Sunday, 4 February 2018

What is a `Churching' ?

From "The Pilot", 1969, comes this, an interesting historical ramble.

Some Church Customs Explained
By S.G. Thicknesse
What is a `Churching' ?

At least until the end of the nineteenth century, country people of southern and eastern England still spoke of every church service as a churching. Even elderly dictionaries are inclined to describe a churching as `the performance, in the Anglican Church, of the office of returning thanks, or asking a blessing, with or on behalf of anyone, on a special occasion, e.g., “the churching of a newly-elected town council.”

As late as 1910, J. S. Bumpus's Dictionary of Ecclesiastical Terms speaks of an annual service in St. Paul's Cathedral, on the afternoon of the Sunday nearest to the opening of the Trinity Law Term, as `the Churching of the Judges.'

But this common use of the term, and even the special occasions, have fallen into disuse. Since 1939 the judges have been seen no more coming yearly to St. Paul's, robed and with posies in their hands. There, and in England in general, the term churching is applied now only to the coming to church of a woman `at the usual time after her delivery'.

If the term churching were still in common and proper use, the prevalent suspicion that the `Churching of Women' was a pagan survival of purification from uncleanness might not have gathered so thickly.

If people were to read the Office in the Prayer Book, they would still find that this churching is, truly, a thanksgiving. The slight changes from the mediaeval Sarum use, on which the present office is based, have only strengthened this old note. The inclusion, in 1662, of the direction that the woman should come `decently apparelled', that is, that she should be in a white veil, was the confirmation of most ancient custom, as was the footnote that it was seemly that the office should precede a Communion service, as it had always done.

It was, apparently, thought unnecessary to mention another ancient custom, whereby a woman's friends came with her; and it was not until the `Deposited Book' of 1928 that the renewal was suggested of another custom, oddly fallen into disuse, that the woman should be accompanied in thanksgiving by her husband.

As long ago as the thirteenth century, however much it may have been disregarded, the Canon Law of the Church made an attack on the assumption that a woman, after child-birth, could not enter her church or neighbours' houses for a definite period, because of some alleged uncleanness. `If women, after child-bearing, desire immediately to enter the church, they commit no sin by so doing, nor are they to be hindered', ran the Canon Law.

The very fact, all the same, that people scarcely believe that the Church has rejected all opinion that the crisis of child-birth is an evil or impure one, is in itself part proof of the lurking prevalence of a degraded pagan attitude.

The true pagan attitude, unlike this, was in its essentials passionately simple and understandable. It had a fine humanity of custom, which is still to be found among such peoples as the Marquesas, among whole Gauguin lived, or the Kaffirs, and even among the Basques. The centre of happiness was children and their begetting, and both lay at the core of the untouchable mystery of life. But both, therefore, were fearfully exposed to the hostile forces warring against men.

All people knew their particular demons: they were the vampire, the nightmare, the unspeakable `incubus'. Through Jewish legend, they were personified in Lilith, the demon wife of Adam, who peopled the air with every incubus man knows, and who, crazed with jealousy of Eve's children, attacked and attempted to murder them new-born.

The idea of purification was, therefore, threefold. It was the victorious closing of a particularly dangerous battle for new life; the redemption from peril of the father, mother, and infant (sometimes of the whole kin) by placating gifts; and their triumphant re-entry, and the infant's initiation, into the common life of the community. Nearly always the means were provided by the mighty power of living water in washing or baptism, and sometimes also by blood offering.

Where observance narrowed round the woman, it was because she only could be spared for any time from work.

Among the Jews, significantly, `purification' was needed to make possible the return to common life of those who had touched holy things (Lev. xv. i, passim). Before such purification was accomplished, persons were taboo, untouchable, in the usual term `unclean', that is, mysterious, dangerous to common life.

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