By Emily Hylden
If Nadia Bolz-Weber’s vagina statue and the media frenzy about it is any indication, I’m with Tish Harrison Warren: the church got to vulvas and celebrating the female body long before Bolz-Weber, and I pray Lord it may be there long, long after.
Warren’s essay for Christianity Today’s website, posted on social media, elicited one memorable “throwing the book” response: taking umbrage with the liturgy of the Churching of Women. The interlocutor’s only exposure was the proudly secular Masterpiece series Victoria, when the young queen seems to be forced into a degrading ritual of repentance after the birth of her first child. My friend, battling the same complicated portrait of sexuality that so many of us experienced, prickled at the implication that bearing children required some kind of forgiveness by the Church. Of course, that’s exactly what the plot device was meant to do in this episode, but it’s a far cry from the intention of the liturgy, or even its general understanding and reception among the churched.
My husband tells the story of a wizened Englishwoman who, soon after our first son’s birth, asked him if his wife would be enjoying the Churching of Women, and immediately went on to wax nostalgic about the importance and belovedness of this ritual during her childhood. She said it was one of the most culturally popular events in her young life. Even those not particularly pious loved the liturgy of thanksgiving for safety and asking blessing upon the child and the enlarged family in their earliest days.
In 2019, the Churching of Women is, at best, uncommon but, at most realistic, unknown. For the last hundred years in the United States, it has been called “Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child” or “Thanksgiving of Women After Childbirth.”
Then again, there are plenty of rituals bursting into the lives of childbearing women in the United States today (though fewer and fewer women are having children): placenta-encapsulation, womb-closing, Mayan medicine, dedicated prenatal and postnatal yoga, and goddess ceremonies.
Clearly, people — women — know in their bones and their bodies that this is a moment to mark, to acknowledge in a sacred space. It’s just that they think they need to look to pagan culture to find something to scratch this holy itch.
I have to wonder if it’s the same problem Nadia Bolz-Weber is trying to address, but again, through a sadly banal secular lens, rather than doubling down and digging deep into the yonic baptismal font, which is the womb of our Church and the lifeblood of Christ’s body.