphasis of February 2 on Mary, Protestants who commemorate the feast day place more importance on Jesus’s Presentation.

From the example of the Holy Family, it would appear that today’s brief ceremony of the Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child is truer to St Luke’s Gospel (Luke 2) than the Churching of Women which came about centuries later.

Knödel tells us that sequestering a woman who had given birth and welcoming her back into society was and, in some cases, a part of cultures around the world. Childbirth, then and now, is still fraught with risk for millions of women and newborns. It is something which men fear; only recently have they been encouraged to be present in Western delivery rooms. (Watching a film of an actual childbirth as I did at university is a harrowing experience. You’ll either really want children or be put off for life — no pun intended. It is bloody and gory for some and ‘absolutely beautiful’ for others.) Therefore, some societies designate a specific day on which they reintegrate the mother into daily life. This means they can work in the fields or tend house once again.

With regard to Europe and Christianity of the Middle Ages, Knödel points out that the Church had laws in place to protect pregnant women. Expectant mothers were relieved of the obligation to fast and anyone who beat them was subject to ecclesiastical punishment.

In the early Church up to the Middle Ages, prayers during a service involving a newborn focussed on the churching of the child rather than the mother. Often this was part of the christening ceremony. However, privately at home, various prayers and rituals revolved around the mother’s safe delivery. Some of these prayer sessions involved intercessions to St Anne, Mary’s mother. Other women prayed that St Margaret of Antioch — patron saint of childbirth — intercede. It was not uncommon for women in these home prayer groups to place small written blessings on the womb of the mother.

Meanwhile, during this era of home ceremonies, clergy were debating the day when new mothers should reappear in church. Augustine of Canterbury asked Pope Gregory the Great for his advice on the matter. The Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of England records that Pope Gregory — in a minority of clergy — believed that sternly forbidding the woman to return to church before a certain time would intimate that she was personally guilty of Eve’s sin, thereby turning this sequestration period into a punishment. A more usual tack taken by clergy and emperors was to forbid their presence for 40 days and grant a home visit for Communion only if the women were very ill or dying. Others allowed the women to appear in church but seated with unbaptised enquirers — catechumens — meaning that they could not receive Communion.

Around the 11th century, receiving mothers back into the church was codified as a separate ceremony. Clergy developed various rules, including a special pew — ‘churching seat’ —  where the women sat or placement at the entrance of the church (in the back, separate from husband and family) and a certain type of veil for them to wear. Where mothers were allowed to receive Holy Communion, some churches set aside a certain part of the altar rail for them.

Once the rite was codified, it focussed on the mother, not the child. In pre-Reformation England, the Sarum Missal was widely used. Whilst called a ‘benediction’, the Sarum rite for the churching of women started with a purification ritual whereby the priest sprinkled or placed holy water on the woman. She stood outside of the church whilst he did this. Once the holy water was administered, she could then go inside.

During the Reformation, the holy water element was dispensed with as it was seen as a ‘magical’ Catholic superstition. However, the earliest editions of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer retained most of the Sarum rite. The Puritans later objected to the Churching of Women, asking why childbirth was so special and, interestingly, why prayers should be said on every occasion.

Therefore, during the Interregnum (Cromwell’s rule between Charles I’s beheading and Charles II’s Restoration in the 17th century), the Puritans banned the Book of Common Prayer and with it the Churching of Women. By that time, however, the ceremony had become a traditional event which women enjoyed. It was a ‘girls’ day out’, because the father and baby were not necessarily required to attend church on that day. This meant that the mother and her lady friends — ‘gossips’ (a corruption of Godspeaks) or ‘goodies’ (goodwomen) — could go to church and celebrate afterwards, probably at someone’s home.  Given that information, it comes as no surprise when Knödel reveals that it was common for women in Puritan times to ask an Anglican priest to perform the ceremony in secret.

Two years into the Restoration, Charles II issued a new edition of the Book of Common Prayer. Anglicans still use his 1662 version today. It includes the Churching of Women. Puritans who were still in England at the time refused to have their women churched, running the risk of church discipline. Yet, even the Anglicans who went to the American colonies included the rite in their Prayer Book of 1789. It remained in subsequent Amerian editions until 1979, when it was replaced with A Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child.

As stated above, the Anglican Communion has returned to a set of prayers and Psalms which focus on the child, as Candlemas does on February 2 with the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple. The Roman Catholic church includes a prayer of blessing for the family as part of the baptismal ceremony.

Whether the emphasis lay on the mother or child, the Church has recognised God in creating human life, His goodness in granting a safe delivery and thanksgiving that He preserves both the life of the mother and child.

At this point, you might be wondering what happened where births out of wedlock or where the deaths of mother or child were involved.  Where the old rite of the Churching of Women was concerned, Knödel writes that unmarried mothers were required to appear in church and confess their sin of fornication before being churched. A mother could still be churched even if her newborn had since died; the ceremony focussed on the mother, not the child. In the event that the mother died, whilst some churches allowed a substitute lady to be churched in the mother’s place, the Church of England frowned on the practice. Although interred in the church graveyard, unchurched mothers were sometimes buried in a section apart from other church members and women of childbearing age — 15 to 45 — were instructed not to enter that part of the cemetery.

In closing, what follows are excerpts of the 1662 prayers and Psalms for the Churching of Women. Note how thanksgiving is very much a part of the ceremony — and the ‘quiver full’ verse in Psalm 127:

The Woman, at the usual time after her Delivery, shall come into the Church decently apparelled, and there shall kneel down in some convenient place, as hath been accustomed, or as the Ordinary shall direct: And then the Priest shall say unto her,
FORASMUCH as it hath pleased Almighty God of his goodness to give you safe deliverance, and hath preserved you in the great danger of Child-birth: you shall therefore give hearty thanks unto God …

(Then shall the Priest say the 116th Psalm.) Dilexi quoniam.

I AM well pleased: that the Lord hath heard the voice of my prayer;
      That he hath inclined his ear unto me: therefore will I call upon him as long as I live.
      The snares of death compassed me round about: and the pains of hell gat hold upon me.
      I found trouble and heaviness, and I called upon the Name of the Lord: 0 Lord, I beseech thee, deliver my soul.
      Gracious is the Lord, and righteous: yea, our God is merciful.
      The Lord preserveth the simple: I was in misery, and he helped me.
      Turn again then unto thy rest, 0 my soul: for the Lord hath rewarded thee …

Or, Psalm 127. Nisi Dominus.

EXCEPT the Lord build the house: their labour is but lost that build it.
      Except the Lord keep the city: the watchman waketh but in vain.
      It is but lost labour that ye haste to rise up early, and so late take rest, and eat the bread of carefulness: for so he giveth his beloved sleep.
      Lo, children and the fruit of the womb: are an heritage and gift that cometh of the Lord.
      Like as the arrows in the hand of the giant: even so are the young children.
      Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed when they speak with their enemies in the gate …

Minister. Let us pray.

ALMIGHTY God, we give thee humble thanks for that thou hast vouchsafed to deliver this woman thy servant from the great pain and peril of Child-birth: Grant, we beseech thee, most merciful Father, that she, through thy help, may both faithfully live, and walk according to thy will, in this life present; and also may be partaker of everlasting glory in the life to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Woman, that cometh to give her thanks, must offer accustomed offerings; and, if there be a Communion, it is convenient that she receive the holy Communion

The mother’s offering to the church was generally the cap or alb (robe) in which her child was christened.