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Groundhog Day - Candlemass - February 2

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In modern life many people may not be aware that on February 2 we celebrate an ancient feast, common to the Church of both East and West, which is mentioned clearly in Leviticus and Luke.

February 2 is "Candlemas" in many churches and is the day for observing the ritual purification of Mary forty days after the birth of Jesus as well as the presentation of Jesus in the Temple in Jerusalem (see Luke 2:21-40).  The day has pagan roots and was a Christian adaptation of the older practices for this midwinter festivity from which we get our "Groundhog Day." Since the presentation was also the purification of Mary (40 days after childbirth), the church developed ritual practices known as the "Churching of Women" (see additional notes at bottom of page) or "Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth."  The following is an explanation

  • Seven days after Christmas, January 1, is the feast of our Lord's circumcision

  • Thirty three days after that, February 2 is the feast of his being offered in the Temple, the purification of the Virgin Mary. So Candlemass is fourty days after the birth of Jesus.

This day also used to have great significance in the rural calendar, because the date lies half way between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, so it marks the day upon which winter is half over! . It is a time of the year which naturally forms a transition period in winter - there is a sense in which thank God we are moving on into brighter and better days.

Like many Christians festivals, including Christmas itself, Candlemas has roots which lie deep in pagan roots and an understanding of nature.
Imbolc was an important day in the Celtic calendar. (pronounced 'im'olk' also known as Oimelc) comes from an Irish word that was originally thought to mean 'in the belly' although many people translate it as 'ewe's milk' (oi-melc). As winter stores of food were getting low Imbolc rituals were performed to harness divine energy that would ensure a steady supply of food until the harvest six months later.

Like many Celtic festivals, the Imbolc celebrations centred around the lighting of fires. Fire was perhaps more important for this festival than others as it was also the holy day of Brigid (also known as Bride, Brigit, Brid), the Goddess of fire, healing and fertility. The lighting of fires celebrated the increasing power of the Sun over the coming months. For the Christian calendar, this holiday was reformed and renamed 'Candlemas' when candles are lit to remember the purification of the Virgin Mary.

As Candlemas traditions evolved, many people embraced the legend that if the sun shone on the second day of February, an animal would see its shadow and there would be at least six more weeks of winter. Bears or badgers are watched in some European countries, but the German immigrants who settled in Pennsylvania found an abundance of groundhogs and late in the 19th century a few residents in Punxsutawney began celebrating the groundhog as weather prophet. So we have Groundhog Day.

You may know the rhyme

If Candlemas day be sunny and bright,
Winter again will show its might.
If Candlemas day be cloudy and grey,
Winter soon will pass away. (Fox version)

If Candlemas day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight.
If Candlemas day be shower and rain,
Winter is gone and will not come again. (Traditional)

But this time of year should not be a pagan festival it is a Christian feast which we celebrate and it can be traced to at least 543. The Feast of Lighted candles is mentioned by Bede and St. Eligius, who was bishop of Noyon from 640 to 648. The feast quickly became popular, the day is set aside to commemorate the presentation of Jesus Christ in the Temple of Jerusalem. Jesus has been circumcised, marking him as a member of God's chosen people, through whom world salvation was to be achieved.

The background to the passage from Luke today is seen in the Book of Leviticus Chapter 12:1. This taught that

On the eight day after the birth of a boy, he was to be circumcised
Then the woman was to wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding
Here is the reading from Leviticus 12:1 if you find it helpful

The LORD said to Moses, "Say to the Israelites: 'A woman who becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son will be ceremonially unclean for seven days, just as she is unclean during her monthly period. On the eighth day the boy is to be circumcised. Then the woman must wait thirty-three days to be purified from her bleeding. She must not touch anything sacred or go to the sanctuary until the days of her purification are over. If she gives birth to a daughter, for two weeks the woman will be unclean, as during her period. Then she must wait sixty-six days to be purified from her bleeding.

"'When the days of her purification for a son or daughter are over, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. He shall offer them before the LORD to make atonement for her, and then she will be ceremonially clean from her flow of blood.

"'These are the regulations for the woman who gives birth to a boy or a girl. If she cannot afford a lamb, she is to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. In this way the priest will make atonement for her, and she will be clean.'"

That is why

Seven days after Christmas, January 1, is the feast of our Lord's circumcision
Thirty three days after that, February 2 is the feast of his being offered in the Temple.

