During the opening episode of the PBS’ Masterpiece series, “Victoria: Season 2,” we witness a curious scene. The 19th century English monarch, Queen Victoria, who had recently given birth to her first child, had to go through a special church ritual, in order to be properly received back into the Church of England. This “churching of women” is rarely practiced today, but the ritual gives us a glimpse into some interesting dynamics of church history.
Actress Jenna Coleman, in “Victoria: Season 2,” portrays the queen as someone who greatly dislikes this rite, traditionally having a long title in the Book of Common Prayer, “The Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth, commonly called the Churching of Women.” For Queen Victoria, she got the sense that the church had viewed her as being “unclean,” in the early period after giving birth to her child. This required a ritual of purification, which Victoria thought to be wholly unnecessary and paternalistic. Is it any wonder that most people today know nothing of the practice of “churching?”
The Ancient Christian Practice of “Churching” and Why Few Follow It Today
There is a good reason why Victoria disliked “churching,” but the story is complicated. The idea for “churching” goes back to the practices in the early church, whereby women after pregnancy, were given time to recuperate from the trauma of childbirth. The agony of childbirth meant that the mother, post-birth, was unable to immediately attend church. When the mother eventually recovered, the early Christians then could celebrate her survival of childbirth, which was profoundly more risky, before the age of modern medicine. Not only was the mother joyfully welcomed back into the church community, the church could also express thanksgiving for the birth of the child.
In her 1995 essay, University of Durham scholar Natalie Knödel writes that the ritual of “churching” was derived from Luke 2:21-40, whereby Mary and Joseph came to the Temple on the eighth day, after Jesus’ birth, to fulfill the purification requirements of the Law of Moses. Knödel links the history also back to Leviticus 12:1-8, when a Jewish woman, after childbirth was declared to be ritually “unclean,” for forty days after bearing a son, and double that time, after bearing a daughter.
Knödel’s examination of the tradition of “churching” shows that, in the early church, the focus was on both the mother and the child. But by the 11th century, in the Western church, the liturgical focus centered more on the mother, and less on the child. With this change in focus, the mother’s “purification” became the emphasis of the ritual.
But “purification” from what? Some theologians envisioned this as representing Eve’s punishment for her rebellion in the Garden of Eden. Other theologians saw the “purification” time to be more about allowing for the woman’s recovery from the pains of childbirth, and not due to some grave sin. Viewed from this perspective, think of “churching” as the medieval equivalent of allowing maternity leave.
The theological controversy found some resolution during the Protestant Reformation, in the Church of England, but only just barely. The concept of “purification” was formally removed from the Book of Common Prayer in 1552, where the ritual of “churching” was liturgically described. English Reformers pushed for this change, believing that the language of “purification” signaled a reinstitution of the Jewish law of purification. Since the death of Jesus had fulfilled the requirements of the Jewish ceremonial law, Christians were no longer under obligation to keep the ceremonial law (see Matthew 5:17-18, Romans 10:4).
This was consistent with the common Reformation belief, that divided the Mosaic law, into three separate categories: civil, moral, and ceremonial, as expressed in Article 7 of the Thirty-Nine Articles, the defined statement of belief for English-speaking Christians. The civil aspects of the law had to do with the administration of the state, in Jewish society. In the covenant theology of the Reformers, the church was seen to be the New Testament fulfillment of Israel. But the church, unlike Israel, had no civil authority, in and of itself. Therefore, the civil parts of the Mosaic law were not directly applicable in the era of the New Testament church. The moral aspect of the law represented principles governing human relationships, such as in the area of sexual relations, that were still applicable in the New Testament era. This left the ceremonial aspect of the law, that which had to do with circumcision, sacrifices, food laws, other cleanliness laws, and other practices associated with worship at the Temple. The teachings of the New Testament had rendered the ceremonial parts of the law as being obsolete. Therefore, this would include the concept of the “purification” of women, when it came to “churching.”
But old habits have a way of sticking around. While the theology of expressing thanksgiving for the mother and the child became the formal principle behind “churching,” the idea of “purification” still held on in the popular mind. After the 17th century English Civil War, the Puritans in charge of reforming the church outlawed “churching,” citing lack of sufficient support in Scripture. Nevertheless, women would still secretly seek ministers out so that the rite could be performed. With the restoration of the monarchy, under Charles II, the rite was restored. Nearly two hundred years later, when Queen Victoria goes to be “churched,” she goes before the Anglican priest without her child, in a private ceremony, thus reinforcing the idea of her supposed “purification,” something that she found both superstitious and repugnant… if not just plain creepy!
Things were changing in the days of Victoria’s 19th century England. After several other pregnancies, Queen Victoria became aware of “the blessed chloroform.” However, she needed to ask the Archbishop of Canterbury for permission to use it, as it was commonly considered that the pain in childbirth was part of Eve’s punishment for her sin in the Garden (Genesis 3:16). Presumably, the hesitation was that one must not “play God” by interfering with God’s working in nature. (But is not all medical intervention a way of interfering with the workings of nature?)
To Victoria’s relief, and against the skepticism of some of her doctors about the new drug, the church granted her permission. Victoria’s example, from that point forward, made it socially permissible for English Christian women to use anesthesia during childbirth, something that is considered normal practice today. This, and other medical advances, have significantly reduced the time for post-delivery recuperation, thus rendering one to classic rationales for “churching” as largely irrelevant.
The ritual of “churching,” though rarely practiced today, has formally been restored more towards its original character, in churches that follow the Anglican tradition, as my 1975 version of the Book of Common Prayer calls it, “A Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child.” Most Protestants today, though, have never heard of it. Interestingly, Roman Catholicism, since Vatican II, has largely dropped the rite. One notable exception to the prevalent decline in “churching” is found in Eastern Orthodox traditions, that still retain the ancient practice. But I would argue that “churching,” in our contemporary world, has not completely gone away. We have effectively secularized the practice, in the world of labor, by allowing for maternity leave.