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.
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.
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 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.