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Churching: still the need for a rite of passage?

by
03 April 2012

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From the Revd Marianne Atkinson

Sir, — I read Dr Margaret Houl­brooke’s article on the churching of women (Features, 30 March) con­fidently expecting reference to the long-established (fourth-century) holy feast of the Purification of St Mary the Virgin, as the Prayer Book calls it, or Candle­mas. The Gospel endorse­ment of ancient Jewish ritual would powerfully support its continuance in Christendom.

Before the Reformation, our Lady was given very particular honour in this country, while later, when printing and translation made the Bible widely accessible and “understanded” in the people’s own language, Leviticus 12 and Luke 2.22-24 would be known. (Perhaps occasionally even a brace of pigeons could have been humbly tendered here for churching, also following the holy example.)

Background biblical knowledge has certainly withered away now, but there are still felt compulsions to do the right or protective thing, even if language does not explain them. The English language is missing a word or words for the quality opposite to “sacred”, to describe something frighteningly, powerfully, and shockingly untouchable. Social-anthropology students learn about this: “profane” is really “mundane”, or usual in a worldly way, while “sacred” and its nameless “unclean” opposite are both in a different (and religious) category.

So the ancient purity laws were to protect from accidental terrible con­tam­ination, as from blood (raw life) or death. So-called “folk religion” has varied origins, many of them ap­prehended, but with understand­ing lost.

Our Lady, many have believed, was also sinless, and yet humanly had to observe the Law. Many mothers have felt a kinship with her (especially those whose children die). The extraordinary, still sacred time of giving birth does need a later, marked re-entry from the liminal into the normal mundane. Mary was “purified” at six weeks; for a daughter, it would have been approximately 12 weeks (which relates also to “purity” views).

In the 1990s, I was twice asked in a northern hospital to carry out churching of a sort. The focus is indeed on the mother, not the baby (who might not have lived), just as six weeks after Christmas on 2 February the focus is on Mary rather than her Child.

In living memory, many new mothers were “confined” for six weeks. Now, for the vast majority, the only compulsory observance with strong sanctions is the six-week post-natal examination — by the secular medical priesthood. But there is still a religious rite-of-passage needed for the mother, and maybe the father, too, if, in the modern way, he was closely involved with the birth. Ritual formalities for the baby (a new person) are separate from this.

MARIANNE ATKINSON
68 Barons Road
Bury St Edmunds IP33 2LW

From Helen Thomas

Sir, — As part of a group of women who have recently restored the Thanksgiving of Women After Childbirth to our parish life, I am compelled to add an insight that was missing from Dr Margaret Houl­brooke’s article. The Prayer Book service as it stands is not only positive and thankful, but recognises and values a woman’s experience at a time of profound change.

This service focuses on the woman, committing her to God’s care and affirming her identity at a time when it is most vulnerable — a focus that a thanksgiving for a child omits. Our experience of running this service as part of church life has shown that it is, in fact, very in­clusive: there is no course to complete; single mothers can come with no feeling of difference; and men are not excluded (though only one has come so far). We warmly invite all to this short, practical service at a convenient time for pre-school mums, and give a light lunch. It has created a very special bond for all concerned.

Reading the article confirms that it is not the service itself that caused distress, but the misogynistic practices that emphasised impurity, or local beliefs about when a new mother should resume her responsibilities. Neither of these is in the Prayer Book. As this thanksgiving largely died out before the ordina­tion of women, perhaps there was misogyny, too, in its ceasing. I believe it is time for women to reclaim this service.

HELEN THOMAS (Reader)
42 Church Road, Bebington
Wirral CH63 3EY

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