A PAINFUL POSITION.-An unmarried lady, a perfect specimen of an old maid, being on a visit to a friend who lived in a large manufacturing town, went one Sunday to church alone, and was shown into a large pew, in which half a dozen females were seated. The prayers were drawing to a conclusion, when the officiating minister deviated from the afternoon service into another with which she was unacquainted. This was a novelty to Miss P–, who was in the habit of attending public worship at a fashionable chapel in London. When this interpolated service began her co-pewers stood up ; she, as a matter of course, followed their example, and, on doing so, was surprised to see nil the congregation except themselves either sitting or kneeling. Her companions presently knelt down. She again followed their lead, and, by paying great attention to the succeeding prayer, she discovered that it was a thanksgiving for safe deliverance from the great pain and peril of childbirth.
The usual afternoon service being over, she rose from her knees with crimsoned cheeks and in an agitated state of mind, which were not lessened by the clerk coming into the pew, and asking her, “have you a child to be christened, ma’am ? Pushing him aside, she rushed out of the churching-pew, into which she had inadvertently been put, and made the best of her way out of the church. On entering her friend’s drawing-room, she looked so excited and alarmed that Mrs. M– exclaimed, ” My dear Charlotte, what has happened to you? Have you been robbed or assaulted?” ”Worse, worse–much worse,” hysterically sobbed the old maid, “I’ve been churched.”
Sydney Morning Herald, 1 April 1861
Benedictio mulieris post partum (the blessing of a woman after childbirth), also known as churching, is an interesting custom in that most people would tell you churching was the purification of women after giving birth so they could re-enter the church whereas it seems to have been for most of its existence a blessing on the mother or a time when the mother gave thanks for a health birth.
If matrimony is a Divine institution and a Sacrament, why is it necessary for a Christian woman to be churched after child-birth? I take it she is considered unclean till then?” writes, a correspondent to Father Hull, S.J., who replied: “The churching of women, though it may have been adopted in analogy with the purification of the Old Law, does not bear the same meaning. There is no element of ceremonial uncleanness about it. It includes the idea of thanksgiving for a happy delivery, and the obtaining, by means of the blessing of the Church, of a special grace to bring up the child well. It is not a matter of obligation, but only a praiseworthy custom dating from the early ages.”
The Catholic Press, 9 October 1913
CHURCHING WOMEN: AN ACT OF THANKSGIVING.
A short time after the birth of Our Lord, His blessed Mother went to the temple and submitted the the Mosaic law of purification. Though she was not obliged to comply with the law, she did so, even to the extent of making the customary offering.
In imitation of her conduct, Catholic mothers present themselves at the church and receive a blessing in thanksgiving for a happy delivery. It is supposed to be their first visit to the church after child-birth, and hence the blessing is called ‘churching.’ But it is not necessary to receive it the first time they come to the church, nor is there any obligation to receive it at all. It does not bind under the pain of the least sin, because there is absolutely no defilement in Christian motherhood. Since there is no obligation requiring mothers to seek it, if a notable period has elapsed since child-birth, it is just as well to let it go. It is, however, a great and public act of thanksgiving, and, therefore, a pious and beneficial practice. It cannot be given at the home.
According to the rubrics, the woman, bearing a lighted candle, presents herself at the door of the church, where she is met by the priest, and, after preliminary prayers, she is admitted to the church, and comes before the altar where the blessing is given. But with us it is customary for the woman to come direct to the altar rail, where the priest meets her, and performs the ceremony. She should hold a blessed candle in her hand, and should kiss the stole when presented to her. If an offering is customary, she should make one. The Mother of God made one.
Catholic Press, 4 May 1916
If you consider that it wasn’t until about 1900 that infant mortality rates dropped substantially, you can understand why the ceremony remained popular until recent times. Anything to give your child an extra chance of surviving.
(There was much debate in the 1830s and 1840s about charging fees for various ceremonies, which ceremonies should attract fees etc.)
THE BAPTISMAL FEE.-The Bishop of Ripon, in his charge to the clergy of his diocese, a few days since, declared that the demanding of a fee on baptism was illegal. His lordship added, “The practice, perhaps, originated in the performance of the office for churching of the woman at the period of the admission of the child into the Church of Christ ; add the fee lawfully due for the former, and at first clearly miscalled the baptismal fee, has afterwards been demanded where the parent did not present herself to return thanks for her safe delivery.”
Sydney Morning Herald, 5 February 1845
It would be a great saving if the ladies of the charity were to make known the remark of a baker’s wife, whom we once heard observe, “that it was her practice to read aloud the churching service in the prayer-book, in company with the nurse, and that she always felt as much refreshed and comforted thereby, as if she had risked her health by going into a cold church, and paying 1s 6d to a parson to read it to her; and, that if she read the thanksgiving with a pure heart, and expended the 1s 6d for the food and clothing of her child, it must be quite as acceptable to God as if she dropped her hard-earned money into the hand of a cunning parson.”
Sydney Monitor, 11 March 1835
As for the idea of purification idea that people want to hang onto, it probably comes as no surprise that it comes from Leviticus:
Speak unto the children of Israel, saying, If a woman have conceived seed, and born a man child: then she shall be unclean seven days; according to the days of the separation for her infirmity shall she be unclean. And in the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. And she shall then continue in the blood of her purifying three and thirty days; she shall touch no hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary, until the days of her purifying be fulfilled.
Book of Leviticus 12:2-4
The Church of England Book of Common Prayer: The Thanksgiving of Woman After Childbirth
Fish Eaters: The churching of women
The Compass: Why women stayed away from church after a birth
(Image: Fees payable to church employees Sydney Gazette, 18 November 1815)