What is the Churching of Women, or “Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth”?
A brief introduction to a lesser-known Prayer Book liturgy
The beauty of following the liturgical tradition of the Church means that we are invited to welcome God into all aspects of embodied life, not just when we are ‘in church.’ In fact, many things we use in the liturgy, and customs we follow, are a way to remember that God is in conversation with us: when we celebrate and when we mourn; when we come of age, when we marry; and when we are born and when we become parents. In all we do, God loves and allows opportunity for blessing. “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21 RSVCE)
What is the Churching of Women? Why the odd phrase?
Being “Churched” may sound unusual. When it was “common” it meant bringing into the church. In this way the “Churching Of Women” meant a ceremony to reintroduce the new mother to the community after her recovery from the labor of birth. Like many aspects of how God cares for his people, there is a cycle of rest (sabbath) before return. As with all labor, God wants us to rest, recover, so that we can serve him in a healthy, balanced way. It also points to a fulfilment of Old Testament purity laws following the birthing process (Leviticus 12).
The Gospel changes everything, including childbirth.
Early in the post-Apostolic season of the church, temple practices found fulfilment in moving from Law to Grace: from obligation to gratitude. In the western church, St Augustine of Canterbury (the other St Augustine, the missionary bishop who integrated the Church in Britain into the larger universal church under Rome), wrote to Pope Gregory the Great about whether it was necessary to enforce the purity ritual timelines on mothers, which various churches had retained from Old Covenant practice. The Pope replied that “the traditional period of ‘purification’ should be viewed as a ‘mystery’ and not as a hard and fast legal requirement, and that if a woman ‘enters the church the very hour that she is delivered, to return thanks, she is not guilty of any sin’” (Shepherd, Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary, p. 305, emphasis added).
Thus, when the question was raised, the western tradition of the church emphatically identified thanksgiving as the primary reason a new mother is “Churched.”
Prayer Book Use from 1662 to 2019
In the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (1662IE pp. 349-351), prayers begin especially in thankfulness for the preservation of the life and health of the mother. Mortality during childbirth was before modern medicine much more common, and so the focus for thankfulness given the risks is understandable. In the modern liturgy (2019 pp. 215-220), prayers have been updated to emphasise the gift of life in a new child, by natural birth or by adoption, with prayers over both child and parents. In both prayer books, like other community rites—baptism, confirmation, marriage—it is customary for Eucharist (literally, thanksgiving!) to follow.
Churching and the Church Year.
Luke 2:22-38 follows the early, earthly life of Christ as Mary comes to the temple to fulfil the obligations required in Leviticus 12 (Luke 2:22-24). When she comes to the temple, Simeon witnesses Mary and Jesus, and full of the Holy Spirit, exclaims “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all people; To be a light to lighten the Gentiles, and to be the glory of your people Israel.” (2019 BCP p. 46; Luke 2:29-32), which is observed at Evening Prayer after the second reading. Here, at the first public presentation of Christ, is the gospel for all nations prophetically proclaimed: that Jesus is the light of salvation for all people.
Note: The feast celebrating the purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the presentation of Christ is on Feb 2, 40 Days after Christmas; 1662:IE page 211, 2019 page 603.
For further reading Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity Book V, p. 397-401.
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