I HAD always assumed that the churching of women had died out. This childbirth rite of passage is a church service that I thought belonged to the distant past, when ancient notions about women's uncleanness imported "purification" into the giving of thanks.
Yes, the Book of Common Prayer does still contain "The Thanksgiving of Women After Child-Birth. Commonly Called the Churching of Women", with its dark reference to "the great danger of child-birth", together with a final rubric that demands the mother's "accustomed offering" (a fee), further prayers, and a choice between two psalms. (The 1928 Book added a blessing, and two new prayers, including one for a woman whose heart was "sore smitten and oppressed".)
When I was alerted to the fact that the churching of women still took place, albeit rarely, I wanted to know more. In 1997, through its personal columns, I asked Church Times readers for information, and received 30 replies. Intrigued by their fund of stories and comments, I launched my own research.
This involved further correspondence, more questions, long searches through parish records, and interviews with women and clergy. It was clear immediately that the ancient churching rite had indeed been widely practised all through the 20th century, and that purification had sometimes involved new mothers in extraordinary episodes of confinement and shame.
Several significant pointers came in a letter from a vicar's wife who lived in Dagenham in the 1950s. She wrote that she would regularly answer the vicarage door to "a tired, pale young mum accompanied by her mum - not the baby. It was unlucky to bring the baby out before mum had been churched.
"The girl's mum would say: 'She's come to be done,' and expected to be walked into church and 'done'. I had to say that churchings were at 11 a.m. on Fridays, when there would be five to ten women each week. Mum would be very angry, saying: 'Well, I can't look after her any more - she's got to get out to the shops, and so has the baby.'
"[It was] to do with the not-understood idea of being unclean from childbirth. The neighbours wouldn't allow her to 'infect' the area with bad luck until she'd been churched."
Here was a young mother's exposure to powerful matriarchy and neighbourhood superstition, and the insistence that the church must supply a churching ceremony.
THE ritual's history explains its nature. Early Christian liturgy was developed at the time when Jews and Greeks performed elaborate purification rituals (sequences of cleansings, prohibitions, ceremonies, sacrifices, and offerings) as childbirth rites of passage.
All were freighted with misogyny, and, for the Jews, the powerful legend of Eve's transgression, which was invoked to explain the way in which women's sexuality must be questioned and controlled. They had also, to some extent, inherited a pagan fear of the natural world, and its dangerous spirits.
Christian rites were inevitably influenced by these ideas. The medieval "blessing" involved a priest who would conduct the new mother (veiled, and holding his sleeve or hem) from the church porch to a special inside pew - having first purified her with prayer, and holy water sprinkled on a spray of hyssop - to prepare her for entry. This was sometimes accompanied by public rejoicing, with feasts and music.
In later centuries, Protestant churching became a more private, low-key event. But its significance was the same. By these means - initial exclusion from the church, symbolic cleansing, the priest's blessing, and her offering - the new mother completed her rite of passage. And if she remained unchurched? Even in the late 20th century, neighbours spoke of bad luck if she went out into the world while still carrying the shame of childbirth.
Has this really been going on, and until recently? Parish records consulted in Berkshire, Metropolitan London, and Staffordshire show that, in the first half of the 20th century, the number of churchings averaged just over 50 per cent of the number of baptisms. In 1951, visitation responses from 346 clergy in the diocese of Southwark confirmed their spread and frequency.
In letters, questionnaires, and interviews, clergy described churching between the 1950s and 1980s as "common", "routine", "continuing", "often found", and "urgently requested". Churching was found in all social classes. Some put it down to matriarchal power and rural conservatism, others remembered that families asked for "purification" far more than "thanksgiving" in their parishes.
PAGANISM was quite often mentioned. One Oxford archdeacon recalled his curacy in Lancashire in the 1950s: "It's everywhere, indicating a huge spiritual void; people will believe almost anything that fills that void."
At least 15 Southwark incumbents connected it with popular superstition in south London's urban and suburban deaneries, from Wimbledon to Woolwich, and from Lambeth to Croydon.
Women always remembered their own ceremonies. Some, who had been churched in Staffordshire in the 1950s, mentioned their grateful relief and joy, particularly after suffering long or complicated deliveries. One said thatbeing churched was important to her "because you'd been in that much pain and sort of in touch with the devil".
Another said that giving birth to her children had taken her "through the pains of hell", causing her to think that she might have "doubted God". They acknowledged the part that the churching rite played in bringing about a sense of completion.
