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Churching of women

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Hans Memling 029

Presentation in the Temple, the biblical account upon which the churching of women is based. (Hans Memling, c. 1470, Museo del Prado. Madrid).

In Christian tradition the Churching of Women is the ceremony wherein a blessing is given to mothers after recovery from childbirth. The ceremony includes thanksgiving for the woman's survival of childbirth, and is performed even when the child is stillborn, or has died unbaptized.

Although the ceremony itself contains no elements of ritual purification, it was related to Jewish practice as noted in Leviticus 12:2-8, where women were purified after giving birth. In light of the New Testament, the Christian ritual draws on the imagery and symbolism of the Purification of the Virgin (Luke 2:22-40). Although Christian tradition considers her to have borne Christ without incurring impurity, she went to the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfill the requirements of the Law of Moses.

At one time the rite was practiced in both the Eastern and the Western churches. The custom is first mentioned in the pseudo-Nicene Arabic canons. The religious ceremony has been largely discontinued in the West, but it is still practiced in some of the Eastern Churches.

In the West

It was formerly regarded as unwise for a woman to leave her house to go out at all after confinement until she went to be churched. In the UK and Ireland, new mothers who had yet to be churched were regarded as attractive to the fairies, and so in danger of being kidnapped by them. However, the origin of the church ritual is unrelated to these later local superstitions, which accrued to it.

In ancient times in England the ceremony was usual but not obligatory. No ancient form of service is known. That included in the English prayer-book dates only from the Middle Ages. In Finland the custom was introduced in the late 17th century and abolished around the turn of the 19th century.

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. Under Mosaic law as found in the Old Testament, a mother who had given birth to a man-child was considered unclean for seven days; moreover she was to remain for thirty-three days "in the blood of her purification." (Leviticus 12:2-8). This was reflected in the Presentation of the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus at the Temple being commemorated forty days after Christmas.

It was not unusual for the churching service to be said in private houses. 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. In some parishes there was a special pew known as the "churching seat". The words in the rubric requiring the woman to come "decently apparelled", 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 some parishes a special veil was provided by the church, for an inventory of goods belonging to St Benets, Gracechurch Street, in 1560, includes "a churching cloth, fringed, white damask."

Prior to the Reformation, according to the rubric the woman was to occupy the "convenient place" near the church door. In the first prayer book of Edward VI, 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 Wren's 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 Devonshire churching was sometimes called "being uprose". Churchings were formerly registered in some parishes.

In pre-Reformation days, it was the custom in Catholic England for women to carry lighted tapers when being churched, in allusion to the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin (February 2), the day chosen by the Roman Catholic Church for the blessing of the candles for the whole year (see Candlemas). At her churching, a woman was expected to make some offering to the church, such as the chrisom or alb placed on the child at its christening.

In the East

In the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches of the Byzantine Rite, many jurisdictions still observe the tradition of the woman coming to church on the 40th day after childbirth for special blessings. For forty days a new mother remains at home to recuperate and to care for her child. However, if the child has not survived, the woman still remains at home to heal physically and emotionally. During the time of her confinement, the woman does not normally receive Holy Communion, unless she is in danger of death. As the service is practiced in the Constantinopolitan Rite, it involves both the blessing of the mother and the presentation of the child to God. The churching should be distinguished from two other brief rites that take place at childbirth: the Prayers on the First Day After Childbirth, and the Naming of the Child on the Eighth Day. These usually take place in the home. In some traditions, it is customary to baptize the child on the eighth day, following the example of the Old Testament rite of bris or circumcision of boys. In that case, the naming of the child would take place in the temple (church building).

Churching of the Woman

On the fortieth day after childbirth, the mother is brought to the temple to be churched; that is to say, to receive a blessing as she begins attending church and receiving the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments) once again. The child (if it has survived) is brought by the mother, who has already been cleansed and washed, accompanied by the intended sponsors (Godparents) who will stand at the child's Baptism. They all stand together in the narthex (the entranceway) before the doors of the nave of the temple, facing east. The priest blesses them and says prayers for the woman and the child, giving thanks for their wellbeing and asking God's grace and blessings upon them.

Churching of the Child

Then, if the infant has already been baptized, he performs the churching of the child; if not, he does the churching immediately after the baptism.

Taking up the child, the priest lifts it up, making the Sign of the Cross with the child before the doors of the temple, saying: "The servant of God (Name) is churched, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

He then carries the child into the center of the nave, as he says, "I will go into Thy House. I will worship toward Thy Holy Temple in fear of Thee." Stopping in the center, he says, "The servant of God (Name) is churched, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. In the midst of the congregation I will sing praises unto Thee."

He then walks up to the iconostasis, and stopping in front of the Holy Doors, he says, "The servant of God (Name) is churched, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

If the child is a girl, he places her on the soleas in front of the icon of the Theotokos (Mother of God); if it is a boy, he carries him into the sanctuary and around the back of the Holy Table (altar) and out again onto the soleas.

He then chants the Nunc Dimittis and says a special apolysis (dismissal), after which he blesses the child with the Sign of the Cross on its forehead, mouth and heart, and returns it to its mother.


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