When the days of her purification for a son or daughter were over the woman was to bring to the priest a year-old lamb for a burnt offering and a young pigeon or a dove for a sin offering. If she was unable to afford a lamb, she was to bring two doves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering.

From the offering of a pair of birds by Mary, we may suppose that Joseph and Mary were not very wealthy. Nevertheless as faithful Jews they did their religious duty and observed the Law of Moses when it came to such things as childbirth, circumcision, and other rituals.


The Candlemas Prayer

Dear friends: forty days ago we celebrated the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now we recall the day on which he was presented in the Temple, when he was offered to the Father and shown to his people. As a sign of his coming among us, his mother was purified, as we now come to him for cleansing. In their old age Simeon and Anna recognised him as their Lord, as we today sing of his glory.

Today we celebrate both the joy of his coming and his searching judgement, looking back to the day of his birth and forward to the coming days of his passion.

Lord God, you are the source of everlasting light.
Your son, our beloved Lord Jesus
was presented in the temple 40 days after his birth.
He was recognised by Simeon and Anna,
and welcomed as the promised Messiah.
May we like them, behold the glory of the Lord Jesus.
Grant that we may stand before you
with hearts cleansed by your forgiving love.
May we serve you all our days
and make your name known
as we worship you as our Lord.
So may we come by your grace
to eternal life .

O God, who in the work of creation commanded the light to shine out of darkness:
we pray that the light of the glorious gospel of Christ may shine into the hearts of all your people,
dispelling the darkness of ignorance and unbelief ,
and revealing to them the knowledge of your glory
in the face of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Additional Notes

Candlemas Day, known also as The Purification of the Blessed Virgin, Christ's Presentation at The Temple, and colloquially in England as The Wives' Feast. A festival celebrated in the Anglican, Roman, and Greek Churches on February 2. This, being the fortieth day after the birth of Christ, was the day on which, according to Levitical rules, the purification of the mother and the presentation of the son should occur. (See CHURCHING OF WOMEN.) The institution of the festival is attributed to Pope Gelasius, in the latter part of the fifth century. In many of its details it shows itself to be a Christianization of the pagan Februalia celebrated in ancient Rome at about the same period. In fact, this is expressly acknowledged by Pope Innocent XII. in the course of a sermon: "Why do we in this feast carry candles? Because the Gentiles dedicated the month of February to the infernal gods, and as at the beginning of it Pluto stole Proserpine, and her mother Ceres sought her in the night with lighted candles, so they, at the beginning of this month, walked about the city with lighted candles. Because the holy fathers could not extirpate this custom, they ordained that Christians should carry about candles in honor of the Blessed Virgin; and thus what was done before to the honor of Ceres is now done to the honor of the Virgin." In the Eastern Church the festival was adopted by the Emperor Justinian in 542 under the name of * "meeting," because Simeon and Anna the prophetess met in the temple at the presentation of Christ. (Luke ii.) The keynote of the festival in the Greek Church is formed by these words of Simeon addressed to the infant Christ, "A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel." In the West the Virgin came to be the most important figure of the day, and the words of Simeon, "Yea, a sword shall pierce through thine own soul also," were taken to denote the first of her seven sorrows, which were often represented in a matter-of-fact way as seven swords in the heart of the Mater Dolorosa.

The special services of the day among Roman Catholics consist of a blessing of candles by the priests and a distribution of them to the congregation, by which they are afterwards carried lighted in solemn procession.

Before the downfall of the Papacy, the Pope used to officiate at this festival in the chapel of the Quirinal. When he had blessed the candles he distributed them with his own hand among those in the church, each of whom, going singly up to him, knelt to receive it. The cardinals went first; then followed bishops, canons, priors, abbots, priests, and others, down to the sacristans and humblest officers of the Church. Then the candles were lighted, the Pope was seated in his chair and carried in procession, with the chanting of hymns, around the ante-chapel; the throne was stripped of its splendid hangings, the Pope and cardinals took off their gold and crimson robes, and the usual mass of the morning was sung.

It appears that in England, in Catholic times, a meaning was attached to the size of the candles and the manner in which they burned during the procession; that, moreover, the reserved parts of the candles were deemed to possess a strong supernatural virtue.