A number of women, however, had objected to being called "unclean", and in need of "purification", for doing nothing but give birth to a child. Two mothers in Cumbria, who had been through the rite in the 1960s, agreed. "Both of us felt anger at being made to go through an archaic ceremony. We were young, but would never agree now. We both thought we had to have forgiveness for any sexual pleasure we received in procreation."
A Berkshire churchwarden remembered her churching during the 1930s. She felt that the whole idea of purification was offensive, absurd, and degrading: "That reflection of you, of the fact that you're dirty, and have got to be purified after having a child. How do these sort of people who believe in that expect the human race to continue?"
CLERGY who wanted to establish a mood of discipline and reproach could make the the experience of churching hurtful and disappointing.
In the years of the Early Church, submission had often been enforced. The unchurched had been chivvied in Early Church penitentials with exclusions and "shame offerings". In later centuries, they risked being taken before church courts for defiantly refusing to turn up, wear the veil, or make an offering.
More recently, the ritual became a social as much as a religious obligation, as the strongest pressure to be churched came from family. This was vividly described by a group of five Staffordshire women, interviewed together in 2004, but talking about the 1940s and '50s: "[I wasn't allowed] to touch flour, meat, do the cooking, go into a shop, go through a door," one said. "I cooked my own breakfast. They said 'Off with you', it wasn't clean."
"I know that my gran wouldn't let anyone in her house until they were churched," another said. And a third added: "[It was] not because you were religious, just one of those things you'd got to do."
The bullying of young mothers could be extreme. A south-Yorkshire vicar remembers with dismay that an unchurched woman, 50 years ago, was banished to a hen-coop for the three days of Christmas - part of what he called "a folk religion, powerful in people's lives".
THE subject appears to hold little interest for today's clergy. Some said that they had always refused churchings. Uneasy about the gender implications of purification, they were now grateful for the plain 1980 service of thanksgiving for the birth of a child. Older generations remembered the service as a "useful pastoral opportunity", when even non-churchgoers would get in touch.
In a scribbled personal record from 1931, the incumbent of St Stephen's, Barbourne, in Worcester, made acerbic remarks about some of his parishioners who had requested the rite: "I find this woman is a Dissenter"; "A single woman"; "Husband an RC so will not church her in future"; "Married at a register office in August 1930, applied for churching 6 Jan. 1931"; "Obtained churching surreptitiously after adultery"; "Living with a married man, illegitimate child"; "Child by a married man at Norton Barracks - both seen & neither penitent"; "Very bad case, mar'd May 1920, child born following Aug. the girl confirmed. Refused to make her confession, refused churching."
OTHER priests, however, clearly appreciated the long-established nature of churching. One, who had conducted a churching as recently as 2002, felt that it catered for people's lingering hunger for ceremonial - something that he seemed to share: "A feeling that the Church of England has neglected its great traditions. . . I used the 1662 service, with Catholic ceremonies.
"I met her at the church porch, wearing a stole. She held the end of my stole and a lighted candle coming into the church. We went into the Lady Chapel and held the service there."
Another, a south-London vicar of high-church persuasion, spoke in 2003 of "this sort of Catholicism thing which was: women are unclean". He was not at all dismayed by the churching rite's attitude to women: "It's the uncleanness; and giving birth . . . and, of course, it's harking back so that the child is the product of original sin. . . It's still going on with the shame factor, and the purity and impurity factor in it: it's sort of keeping women in their place, I suppose."
He chuckled as he quoted an elderly parishioner who associated sex with shame: "You never did it till you were married. . . And isn't it awful, because when you'd had a baby everyone knew what you'd been doing."
And he understood the significant part that tradition plays in popular religion: "I wouldn't refuse. . . I hark back to the folklore bit; because I've heard it resonating down the generations, I think it must be important."
THE decline of churching is now assured. Liturgy has finally moved away from this intensely private and bafflingly discriminatory ritual in favour of simple, inclusive thanksgivings. It remains for the historian to explain why the change has taken so long.
Clearly, churching was valued. It established the respectability of a woman and her family by confirming that they could afford to pay the expected fee, and that there was nothing untoward in the child's birth. Some people treasured its traditions and surviving folklore, even though its misogyny continues to resonate faintly, even in the new millennium.
Above all, women always faced pain and uncertainty in childbirth, and wanted to thank God if it all went well.
Dr Margaret Houlbrooke is the author of Rite Out of Time: A study of the churching of women in the 20th century, published by Shaun Tyas, £17.99 (CT Bookshop, £16.20); 978-1-907730-10-8.