The Churching of Infants: Reflections on Liturgics in a Pan-Orthodox World

Among my less-public duties is that I serve in the Department of Liturgics for the archdiocese in which I serve. I am not a liturgical scholar nor a translator. My job is mainly to help make sure that the English we use is the finest and most appropriate. I am, however, a liturgist in the sense of being a liturgical celebrant at the holy altar, a task I have been doing since my ordination to the diaconate in 2005, and if you know my writing at all, you know that I have a strong love for the English language. I consider its liturgical use to be the highest expression of it.

I thus have a strong interest in liturgics, and I have been blessed recently to assist in the production of new service books for our archdiocese. The first of these is the Services of Initiation book, which is mainly thought of as the “baptism book” but includes a lot of other services, which was published in 2017.

Among those services is the Churching on the Fortieth Day, when a newborn child is brought to the church and presented to the Lord in imitation of His own meeting in the temple on the fortieth day, a feast celebrated on February 2 and known as the Meeting of the Lord in the Temple (or sometimes, “The Presentation of the Lord”). In the west, this feast is called the Purification of the Blessed Virgin or Candlemas (because candles are blessed on this day).

How should we approach liturgics?

One of the things I really appreciate about the work being done by the scholars and translators (again, not me) who are putting together these new service books is that they are making use of new1, good scholarship on liturgics and often using it to repair distortions that have crept into various service books especially since the advent of printing.2

I can’t go into what that entails here, but one side of this that I find especially helpful is the inclusion of lots of notes about the scholarship so that we can know why services are shaped the way they are and make rational decisions based on that rather than just reprinting whatever the last edition we happened to receive. There is, after all, a vast web of manuscripts and printed service books with all kinds of developments happening in liturgical history.

Good Orthodox liturgics is not just a matter of calling our last book “the received tradition,” because it’s not. There is a lot going on. And we also have bishops with apostolic succession, which gives them the authority to make decisions about liturgics. As it is often said, “the bishop is the typikon,” and that doesn’t just mean that we have to obey him but rather that he has authority to do things like introduce new services, correct service books, etc. This matrix of understanding is expressed well in the draft preface from one of the other books I’m reviewing:

The Divine Liturgy is both divine and human. Considered from the divine side, the Liturgy, as the “work of God,” is timeless and nothing less than a divine revelation of saving love in Jesus Christ. So it was in the time of the holy Apostles and so it remains for us now, until the end of time, until the end of all things. Considered from the human side, the Liturgy is subject to development and both growth and change in many respects. Liturgists must understand this and give respect to the received tradition as it is handed on to us from our holy hierarchs.

So that is what informs my reflection here on churching, which grew out of conversations on social media.3 Some folks noticed that there are variations on the rite of churching. Most just noted them with interest, but there were also strenuous objections especially on the question of whether girls may be taken into the sanctuary (also called the altar or the holy place, that is, the space behind the iconostasis) during the rite.

Just for the sake of completeness, I’ll note that there are primarily two kinds of variation currently extant in Orthodox practice of the churching of infants (I’m not referring here to the Western Rite practiced in several dozen Orthodox parishes):

  1. Whether churching of infants is done either 1) before or 2) after baptism.
  2. Whether 1) only boys, 2) boys and girls, or 3) none at all are brought into the sanctuary during the rite.

The purpose of my reflection here is not to establish via scholarship what the historical norm is nor which practices are correct. I will say, though, that I take the word of the scholarship referenced below, that the historical norms are indeed established. And you will also see that I agree with following those norms.

The Historical Witness

In the notes in Appendix A of the Services of Initiation book which reference the eminent twentieth century liturgical scholar Ioannes Fountoules4, it is noted that bringing both boys and girls behind the altar is in fact the consistent historical practice. There is a slight variation in the rite in that boys are brought to the front of the altar (the west side where the priest usually stands), completing a full circuit, while girls are brought only to the other three sides.5 This is also the norm now firmly established in my archdiocese. The newly issued book represents a correction of the abbreviated form that was previously used in the Antiochian Archdiocese.

It should also be noted that the churching is performed before baptism, not after, as is seen in some jurisdictions. The historical norm is to do it before.