Candlemas in the Middle Ages was the favorite time for the ceremony among Christian mothers analogous to the Mosaic presentation in the temple. Hence came the custom of bearing candles for those services at other times of the year. In England, however, men were not particularly attentive to the pious custom, for it is recorded that "Men seldom offer candles at women's churchynges saving our Ladie's, but reason it is that she have some preferement;" and, even though she did have some preferment, the English before the Reformation were inclined to find fault because they were not allowed to eat flesh every Saturday with joy and pardon in honor of the Virgin, as was done in Flanders, saying, "the Pope is not so good to us," and drawing the conclusion that there was as good reason for them to eat flesh with the Flemish "as that we shuld bear our Candel to her Churchinge at Candlemas with theym as they doe."

With the Reformation there came a reaction against the high honor paid the Virgin. John Bale in 1554 complained that it was a Romish error "to beare their Candels soberly and to offer them to the Saintes, not of God's makynge, but the Carvers and Paynters," and in the thirtieth year of his reign Henry VIII. issued a proclamation, say-ing, "On Candelmas Daye it shall be declared that the bearynge of Candels is done in the memorie of Christe, the spirituall lyghte whom Simeon dyd prophecye, as it is redde in the Churche that daye." This brought the festival back to the old Greek meaning. In the most ancient pictures and mosaics Simeon is the figure of importance, as the type of those who recognized and embraced the Messiah, and his song, the "Nunc Dimittis," furnished one of the names by which the day was known.

On Candlemas Eve all Christmas greens must be taken down. Herrick has this little poem on the subject:


Down with the Rosemary, and so
Down with the Baies and Mistletoe;
Down with the Holly, Ivie, all
Wherewith ye drest the Christmas Hall;
That so the superstitious find
Not one least branch there left behind,
For look, how many leaves there be
Neglected there, Maids, trust to me,
So many Goblins you shall see.

He also alludes to the reservation of part of the candles or torches, as calculated to have the effect of protecting from mischief:

Kindle the Christmas brand, and then
Till sunset let it burn
Which quenched, then lay it up again,
Till Christmas next return

Part must be kept, wherewith to teend
The Christmas log next year;
And where 'tis safely kept, the fiend
Can do no mischief there.

Candlemas is everywhere a great day for weather prognostications. But these prognostications, like dreams, go by contraries, fine weather on Candlemas foretelling a succession of unseasonably cold days and necessarily a failure of the crops, while foul weather on that day is a sure promise of a bright spring, with a summer to match. Numerous popular rhymes in England and Scotland embody this superstition:

If Candlemas Day be dry and fair,
The half o' winter's to come and mair;
If Candlemas Day be wet and foul,
The half o' winter's gane at Yule.

If Candlemas Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight
But if it be dark with clouds and rain,
Winter is gone, and will not come again.

The hind had as lief see
His wife on the bier
As that Candlemas Day
Should be pleasant and clear.

"The Country Almanac" in 1676 came out with this version of the story:

Foul weather is no news; hail, rain, and snow
Are now expected, and esteem'd no woe;
Nay, 'tis an omen bad, the yeomen say,
If Phoebus shows his face the second day.

Though they expected foul weather, still the yeomen thought that by that time the worst of the winter was past, and they had the proverb,Ñ

When Candlemas Day is come and gone,
The snow lies on a hot stone.

In Germany there are two proverbial expressions on this subject: "The shepherd would rather see the wolf enter his stable on Candlemas Day than the sun." "The badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemas Day, and when he finds snow walks abroad; but if he sees the sun shining he draws back into his hole."

The Germans have brought over with them to America the superstition about the badger. But as the badger, even in its distinctly American variety, is little known east of the Mississippi River, the fable has been transferred from its shoulders to those of the woodchuck, or ground-hog. Farmers in the Middle States give the name of Ground-Hog Day to Candlemas. They will tell you that it is the day whereon the ground-hog awakens from his hibernating slumber, stretches himself, and comes out of his hole to look for his shadow. If he finds it,Ñ that is to say, if the sun be shining out of a clear sky so that the woodchuck casts a shadow,Ñhe hurries back to his hole and to sleep again, knowing that it is but a temporary meteorological change, which must speedily be followed by a renewal of wintry severity. But if the sky be overcast and the sun obscured, and the day be cold and cheerless, and the ground-hog casts no shadow, then he exults and disports himself, and counts his slumbers at an end, for he knows that winter also is at its end.

The following rhymes, common in the rural parts of New England, may be contrasted with the similar versified proverbs of Old England and Scotland, in regard to the prophetic quality of Candlemas weather:

As far as the sun shines out on Candlemas Day,
So far will the snow blow in before May;
As far as the snow blows in on Candlemas Day,
So far will the sun shine out before May.

