The churching of women (the service of purification, blessing and thanksgiving in celebration of a mother’s personal achievement of childbirth) is a rite of passage which has both biblical and pagan roots, although its liturgical expression in England can only be traced from the twelfth century. It emanates from a time when death in childbirth and infant mortality were commonplace and the Church’s attitudes to even marital sex were ambiguous.
Churching is a rite which has now fallen out of fashion, at least in Western Christianity (the Orthodox Churches still retain it), and has been superseded by alternative occasional offices, which have shifted the focus from the woman as mother to the child. For example, post-Vatican II, the Roman Catholic Church has largely replaced churching by a blessing at the end of the baptismal service.
The Church of England, by contrast, now has a service of thanksgiving for the gift of a child which is quite separate from baptism (Alternative Service Book, 1980, Common Worship, 2000). In 2000, the first year they were recorded, there were 6,910 Anglican thanksgivings for infants and children (compared with 152,680 baptisms). This had dropped to 5,980 (against 127,290 baptisms of infants and children) by 2009. The Methodists have a similar service.
However, in former years churching was a widespread practice. Notwithstanding, it has attracted relatively little scholarly attention, and that mostly for the medieval and early modern periods. So it is a pleasure to welcome a new book on the subject which majors on the persistence of churching in twentieth-century England. It started life as a University of Reading PhD thesis in 2006.
Margaret Houlbrooke’s Rite out of Time: a Study of the Ancient Rite of Churching and its Survival in the Twentieth Century (viii + 152pp. + 15 plates, Donington: Shaun Tyas, 2011, ISBN 978-1-907730-10-8, £17.95, paperback) is based on new primary research utilizing ecclesiastical archives and personal testimony of both women and clergy. It mainly deals with churching as practised by the Church of England.
Much of the evidence-base is qualitative, but some quantitative data are also included, albeit they are not always presented and analysed to optimal effect. Particularly interesting is the study of parochial records for three counties between the 1880s and 1940s, which reveals that the number of churchings was equivalent to two-thirds of baptisms (64% in Berkshire, 63% in Staffordshire, 64% in London). The relevant statistics may be found on pp. 27, 33, 35, 47, 49 and 51 and in plates 9 and 10.
Other figures for the early twentieth century show the reducing interval between birth and churching (p. 67, plates 11 and 12) and the greater incidence of churching in poorer and working-class (p. 27) and rural (pp. 28, 33) parishes. In London, for example, the ratio of churchings to baptisms was 56% in West End and suburban parishes and 72% in East End and southern parishes (p. 47). Close proximity to the place of worship also seems to have increased the chances of churching (pp. 62-3).
By the mid-twentieth century churching was beginning to lose popularity. Although an episcopal visitation of the Anglican Diocese of Southwark in 1951 suggested that just over one-half of childbearing women were still being churched (p. 50), 18% of the diocesan clergy already thought that churching was in decline (p. 126). From the late 1960s the practice died out rapidly across the whole country but lingered on until the 1980s.
Houlbrooke identifies the causes of churching’s demise as the collapse of matriarchy (a woman’s mother and grandmother were strong influences in perpetuating the tradition), the growth of young women’s independence, improvements in the management of childbirth, the decay of religious affiliation, and liturgical revision (the last-named clearly prompted by clerical fears that churching was both a rival to baptism and, for the woman, often inspired by superstition).