Here is the note as published in Appendix A of Services of Initiation:

St Symeon of Thessaloniki does not make any distinction regarding the sex of the baby—only whether it be baptized or not—as a condition of bringing it into the holy Altar. The saint wrote, “Now if the infant is already baptized, (the priest) brings it even into the Altar… but if the child be not yet baptized, he stands before the holy Doors” (Migne, Patrologia Graeca 155:212b).

But it seems that the tradition does not admit any criteria—either sex or baptismal status—as conditions for bringing the infant into the Altar. While admitting that the criterion of baptism possesses a consistent and sound logic to it, Ioannes Fountoules has pointed out that none of the manuscripts which carry the churching service make any mention of any criteria for bringing a churched infant into the holy Altar. In fact, the whole churching service, as it has come down to us, presumes that the child is in fact not baptized, and the manuscripts which have this service mention the bearing the infant into the Altar, most times irrespective of sex (see Apantiseis A’ #167 and D’ #381, especially pp. 233-236). In short, the service is about the dedication of infants to God. The fact that the infants are brought by Christian parents should be considered as the most important qualification and that we not “split hairs over accuracy,” as Fountoules judged. (Services of Initiation, p. 139, emphasis in the original)

In other words, Fountoules is saying that he thinks Symeon, who is writing in the early 15th c., gets it wrong regarding baptized vs. unbaptized churching, based on the broad testimony of the actual manuscript tradition. But he also notes that Symeon does not say that girls should not be brought into the sanctuary. And he observes from the manuscript tradition that there is no criteria, either baptismal or sex, for whether infants are to be brought into the sanctuary during churching.

Again, I am taking Fountoules’s word for it here, as represented by the scholars and translators doing the bulk of the work on these books. So I consider it established that this is the historical practice: both boys and girls, unbaptized, are brought into the sanctuary during the churching rite. (If there is contesting scholarship out there, by the way, I would be interested in reading it, because, again, this is not my field.)

(UPDATE: Thanks to the work of Fr. Andreas Houpos, the relevant section from Dr. Fountoules has been translated. Read it here.)

Who exactly is allowed behind the iconostasis?

My sense6 is that denying unbaptized or female babies entry during the churching rite represents a kind of “mission creep” that has distorted the rite’s original purpose and turned it into a question of “worthiness” or of making statements about ordination, which is itself a later (and not universal) development. (I wish I knew when and where this started. Anyone?)

But we must recall not only that a developed iconostasis is not something present in the earliest centuries but also that even the holy doors (also called the beautiful gate or “royal doors”) of the iconostasis were not barred to non-clergy or non-males in every context. We know that deaconesses went through them at least at their ordination, emperors went through them, etc. And the empress would enter through the south deacon’s door and receive communion in the sanctuary.

Of course in the churching rite only the deacons’ doors are used, but the point is that the holy place is historically a rather more permeable space than is often thought in our time in some places. The sanctuary as a wholly closed-off space that only certain people are allowed to go into is itself a later historical development. (I am not arguing here for a wholesale open-door policy here, by the way, just noting the historical reality.)

And it is probably also worth mentioning that, prior to all this, our tradition is that the Holy of Holies was entered into by a woman — the mother of our Lord. And it is well-known in our own time that women enter the sanctuary for various purposes — cleaning, iconography, serving in a women’s monastery, etc. None of these are based on any supposed egalitarianism. So there is definitely not a dogmatic basis for the idea that women are always to be excluded from the sanctuary.

Yet now, in some places in the Orthodox world, if a girl were brought up to the holy doors but not within and a boy were brought into the sanctuary, that would be considered “as things should be.”

But “as things should be” varies a good bit from bishop to bishop. And that’s usually okay, since bishops have the apostolic authority to make these decisions. Leaving the girls outside is a relatively more recent practice, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong for a bishop to make that choice. It may be, but I will leave that to them.

Is churching boys and girls the same way a capitulation to feminism or egalitarianism?

Given the assumption that treating boys and girls the same during a churching is a recent innovation, it was suggested to me that this is a capitulation to feminism and egalitarianism.