The ground-hog was not the only medium to foretell the future on Candlemas. According to Martin, in his "Description of the Western Islands," the Hebrideans observed this custom: "The mistress and servants of each family take a sheaf of oats and dress it up in women's apparel, put it in a large basket, and lay a wooden club by it, and this they call 'Briid's Bed;' and then the mistress and servants cry three times, 'Briid is come! Briid is welcom!' This they do just before going to bed, and when they rise in the morning they look among the ashes, expecting to see the impression of Briid's club there, which if they do they reckon it a true presage of a good crop and prosperous year, and the contrary they take as a bad omen." Briid may be a corruption of Bridget, whose day occurs on the eve of Candlemas.

There is a custom of old standing in Scotland in connection with Candlemas Day. On that day it is, or lately was, the universal practice for children attending school to make small presents of money to their teachers. The master sits at his desk or table, exchanging for the moment his usual authoritative look for one of bland civility, and each child goes up in turn and lays his offering before him, the sum being generally proportioned to the abilities of the parents. Sixpence and a shilling are the common sums in most schools, but some give half and whole crowns, and even more. The boy and girl who give most are respectively styled king and queen. The children being then dismissed for a holiday proceed along the streets in a confused procession, carrying the king and queen in state. In some schools it used to be customary for the teacher, on the conclusion of the offerings, to make a bowl of punch and regale each urchin with a glass and a biscuit. The latter part of the day was usually devoted to what was called the Candlemas breeze, or blaze,Ñ namely, the burning of any piece of furze which might exist in their neighborhood.

Another old custom in Scotland on Candlemas Day was to hold a foot-ball match. On one occasion, not long ago, when the sport took place in Jedburgh, the contending parties, after a struggle of two hours in the streets, transferred the contention to the bed of the river Jed, and there fought it out amid a scene of fearful splash and dabblement, to the infinite amusement of a multitude looking on from the bridge.


The Churching of Women

The Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth, commonly called The Churching of Women
Placed between the Rite for the Burial of the Dead, the Commination and the Prayers to be Used at Sea among the Occasional Offices in the back of the Book of Common Prayer we find a short rite which bears the rather long title: The Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth, commonly called the Churching of Women. Though its practise has mainly died out in the past years, the rite has survived all major prayer book reforms and is also, though in a modified form, to be found in the 1979 version of the American Prayer Book and in the Alternative Service Book. More recently historians have noted the lack of scholarly work on this topic. In the context of my own theological work, that of feminist theology, I often find it all too quickly despised as yet another expression of the church's misogyny. It is understood as an expression of the common understanding of women, and especially women who give birth, as defiling and ritually impure. But as a more detailed study of the rite itself and its history shows, the case is more sophisticated than that.

In the first part of the following paper I want to look at the history and significance of the rite in different contexts. In the middle section I want to look at the rite itself and its different parts, before, in the final section of this paper, I want to propose some theses for a contemporary re-consideration of the Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth. I want to take the historical and liturgical study of this rite as the basis for some suggestions for a feminist reconstruction of liturgical tradition. In this paper it seems best to concentrate on the Western tradition and to use the Eastern tradition, where the rite is far more prominent and more widely used than in the West, mainly for reasons of comparison.

Section One: Development and Historical Background of the Rite
The idea that a woman who has recently given birth is to be set apart and then re-introduced into religious and social life by means of a special rite is not a specifically Western, let alone Christian, idea. While the amount of time for which a childbearing woman is set apart varies from two to 200 days, such rites are found in a number of cultures. Two reasons are most likely for this common practice: On the one hand all things having to do with birth and death, in other words with life as such, are understood as awe-inspiring and causing fear. On the other hand we have to take into account a far more practical reason too: in a rural or agricultural society this could also be a simple means of protection for the new mother who would otherwise have been put back to work within a short period of time after giving birth [Marshall 1989, 51]. It is quite impressive to see what a considerable amount of protection was given for pregant woman in the Middle Ages, going as far as pregant women being exempt from fasting and the beating of a pregnant woman being subject to ecclesial punishment [Franz 1909, 188]. It is therefore not much of a surprise that the church also provided a specific rite for childbearing mothers.

William Coster suggests that because of the ubiquity of the rite one could presume its origins as a response to popular beliefs rather than as an originally Christian invention [Coster 1990, 377]. Keith Thomas in his important book Religion and the Decline of Magic argues in a similar direction when he says that it would be a fairer view to understand the ritual as the result of superstitious popular opinions rather than as its cause [Thomas 1971, 43].

