Although it has largely fallen out of favor with Western religion, the concept of “churching” in the Church of England can be traced well into the 20th Century. (Margaret Houlbrooke. Rite out of Time: a Study of the Ancient Rite of Churching and its Survival in the Twentieth Century (viii + 152pp. + 15 plates, Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2011, ISBN 978-1-907730-10-8). Data from the book “is based on new primary research utilizing ecclesiastical archives and personal testimony of both women and clergy. It mainly deals with churching as practised by the Church of England.
“Much of the evidence-base is qualitative, but some quantitative data are also included, albeit they are not always presented and analysed to optimal effect. Particularly interesting is the study of parochial records for three counties between the 1880s and 1940s, which reveals that the number of churchings was equivalent to two-thirds of baptisms (64% in Berkshire, 63% in Staffordshire, 64% in London). The relevant statistics may be found on pp. 27, 33, 35, 47, 49 and 51 and in plates 9 and 10.” [“Churching of Woman] But what exactly is “churching of women”?
The Christian concept of Churching of Women finds it roots in the Jewish practice spoken of in Leviticus 12:2-8. It is a practice in which women were purified after giving birth. It is a blessing of sorts. The practice includes a “thanksgiving” for the woman’s survival of childbirth. It is performed in the case of a live birth, a stillborn, or even for an unbaptized child that has died. The ceremony draws on the symbolism associated with the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, which is found in the New Testament in Luke 2:22-40. Even though many Christians consider Mary to have given birth to Christ without being despoiled, she is said to have gone to the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfill the requirement of the Law of Moses.
The custom specifies the ceremonial rite is to be used to restore ritual purity. The practice lies in the concept that childbirth makes a woman ritually unclean, meaning the presence of blood and body fluids.. This was part of ceremonial, rather than moral law. [Pope, Charles. “Lost Liturgies File: The Churching of Women”, Archdiocese of Washington]
The women are “reintroduced” to the religion/church/social responsibilities. This practice can be found across a number of cultures. All things having to do with birth and death are understood as somehow sacred. [Knödel, Natalie. “The Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth, commonly called The Churching of Women”, University of Durham. 1995] In agricultural societies, it is assumed that the practice comes from not permitting a new mother to return to the field too soon. [Marshall, Paul V., Prayer Book Parallels. The public services of the Church arranged for comparative study, New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1989]. In history, we find that women have typically been confined to their beds (or at a minimum, to their homes) for a period following giving birth. Forty days seems to be the customary number of days required for a woman’s “lying in.”Custom differs, but the usual date of churching was the fortieth day after confinement (or giving birth), in accordance with the Biblical date and Jewish practice. The Purification of Mary and the presentation of Jesus at the Temple are commemorated forty days after Christmas. During this time, a female relative took over the responsibilities of running the new mother’s household. If a relative was not available, a “monthly nurse” (a term used in the 18th and 19th centuries) could be hired. The custom of “churching” marked the end of the new mother’s “lying in” and welcomed her back to the community.
“The rite became the subject of a good deal of misunderstanding as many commentators and preachers, in describing its scriptural antecedents, did not explain the concept clearly, as early as the 6th century protested any notion that defilement was incurred by childbirth and recommended that women should never be separated from the church in case it was seen as such. As a blessing given to mothers after recovery from childbirth, “it is not a precept, but a pious and praiseworthy custom, dating from the early Christian ages”. David Cressy points out that the ceremony acknowledged the woman’s labours and the perils of childbirth. At the conclusion of a month after childbirth, women looked forward to churching as a social occasion, and a time to celebrate with friends. 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.'” [“Churching of Women“]
“The service included in the English Book of Common Prayer dates only from the Middle Ages. While the churching was normally performed by a priest in the parish church there were exceptions of women being churched at home. Prior to the English Reformation, according to the rubric the woman was to occupy the ‘convenient place’ near the parthex. In the first prayer book of Edward VI of England, she was to be ‘nigh unto the quire door.’ In the second of his books, she was to be ‘nigh unto the place where the Table (or altar) standeth.’ Bishop Matthew Wren orders for the diocese of Norwich in 1636 were that women to be churched would come and kneel at a side near the communion table outside the rail, being veiled according to custom, and not covered with a hat. In some parishes there was a special pew known as the ‘churching seat.’
“Churchings were formerly registered in some parishes. In Herefordshire it was not considered proper for the husband to appear in church at the service, or to sit with his wife in the same pew. The words in the rubric requiring the woman to come ‘decently appareled,’ refer to the times when it was thought unbecoming for a woman to come to the service with the elaborate head-dress then the fashion. A veil was usually worn.
“In pre-Reformation days, it was the custom in English Catholic churches for women to carry lighted tapers when being churched, an allusion to the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin (February 2), celebrated as Candlemas, the day chosen by the Catholic Church for the blessing of the candles for the whole year. At her churching, a woman was expected to make some votive offering to the church, such as the chrisom or alb placed on the child at its christening.” [“Churching of Women”]