I’m not a feminist or egalitarian by any means, nor are the people who are making these historical observations and reincorporating them into service books. I don’t believe in those philosophical ideas, and I reject the Marxist reading of history on which they rest. (I do believe that men and women are of equal worth before God, but I do not believe that that means they are the same.)

Fountoules notes that in the manuscript tradition, bringing unbaptized boys and girls into the sanctuary during the churching rite is the norm. That long predates feminism, egalitarianism, etc. So the churches that follow (and have been following) that historical norm are not making a political or philosophical statement by doing so. Nor do I believe that this is merely a recent re-introduction.

I definitely believe that clerical roles are for men — it’s clear that we do not ordain women and never have (leaving the issue of deaconesses aside). Yet it seems that for at least 1400 years we brought girls into the sanctuary during the churching service and that, later, that changed in some places. In both cases — the longstanding historical practice and the later changes — these things happened before the advent of feminism and egalitarianism. And they certainly all happened before any major push for ordaining women.

So it doesn’t make sense to me either to reject the historical practice on the basis of rejecting twentieth century philosophical problems nor to justify the later changes based on a rejection of those philosophical problems — because both sets of practices happened long before Marxism. Either way, I don’t think these Marxist philosophical outgrowths should get any say in the Church’s liturgical practice. The Church’s rites have their own internal rationality that is independent of the distortions of this world.

So I don’t think that framing the question in terms of who has the “right” to the be in the sanctuary is a good read of liturgics. The question is not about the “right” to be in the sanctuary but rather about what the rite of churching historically entails. I believe it’s a distortion of the rite to make it about something outside itself.

Is churching boys and girls differently a statement about ordination?

It was suggested to me that, if admitting that churching boys and girls differently is an innovation — perhaps it is better called a “development” in this case — the Church did it to make a statement about women not being eligible for ordination.

It’s odd to me to interpret the rite of churching as having to do with ordination, because there’s nothing in the text that suggests it is. (Show me the money textual passage!) So this represents an addition, putting the rite into service of a theme that is not apparent from the text itself.

But even if the “boys only” rules for churchings isn’t about answering egalitarianism, might it not be a good statement about possible eventual ordination? That little baby boy — well, he might be a priest someday!

I’ve never found the “well, maybe he’ll be a priest someday” answer very satisfying. After all, the vast majority of those boys and men (historically, just men!) who serve in the sanctuary will never be ordained even to the diaconate. So it doesn’t make sense to me to interpret the tradition this way.

As we’ve seen, it’s been extended to a kind of general prohibition on women entering the sanctuary, yet we have both historical and contemporary practices of women entering it for all kinds of reasons which we are forced to admit are perfectly valid (or which we at least can’t wish away). Yet if there really is a “males only for any purpose” rule, then we shouldn’t see those things happening either now or in history. In other words, we’re not very good at following the rule.

So we may rightly ask: Why is it that the “he might be a priest someday” argument ought to be applied in the case of churchings but not in women’s monasteries (where nuns serve), in the ordination of deaconesses (historical reality — I’m not making any claims about bringing them back!), in the communing of empresses, in iconographic installations or even in cleaning services?

It seems to me that such an important statement about the sacredness of the altar ought to be applied uniformly. And why is cleaning the altar area an overriding concern but the churching of a newborn child not? Is sweeping really more critical than the internal logic of offering an infant to God in imitation of Christ?

So why do we object to some liturgical practices?

Unfortunately many Orthodox, when encountering liturgical practices that they’re not used to, will interpret them as being false innovations. (The irony here is that dividing by sex during this rite is the innovation. Whether it’s “false” is not in my purview.) It can be jarring, of course, to learn that what one considers the norm is not followed everywhere and by all. We tend to think that what we’re used to is the norm. But it may not be.

It was suggested to me that the proof that treating boys and girls the same in the churching rite is actually the innovation or is uncommon is the controversy it generates (on the Internet). We’ve seen why I don’t think that’s true. It’s a good question, though: Why does this garner controversy?

