Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

A View from the Childwife's Pew: The Development of Rites around Childbirth in the Anglican Communion

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

A View from the Childwife's Pew: The Development of Rites around Childbirth in the Anglican Communion

Article excerpt

From the Middle Ages to the seventeenth century and beyond, European women who were pregnant or who had just given birth could expect a church rite that would mark and celebrate not only the new baby's arrival but the process of childbearing itself. This rite-known successively as the purification, churching, and thanksgiving of women-had its roots in Jewish and other pre-Christian practices and beliefs but, over time, was adapted for Christian use in various forms. By the eleventh century it had a formal place in the church's worship.

The churching liturgy changed as church leaders and communions in western Europe, especially after the Reformation, officially discarded the idea that a woman who had recently given birth needed ritual purification before she could rejoin the life of the church and community. The rite of churching resisted abandonment altogether, though. Many Western churches retained it in some form, if not on theological grounds then for political and social reasons. The churching liturgy was not merely imposed on women; it served a purpose for them that no other liturgy could, offering a ritual closure to the extended process of giving birth and a celebration of their survival and return to everyday life. Churching thus persisted, especially in the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, through the seventeenth century and even into the twentieth.

Some elements of purification remained within the churching liturgy, if not in the rubrics of the rite then in the customs of the people. Meanwhile, it was officially transformed from a ritual primarily about purification to a service primarily about thanksgiving. Tension between purification and thanksgiving characterized the rite throughout its history and was never fully resolved. In the twentieth century, churching has been replaced most everywhere by services of thanksgiving for the birth or adoption of a child. These are quite different rites, though, for they have moved the focus from the mother to the child.

The first part of this paper examines the historical trajectory of the churching rite as it has been practiced in England and as it was transferred to the Episcopal Church in the United States and to other churches in the Anglican Communion. The survey focuses on how and why the rite has changed over time and considers what purposes it has served; it will also look at the ways the rite has been used, interpreted, or pilloried by different groups of people (clergy and laity, men and women, Laudians and Puritans) in different periods of its history. In the second, brief part of the paper, the focus will be on the pastoral dimensions of the churching rite and its descendants and considers new possibilities for church rites around childbirth.


The Pre-Christian Roots of Churching

In most societies a pregnant woman, at some point, is relieved of certain family and community responsibilities. This relief continues into the post-partum period (traditionally four to six weeks), a necessary time of rest, recovery, and intensive mothering and nursing of a newborn. The childbearing woman is thus set apart. Some time after the birth of the child she rejoins the full life of the community and resumes her normal responsibilities. With the addition of a child, she takes on a new or expanded role in the family as well as in the community. That this life passage should be marked by a special rite is not a specifically Western or Christian idea. Such rites are found in many cultures.1

Churching has been perpetuated not only by the church's imposition of it but also by a human drive to ritualize the awesomeness and fearfulness of giving birth, by a felt need for spiritual and physical protection of the new mother, and by women's own need to be blessed, prayed for, and welcomed back into the community after being set apart by childbirth. These factors-along with persistent popular beliefs about post-partum women's defilement-help explain both the origins and the ubiquity of such rites, including rites within Christianity. …

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