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Prayer for the week

03 January 2014

Ann Conway-Jones was glad to be churched


O Almighty God, we give thee humble thanks for that thou hast vouchsafed to deliver this woman thy servant from the great pain and peril of child-birth: Grant, we beseech thee, most merciful Father, that she, through thy help, may both faithfully live and walk according to thy will, in this life present; and also may be partaker of everlasting glory in the life to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer

CHILDBIRTH is a dangerous business. In order for a new human being to emerge, mother and baby hover between life and death. Those of us with access to modern medicine may easily forget this, but Mary and Joseph must surely have been aware of it, as they sheltered in the stable. She risked her life in order to bring Jesus into the world.

In her culture, as in many others, a rite of passage was provided to give thanks for her survival, and to ease her back from contact with the ultimate realities, symbolised by blood, into her normal routines. She went to the Temple to offer a pair of turtle-doves.

The Book of Common Prayer provides the Thanksgiving of Women after Child-Birth, commonly called The Churching of Women, for the same purpose; and here is the prayer from the end of that service.

There is some historical evidence that women appreciated the rite of churching. In the 16th century, after childbirth, the mother enjoyed a privileged month of confinement, in order to recover physically and emotionally. Churching was the opportunity for a last celebration with her women friends - her gossips - before returning to her usual duties.

But the ceremony could also be interpreted in more damaging ways. I have talked to women from the Black Country who were churched in the 1950s, and they report being left scarred by the experience. They were made to feel that childbirth was shameful and sinful.

Before their churching, they were not allowed to enter shops, or even friends' homes, in case they brought bad luck. And if the baby was baptised during that time, they were forbidden to attend. In their minds, the point of the rite was penitence: the Church's insisting that new mothers needed forgiveness. Yet the words of the BCP say nothing of the sort. They give thanks that the woman has come through a time of great peril safely.

In Common Worship, churching has been replaced by Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child. There is a crucial difference between the two services. Churching focused on the woman's experience. It recognised "the great danger of childbirth". Psalm 116 was recited, with its references to "the snares of death" and "the pains of hell".

In the new service, in contrast, the whole family welcomes the new addition. The focus is on the baby. Of course it is important to give thanks for the gift of a child, and support both parents with prayer; but something has been lost. After the birth of my children, I chose to have a BCP churching ceremony, once in a local convent, and once at the university where I was working as a chaplain.

Had the births happened in another place or time, either I or the babies would probably have died. Thanks to labour-inducing drugs, blood-pressure tablets, and anti-D injections, we were fine. I wanted to recognise that childbirth had been a momentous experience for me, and give thanks with friends. I was moved by the fact that this final prayer turns from the peril of childbirth to the woman's continuing life of faith.

Caring for her new child will no doubt take much of her time and energy, but the prayer does not restrict her vocation to motherhood. It leaves open the path along which God will call her. Her physical and spiritual lives are to continue intertwined. Many women will face the dangers of childbirth this week; let us pray for safe deliveries.

Dr Ann Conway-Jones is a freelance writer, and an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham.

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