Onto us a Child is Born: Welcoming Children into the Church –The Reverend Liz Costello
As we wait with Mary and Joseph to welcome the infant Christ, we are reminded that the church has its origins in welcoming children. As Christians, we share the call to welcome children into the church. For some of us, it was a prayer said over us when we vowed a lifetime of commitment: “Bestow on them, if it is your will, the gift and heritage of children” (BCP, 429). For others it was the vow we made at the baptism of a child in our midst: “Do you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” (BCP, 303). We have all promised to welcome children into the church.
One way that The Episcopal Church has given thanks for and welcomed children is through the pastoral office, “A Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child” (BCP, 439). This rite is rooted in the Jewish practice of a mother giving thanks at the Temple forty days after childbirth (Leviticus 12)—a rite that, as a faithful Jew, Mary observes (Luke 2:22-38). While the rite has morphed and changed over time, its survival on down to the present is an indication of its ongoing importance. Thomas Cranmer—chief drafter of first prayer book in the reformed Church of England—preserved the rite in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer under the guise of “The Order of Purification of Women,” which was rooted in the Sarum rite. At that time, the function of this rite was to reincorporate women back into the congregation after childbirth. The 1552 Book of Common Prayer renamed the rite “The Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth, Commonly Called the Churching of Women.” Subsequent prayer books opted for the shorter title, “The Churching of Women.” Revisions of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer changed it to “A Thanksgiving for the Birth or Adoption of a Child.” Such title changes are indicative of shifts in the theology, function, and pastoral focus of the rite, though a coherent theme throughout is how the church welcomes parents and children into the community of the faithful. The current iteration includes special prayers and blessings that express thanks for a birth or adoption. It is a rite that can be included within the context of Sunday worship, the Daily Office, or in the privacy of a family’s home or hospital room.
In recognition of the complexity of more modern pastoral care concerns related to the bearing, birth, and loss of children, the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music (SCLM) created additional supplemental liturgical materials. Compiled in the book Enriching Our Worship 5: Liturgies and Prayers Related to Childbearing, Childbirth, and Loss, the SCLM included prayers for private devotion and public worship. Prayers for private devotion include prayers for: adoption (including prayers for the birth mother and adoptive child), child loss, infertility, and more. Additional liturgical services range from a blessing of a pregnant woman to a rite for mourning the loss of a pregnancy.
If you would like for Liz or Marek to offer specials prayers for you or for your family, or to arrange a situation-specific pastoral liturgy, please do not hesitate to contact either one of them!