Review: “Ritual Impurity and the Churching of Women”

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Kathryn Wehr, “Understanding Ritual Purity and Sin in the Church of Women: From Ontological to Pedagogical to Eschatological,” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 55.1 (2011): 85-105.

Background:

An Orthodox woman traditionally avoids church for 40 days after giving birth. She and her child are welcomed into the parish with a rite called “churching.” The priest thanks God for the safe delivery of the child, and he prays for the mother, asking God to, “Purify her…from all sin and from every uncleanness.” Then he takes the new babe into his arms and walks to the front of the church. If the babe is a girl, he stops at the iconostasis (the icon screen). If the child is a boy, he passes through the royal doors and processes the child around the altar.

Churching practices vary across the Orthodox Church. Some priests process around the altar with boys and girls. In some parishes women have to wait a full 40 days. Others are less rigid. Some priests also omit parts of the prayer that imply the mom is ritually unclean or sinful.

Summary:

Ritual impurity is the subject Wehr focuses on in her recent article in SVTQ. She traces the biblical and patristic roots of the practice, looks at its pastoral implications, and proposes a way of understanding churching more consistent with the Orthodox Church’s understanding of the kingdom of God (the eschaton).

The practice of churching comes from Leviticus 12:2-8, which prescribe a period of uncleanness for a woman who has given birth to a child. In the Old Testament impurity does not carry any sinful connotations. It is just a state of being that can be ritually overcome. In the patristic era impurity is more closely associated with sin. For most of the church, East and West, women who had given birth or were menstruating were barred from receiving Communion or in some cases were seated with catechumens. Wehr notes, “This practice could be seen as questioning the legitimacy of the woman’s own baptism, if by reason of blood she is removed from the congregation of the faithful” (92). The Didascalia Apostolorum (from the 200s in Antioch) contests this view of sin and impurity, saying, “Wherefore, beloved, flee and avoid such observances: for you have received release, that you should no more bind yourselves; and do not load yourselves again with that which our Lord and Saviour has lifted from you” (in Wehr 93). The Didascalia is in line with Paul’s teachings against such understandings of sin and impurity in Romans 8 and Collosians 2.

Wehr notes a modern attempt to look at the practice of churching more pedagogically. For Schmemann it provides an opportunity to think about our constant need for redemption. But the author observes that, “Making ritual purity more accessible may broaden our understanding but [sic] in truth, it does not answer the ontological questions” (101). The theological rationale behind the practice is still be problematic. Do we really want to suggest, as many of the church fathers seemed to assume, that blood makes a woman unclean?

Wehr agrees with Demetrios Passakos who wrote that the canons of the church that focus on issues of ritual impurity are “restoring a legalism that was overcome during early Christian history” (in Wehr 103). Orthodoxy is life in the Spirit, who does not depart from a person because of an issue of bodily fluids. Baptism is not overcome. If we have truly died and risen with Christ, then, as the Divine Liturgy declares every Sunday with the words, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” we have already begun to live in the life to come.

Wehr does not want to do away with the practice of churching. “Giving birth,” she observes, “is still a dangerous miracle” (97). Spiritual reflection, bonding, and a time of adjustment are important, but she advises re-examining the practice of churching in light of the eschatological reality of our new life in Christ.

My take:

My own parish looks at the practice of churching more pedagogically, so I am inclined to agree with Wehr. Orthodoxy can lend itself to legalism, especially since we may be the only church in the world where the argument, “This is the way it has always been done,” actually carries some weight. The tradition of symphonia in the Orthodox Church means that we are constantly dialoguing with our culture. Culture has a kind of revelatory status for us, but culture is also fallen. Therefore, we must constantly be on the lookout for practices that have more in common with a medieval mindset than the core of the Orthodox faith. In other words, we should be careful not to confuse the Tradition with Revelation. I do not share Fr. Georges Florovsky’s view of a neopatristic synthesis, but he was right that the Tradition of the Orthodox Church is not about the Tradition itself. Tradition is our response to the person of Jesus Christ, to whom the Spirit bears ongoing witness in the life of the faithful. For me, this is what it means for our tradition to be “alive.” The argument, “This is the way it has always been done,” is important. We should pay very close attention to our past. But that argument does not end all discussion. Maybe it has always been done that way because we are fallen. The church is perfect, but the church is, in a certain sense, not finished yet. We must attend to our past with an eye toward our future in God’s kingdom, and we should attempt, as much as possible, to live into that future now.

