Sunday, November 28, 2010

Churching after Childbirth

 And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, "Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, 'If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity she shall be unclean.... And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled. 
--Leviticus 12:1-4

The entire chapter of Leviticus 12 is devoted to the rite of purifying women after childbirth. The issue of blood made a woman unclean, and an offering of a lamb (or two turtledoves) had to be made before she could re-enter the sanctuary. With the coming of Christ, ceremonial laws like this one (that separated Israel from the nations roundabout) were brought to a fulfillment. The New Covenant Christians recognized that these laws no longer needed to be observed and did away with them.... Or did they?

When Augustine traveled to Kent around AD 600, he extended the Christian faith beyond the edge of civilization. As he evangelized the Jutes, many questions cropped up as the "barbarians" wondered how to best practice the new religion. Unsure on how to deal with some of these matters, Augustine referred them to Pope Gregory I. As bishop of Rome (one of the five great Christian metropolises), Gregory would have the credentials to give an authoritative answer.

Some of Augustine's questions dealt with worship. What form of mass (worship service) should be used, the Gaulish or the Roman? Some dealt with church polity. May a bishop be consecrated without other bishops being present? Some dealt with family. Within what degree may the faithful marry their kindred? Augustine's eighth question to Gregory is of special interest, however. "When a woman has been delivered [of a child], after how many days ought she to enter the church?"

Gregory, in his answer to Augustine, refers to the Leviticus 12 passage but applies it figuratively. The forty days of purification are no longer binding. "If she enters the church even at the very hour of her delivery, for the purpose of giving thanks, she is not guilty of any sin." A woman who has just given birth is like a woman during her monthly impurity. It is not a sin for her to enter the church; the priests will not bar her from entrance or from Holy Communion. At the same time, however, Gregory thinks that the more religiously minded women will, of their own accord, refrain from entering the sanctuary in the days immediately following childbirth. It is not wrong to enter during this time, but it is better not to do so.

Other church leaders took a stronger tone than Gregory insisting that there was something sinful about a woman entering the church before the forty days of purification had elapsed. Gregory's loose interpretation became the minority and over the next few centuries, the Church's position on this issue developed into dogma. By AD 1100 a ceremony had developed known as the "Churching of Women." Natalie Knodel, from the University of Durham, describes the ritual as it was conducted during this time period:
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.'
The churching ceremony was celebrated with as much pomp as a baptism, or perhaps with even more. Knodel talks about the medieval woman's attitude toward this event:
[T]he 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'.... [W]omen actually looked forward to churching as a social occasion, a collective female occasion, the conclusion of the month of privilege after childbirth. 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'. 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.
Interestingly enough, the "Churching of Women" ceremony continued on in the Anglican Church after the Reformation. The Book of Common Prayer (1549 and 1552) included the ritual, virtually unchanged from the medieval prototype. Nowadays the service has fallen into decline. The Roman Catholic Church states that "it is not a precept, but a pious and praiseworthy custom." In the Anglican prayer book the service changed its focus; instead of a purification and blessing of the mother, it became a simple thanksgiving for the birth of the child.

Last Sunday was my first time attending church since becoming a mother. Needless to say, our church does not observe the ceremony of churching women after childbirth. The one ritual of the day was the baptism of my twin boys, and the party that followed at my parents' home was strictly in honor of them. Although I do not covet the attention that the twins received, there is one piece of the churching service that I would have liked to hear spoken.

The 1552 Book of Common Prayer instructs the priest to say this blessing over the new mother:

O ALMIGHTIE God, whiche hast delyuered this woman thy seruant from the great paine and peryl of childe birth: Graunte, we beseche thee, (most mercifull father,) that she through thy helpe, maye both faythfully lyue and walke in her vocacion, accordyng to thy wyl in thys lyfe present; and also maye bee partaker of euerlastinge glorye in the life to come: through Jesus Christe our Lorde. Amen.
Baptism of Adam Luther Spears 
and Benjamin Oliver Spears
21 November 2010


  1. Interesting...

    It was a great blessing to see you guys up there and the twins baptism!

    Love the pictures!

  2. Fascinating. I know that the Greek Orthodox observe the woman staying home for so many days (40?).. but I'd never heard of this before..

  3. Rose, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I really do like the Book of Common Prayer blessing. And many blessings, grace and mercy attend thee, especially as concerns little Adam.


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