Women ‘Churched’

When Redland Parish church opened on the outskirts of Bristol, locals no longer faced a long trudge to their local church at westbury-on-Trym, which most of them had just not bothered with. So the church had a big backlog of baptisms, and a ritual for women, called ‘churching’ which I understood to be prayers for them surviving the hell that was painkiiling free childbirth. But it was a far more nasty process, as Stevie Davis writes in Unbridled Spirits:

It was derived from Leviticus, so from Hebrew purification laws which claimed that after childbirth women were unclean for 40 days after giving birth to a boy, 80 for a girl.

A woman had to come to the church and not touch any consecrated object. she had to cover her head with a veil, so similar to the treatment of adulterers and fornicators out of marriage. “She had to kneel at the communion rails and sit i a special pew, bench or stool…” which makes me wonder if this is the stool that the woman in Edinburgh hurled at the priest – a piece of outrage of epic proportions.

As the woman kneeled, the priest intoned an incantation, condemned by one victim as

“before the mother dare go abroad, she must have their blessing, that the sun shall not smite her by day, nor the moon by night, for which blessing of theirs they must have a offering, ad the like they require for all the children that be born into the world, though there live not 1 of 6 to be men and women.’

Women were not stupid then; they resented being treated as polluted and polluters after they had done their duty of bringing new life into the world, as the church and society required. But this was not a choice. Until they were churched,they could not take communion, again as they were unclean. If they refused this awful ritual, they would be excommunicated, so would be denied the protection of the church, and be buried without a hope of getting into heaven.

This is a time when women were flocking to new sects, especially those that gave women more independence and powers, especially the Quakers who allowed them to preach. They resented that the priests were supported by tithes, ie taxes, were forced upon them so if they were no good could not get rid of them, but also had to pay for being baptised, churched, married and buried. No wonder they called Anglican priests locusts.

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