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
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
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
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In Common Worship, churching has been replaced by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
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.