6 Comments

    • davidjdunn July 18, 2012 2:49 am  Reply

      I looked at the article when you posted it to Facebook. He makes some historical claims that I need to research more before I can offer anything like an intelligent response. Unfortunately, I am very busy. Too many projects as it is. I will say that that associations of “uncleanness” with “sin” make sense in light of some other research I’ve done.

  1. M. Stankovich July 14, 2012 12:00 am  Reply

    Fr. Hopko framed this “ritual impurity” by employing the analogy of those who handled and buried the dead and were likewise considered “unclean”. Rather than suggesting an exposure to something “infectious” or “filthy,” in both cases, the “ritual” necessitated a proximity to the very intimate presence of God. While it seems reasonable to cringe at the statement, “Well, it was good enough for the Mother of God…” as the icon above portrays, can a woman be more intimate with the Creator than birth?

    Fr. Florovsky argues that some promote a “theology or repetition,” whereby the Councils effectively concluded in Chalcedon, and everything after was addenda. Or, the “Patristic mind” was sealed by John of Damascus at Nicea II. Or, we certainly can’t disallow Gregory Palamas, and what to do with the f(F)athers of the Philokalia… And so he concludes that we have never maintained the notion of a “static” Tradition, but that the “Church is still fully authoritative as she has been in the ages past, since the Spirit of Truth enlivens her now no less effectively as in the ancient times.”

  2. Jordan Henderson July 13, 2012 10:03 pm  Reply

    I’ve not yet read Wehr’s article, but wanted to respond to the quote from Passakos above regarding “restoring a legalism that was overcome during early Christian history.” There are several current trends in New Testament scholarship which shed light on this subject. E. P. Sanders argued in the 1970′s, in my opinion convincingly, that the Judaism of the first century against which Paul argued was actually not legalistic. Rather, they saw the Law as a gift from God, and their obeying the Law as a proper response within the covenant between God and Israel. Our understanding of 1st century Judaism as legalistic comes more from Luther’s reading his experience with Catholicism back into what Paul actually said. Sanders’ understanding of first century Judaism has been strengthened by the work of “New Perspective” authors such as James Dunn and N. T. Wright.

    Secondly, on the topic of impurity in general, I’ve found the work of scholars such as Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, who apply social-scientific methods of study to the NT, to be helpful. For instance, take the whole concept of “dirt”. They note (I apologize for not having any references handy) that dirt is simply “matter misplaced”. Soil, for instance, is a life-giving substance essential for growing flowers, trees, and vegetable plants. Yet when it is tracked all over the living room, it becomes dirt, something undesirable and in need of disposal. (This was mentioned on an episode of the “Cosby Show” if I’m not mistaken.)

    Taken in this sense, blood is seen by most everyone in at least certain contexts to be “dirty”. That’s why a woman is cleaned up and covered after giving birth before receiving visitors. It’s not that her blood should make her feel guilty or is a cause for shame. It’s just that when it’s all over the place, rather than inside her, it becomes seen as “matter misplaced”.

    I’ve found this to be a helpful paradigm for understanding ritual uncleanness or impurity, not only in our own tradition, but in other religions as well. We so often take the concepts of being “unclean” or “impure” as things to be ashamed of or feel guilty about. That’s the problem, for instance, with reading the Fathers who say that blood makes a woman “unclean” if we take that to mean she has something to be ashamed of or feel guilty about. However, seen within the paradigm suggested by Malina and Rohrbaugh, the association of guilt is completely foreign to the concept of ritual impurity (even if that is not how it is often taken today).

    Disclaimer: Note that I’m talking about how we understand these things historically, and not specifically responding to Wehr’s (or your) overarching points regarding churching. I do, however, think that to truly engage such long-standing traditions today (whatever conclusions we come to), having a proper historical perspective on them is essential.

    • davidjdunn July 15, 2012 12:53 pm  Reply

      Hi Jordan. Wehr actually raises the same point you do about impurity in Judaism, but she goes on to argue that this does take on a moral tone in the writings of the mothers and fathers. So what started out as just dirty becomes sinful, and this is the sense it retains in many Orthodox churches today.

  3. Alex July 13, 2012 2:42 pm  Reply

    You write that “Tradition is our response to the person of Jesus Christ, to whom the Spirit bears ongoing witness in the life of the faithful.”

    Would it be fair to say that Tradition is a human construction in response to an experience of the divine?

    Also, could you elaborate on your statement that the church is not finished yet? You’ve said this elsewhere, and I wonder just what you mean. There are certain senses in which it is clearly “not finished”, e.g. not all of its members have been born (presumably), the second coming hasn’t taken place. It seems, though, that you might mean something different.

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