Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The churching of women

I  spent much of my time being pregnant in hospital with what is now known as pre-eclampsia. When I went into labour the dire warnings  of other people were predominant in my mind but I need not have was a quick labour and an easy delivery. I was one of those women for whom giving birth was a natural joyful occasion. Afterwards I felt lifted onto a higher plane of achievement and the glory that was  having become a mother. 
When I got home I had not taken communion for months and was eager to do so. Me and my  baby went to church and the vicar who was a lovely man came to sit with me before the service to tell me that I couldn't take communion without being churched. 
I made an appointment with him to go to church midweek for this short service. 
I can't remember any of the words...just the dawning slowly upon me that this was in fact a cleansing of my sin....that for the church giving birth was not the glorious thing that it had been for me. 
The tone was censorious, slow and deliberate. 
Having looked at the prayer book this morning I see that we almost certainly strayed into the next bit about the commination of sinners..and I am  outraged that such a term could be applied to some one who had brought a new and innocent life into the world. 
The overall impression was dark and deeply disturbing and I felt let down by the church I loved.
It was clearly news to some people in a recent discussion that women in the C of E were still being churched in the the 60s . 
It could explain why a whole generation of what became known as women's libbers were born. 
It certainly stopped me from going to church much for years after. 
Thank God times have changed  but it might explain why so many male priests were anti women. It was part of the culture. 
Hopefully now some of us have been allowed into the clergy this culture has gone. I hope for good....


  1. It's so sad when things get skewed in this way, and great that you have shared your experience because you will not have been the only one.

    For myself it was different. I found this service in the prayer book myself. I had given birth without painkillers because of a complex set of risks. I had been discharged from hospital, and then very nearly died of further complications. My family, including my other children, had been told that I would not survive. They had gathered from all arpund the country, my Dad leaving 10am worship fully robed and driving 7 or 8 hours to the hospital, not knowing whether he would arrive in time to say goodbye.

    A retired priest in my parents' parish had called the congregation together for a prayer meeting the next evening, and I had stopped sinking while they were praying, slowly, very slowly returning to consciousness and health. The reaction of the intensive care specialist to my survival left me in no doubt that it was a miracle.

    Alongside all of this, it also became apparent that my marriage was in an even worse state than I had imagined. My husband had refused to help me get medical care, and it was a friend who eventually got me to a doctor, obviously rather later than was safe.

    So a liturgy that expressed profound thanks for survival and called all men liars was actually just what I needed to read. Again and again and again. It made it ok to be a strange mixture of overwhelmed, overjoyed and angry.

    I only ever read it on my own, but it was good.

  2. Hi - not having read your background I thought you were talking about a recent experience at first and was truly shocked! I came across 'churching' in 2006 when my mum suggested I should do this when I had my first birth (2006). It's something that hung on right through to the 60s particularly in the north of England and had some terrible folk-religion nastiness attached to it (not allowed out of your home till it's done / not allowed into anyone elses as 'unclean'). I think mum, who adopted her children, had actually felt excluded from this special sign of motherhood in her own time.
    I did some research with members of a local congregation, and was intrigued to find that while the church had been attempting to push 'churching' off the liturgical precipice for a long time for obvious reasons, there is also evidence of this liturgy being owned in some sense by women in a church whose focus was entirely on the male. I'm writing a dissertation about it at the moment and thinking through things like purity/respect and how modern medicine is presumed to take the liminality out of the experience, something which the BCP addressed. Churching may not be the right response,but I do feel there should be a specific pastoral liturgy that is about the woman's safety, well-being, transformation and relationship with God (subsequent replacement liturgies in ASB/CW are all about thanksgiving for the child and barely mention the experience of the mother other than her gratitude - more female stereotyping that makes life hard and judgemental for new mums).

  3. If it worked for you I am very glad. Clearly my experience was due to one persons reading of it!

  4. Rachel.......I think you are right and that there is a place for some sort of thanksgiving both for the mother and the child.
    My churching was in Lancashire in the sixties and really was very depressing. The liturgy itself doesn't seem too bad when I reread it but the tone and severity of the priest made feel very unloved and yes, unclean.
    If you can come up with a modern take on the subject that would be excellent....but the liturgy could be very hard to get right...good luck with it!

  5. I didn't do it - just ended up studying it! I couldn't quite accept the sense of sin attached as you say - but something which says "yes, this was scary, and amazing, and about you and God (as well as baby)" - I could have done with something like that!

  6. Jean,

    Having read the BCP Service, I just don't see the point of it, or why it was ever done?

    Is seems that the service was designed to remind women of their position of inferiority to men and to reinforce the prejudice through liturgy.

    It must have been traumatic for you at the time and if it still causes pain, it shows me how bad it was.

    Prayers for all of those who might have been affected by this in any way.

  7. All my readings and understanding of churching have revolved around the way it was used in practice - to reinforce the inherent sinfulness and "uncleanness" of women.

    I must say, though, that I rather like sm4faith's comment on "all men are liars". I was utterly abandoned in pregnancy, and made it through a painful and difficult 40-hour labour with help from a rota of female friends when then-husband vanished into the ether. It was Michelle the Registrar (I will never forget her) who finally got my son out safely. "All men are liars" certainly would have had a degree of healing potential at that moment... For me, though, I organised a baptism immediately (he was "done" at 5 weeks) which served the purpose of thanksgiving for survival. More or less.

  8. Thanks for that anon......sorry you had such a bad experience.....the disappearing husband trick was one served on me too! But this is the way we grow and become the women we are today......