The biblical background for a Christian practise of the rite is to be found in Leviticus 12 where a woman who gives birth to a son is counted as ritually unclean for 40 days and for twice as long after the birth of a female child. After that period of purification she is to go to the temple and bring the required offerings for the priest to make atonement for her. The distinction between the birth of a male or a female child is not maintained in the Western tradition while in the Eastern tradition only a male child is carried behind the iconostasis at the performance of the rite on the fortieth day after childbirth [Franz, 222].

In Luke chapter 2 it is recorded that the Virgin Mary also followed this custom of bringing her new-born son into the temple and being purified, one of the texts also read at the celebration of Candlemas which in the past also provided an annual occasion to preach about the need for women to follow the custom of churching.

In the Jewish tradition we find rites of naming and a rite of the child being taken to the synagogue for the first time. On the next occasion after the birth of the child the father of the child is asked to read the Torah in the synagogue, something which is practised to mark special occasions in the life of individuals. A woman is considered ritually unclean until her purification in the mikvah, the ritual bath which is also used for the purification of menstruating women as well as in the case of proselytes and those who had been in contact with the dead.

While it is assumed that similar customs must have existed earlier, the rite of purification of a mother after childbirth did not find its way into prayer books of the Western Church until about the eleventh century. Prior to the eleventh century there was the custom of the mother having to wait for being able to attend church after childbirth but no ritual expression of her return [Arx 1979, 65]. The custom that both the mother and the new-born child come to church together and have prayers said over them is much older. Yet as a particularly Christian rite it could only develop in the context of infant baptism. The earliest prayers for the occasion are those taken from either the marriage rite, the blessing of the bride or the marriage bed or they resemble prayers for the sick without specifically mentioning pregnancy and birth [Franz, 190]. These were performed in the house of the mother and are distinct from the reintroduction of the church. This distinction is maintained in the Eastern Tradition. Various popular rituals developed around childbirth, among these the cult of St. Anna, the mother of the Virgin Mary and the custom of placing little pieces of paper with blessings written on them on the womb of the mother. Originally the rite meant a 'churching' of the child rather than focusing on the mother as does the one we are studying. Some remainders of this tradition are to be found in the Prayers for the Mother and Child Forty Days after Birth, an occasion which is celebrated in the Orthodox church up to the present day.

Yet we know that the question whether a mother who had given birth recently should enter the church or not has been debated long before the eleventh century. The most prominent example is Pope Gregory the Great's letter to Augustine of Canterbury, as we find it in the Venerable Bede's Ecclesiastical History of England. Augustine had asked among a number of other questions: 'how long after she has brought forth, may she come into the church? and then adds in the end: 'All which things are requisite to be known by the rude nation of the English.' Gregory answers that even if she came the very hour after giving birth she was not committing a sin, but rather forbidding her to come would turn the punishment she was bearing for the sin of Eve into a crime. But the Christian tradition is not clear and uniform on this question. It seems that Gregory remained an exception and traditions like those of the penitentials which strongly suggested the need for purification became more influential. In the fourth century Hippolytus records that a mother who had just given birth was to be seated among the catechumens. Emperor Leo in 460 forbade women to take communion within 40 days after the delivery, but did not count it as a grave sin, if they did in case of emergency [Stephens 1854, 1751f].

As I mentioned earlier from about the eleventh century onwards rites of purification are to be found in liturgical books. Other than in the Eastern tradition, where mother and child are seen as one unit, the attention in the Anglican tradition and its predecessors shifts to the mother alone. The child does not get a mention in the rite and was usually brought to church by the father or the midwife, but neither the father nor the child had to be there necessarily. As typical example I want us to take a closer look at the Missale ad Usum Ecclesiae Sarum, mainly because it provided one of the main sources for the Book of Common Prayer. Here we find something called the Benedictio mulieris post partum, ante ostium ecclesiae. Though it is called a benedictio what we find here, after prayers for pregnant and labouring women, is a rite of purification as the beginning of the ceremony at the church door and the use of holy water show clearly. While there are hardly any parallels in the continental reformed tradition [Schmidt 1989, 108], the rite is slightly altered and translated into English for the 1549 prayer book where it is simply called The Ordre of the Purification of Women. Keith Thomas sees it as 'another semi-magical ceremony which the Anglican church seemed reluctant to discard' [Thomas, 68]. The major shift in the tradition happened in the development of the 1552 prayer book where any notion of purification is dropped and the rite is renamed 'The Thankesgiving of Women after Child-birth, commonly called the Churchynge of Women. This marks a clear shift in the theological concept of the rite. Yet, the shift was to remain mainly theological. It is quite evident that in popular perception the superstitious belief that a woman should keep away from both church and society was retained. The rite became a very prominent subject of controversy for the Puritans who on the one hand saw the rite as smelling of the Jewish law of purification, as they expressed it in the 1570 Admonition to the Parliament and as a remainder of the popery on the other. They questioned the need to see something as natural as the birth of a child as a reason worthy of special thanksgiving. One of them pointed out that if we would take everything as an occasion for prayer and thanksgiving we would be praying all the time and there would be no time left to work. Richard Hooker, not without wit, replied: 'Surely better to be like unto those heretics which do nothing but pray, than those which do nothing else but quarrel' [Hooker 1836, 554].

For those mainly concerned the practice of churching was by far not an imposition of the male church on women, but something sought after by women themselves. It was not only understood as the restoration of a woman to church and society after a time of isolation, but also as a welcome occasion for excessive feasting with her 'gossips'. Cressy points out that women actually looked forward to churching as a social occasion, a collective female occasion, the conclusion of the month of privilege after childbirth [Cressy 1993, 110]. For men it marked the end of a month during which they had to take care of the domestic affairs, commonly referred to as the 'gander month' [Cressy, 114]. And it was after all a ceremony which focused on the mother herself, not on her husband or the child, a ceremony which acknowledged her labours and the perils of childbirth. 'In its customary operation it was her occasion, even if the church strove repeatedly to make it theirs'[Cressy, 146].

Such an interpretation shows that it is in fact necessary to reconsider the significance of the rite of churching, before one all too quickly despises it as primarily misogynist. Yet, that should not diminish the significance of the popular perception which, despite major theological changes made to the rite, until considerably recently retained some notion of purification. Here we see how theology and popular perception can in fact differ. But an understanding of the rite of churching as a women's rite can provide the basis for a re-interpretation which understands childbirth as an important, and despite the achievements of modern medicine, still dangerous enterprise, where in fact help and prayer, and as a consequence thanksgiving, is needed. It could also point to the fact that, along with the emphasis on the child in baptism, parents need the prayer and the blessing of the church community too. Later the presence of the woman's husband at her churching was encouraged and for example in the Revised Roman Rite which omitted the churching rite altogether we find a blessing of the parents at the end of the baptismal rite.

But the Puritan criticisms also deserve some attention for a reconsideration of the rite. Despite the misogyny inherent to Puritanism, which cannot be denied, what is proposed here is an understanding of sexuality, and in this case female sexuality, as something natural and in fact by no means defiling [Coster, 141]. But this does not mean that the occasion of childbirth is not one worthy of thanksgiving and blessing.

The importance of the rite as far as popular perception is concerned becomes most evident through the fact that during the Interregnum, when the prayer book was forbidden, women still secretly continued to seek out ministers to perform the rite for them. The use of the rite was restored after the Interregnum. Cressy states that after the restoration it almost became a test of conformity to ecclesiastical discipline [Cressy, 141]. An increasing number of Non-Conformists refused to be churched. After the exhaustion of the reformation controversies the practise of the rite started to become increasingly insignificant which led to its ultimate decline. It also found its way into the American Prayer Book of 1786.

A number of special cases are to be mentioned here. The rite could normally only be done to a woman who had given birth legitimately. If she had conceived out of wedlock she was forced to repent in front of the whole congregation, preferably on a Sunday, before she could be churched. According to common custom the rite was also performed when the child was still-born or had died immediately after birth. This shows that the focus of the rite was on the mother who had given birth, not on the child or the father. While the churching was normally performed by a priest in the parish church there were exceptions of women being churched at home or even by their husbands, but there were normally a number of objections to these anomalities. There are also records of a debate whether a woman who had died in giving birth should be buried on the church graveyard if she had died unchurched. Popular custom occasionally had another woman undergoing the ceremony for the woman who had died, but such practice was not favoured by the church. It was eventually decided that an unchurched woman could be buried, but in a number of cases they were burried in a special part of the graveyard and superstitious belief had it that women betwen 15 and 45 were not supposed to be going to that particular part of the graveyard [Franz, 241].