My experience suggests this: We tend to be very liturgically parochial. Whatever we’re used to is the norm we know. And at least here in the US, even when we get outside our own parishes, we (on average) tend to do so most often only in parishes among our own jurisdiction or in similar traditions. These are the inter-parish networks we use the most. Our priests know each other, we might be related, it’s familiar and comfortable, etc. So when we see other parishes basically doing things the way we’re used to, that confirms for us that what is familiar must be the norm.

Yet there are certain kinds of services and prayers which we almost never see except at our own parishes, and churching is definitely one of them. Such rites are sometimes performed before the whole congregation but may also be more private, thus further decreasing our experience of any possible variations.

This gets all the more complicated with the occasional “cross-pollination” that occurs between parishes of different traditions (usually based in where one of the priests went to seminary, but for all kinds of reasons). So you can have a single parish or group of parishes in one jurisdiction who aren’t even aware of the norm in the rest of their jurisdiction because “this is how we’ve always done it.” They may not know that the way they’ve always done it is actually rare or even just less common.

Anyway, this happens all the time. In a recent thread in one of the clergy groups I’m in, someone added a matter-of-fact passing comment to the effect of “I know we can’t do weddings on Saturdays,” and then piles of clergy responded with (basically) “Uh… we can’t?” It turned out that there were various rules on this and various rationales for those rules.

So why is this practice controversial? Well, for me it’s not. And for a lot of the Orthodox in America and elsewhere, it’s not. But if you’re not used to this, it certainly might be.

The key thing, I believe, is to have charity and humility when it comes to liturgical practices and standards that we’re not familiar with. And on that basis, we can make inquiry into historical norms and ask whether they may no longer be appropriate or might be the subject of authentic variation.

Let’s try to be sane about this, okay?

I believe that many of the current attitudes about these questions of who can go behind the iconostasis are a type of clericalism, coupled with the sensibility that the liturgical rites are a kind of incantation that, if not performed correctly (i.e., according to what I’m used to), will not work or (worse yet) may be heretical or call down the wrath of God.

There are of course all kinds of ways of doing services wrongly. I acknowledge that. Not every variation is a good variation. And not every development deserves to be retained. (It’s all well and good to talk about “organic development,” but what exactly is that? I mean, at some point, someone sits down and changes something. Let’s not pretend it’s all a series of accidents.) And there are some rather flagrant violations out there. (Thank God, they are rare, and thank God, they are nothing like what one sees in many places outside Orthodoxy. Sorry, but it’s true.)

But that should not be our first thought when encountering liturgical practices we’re not familiar with which are being used by bishops and clergy with whom we’re in communion. The liturgical hermeneutic of suspicion can really lead only to schism. Let’s not re-enact the Old Believer schism, in which two sides hurled condemnation at each other because they believed that the other side was departing from the exact liturgics practiced by the Apostles.

Liturgics has a logic to it. Before we jump down the throats of those whose liturgics are different from our own, let’s see what the logic to them is. And if, after really doing all the homework, we see that that logic needs to be corrected, let us do so in humility and love.


Update: Just as a kind of post script, if you are reading my article as somehow an endorsement of “altar girls,” women’s ordination, feminism, egalitarianism, etc., then you are reading it wrong. I do not endorse these things. I reject these things. That’s pretty clear to me in the text, but well, I suppose one cannot be too emphatic on these points. Among other things, I don’t believe that the rite of churching is about “who gets to go back there” at all.

  1. Well, “new” in the sense of being within the past 100+ years, which is of course quite “new” by Orthodox standards.
  2. This is unfortunately true, that there has been some decay that the common books have suffered over the past few centuries. This does not invalidate the liturgical tradition, though, but it also does not mean that we have to just leave it there, pretending as though every alteration up to now is an “organic” development. Ironically, “organic” here often means that no further changes or corrections are possible, because doing so would be “inorganic.”
  3. Much of the text that follows was originally comments on various threads. It is all mine, however, and has also been rearranged, edited and expanded upon.
  4. Professor Ioannes M. Fountoules (†2007) graduated summa cum laude from the School of Theology of the University of Athens and pursued graduate studies at the University of Louvain. He received his doctoral degree in theology at the University of Thessaloniki, where he taught theology from 1969–1996. Former director of the renowned Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies at the historic Vlatadon Monastery in Thessaloniki, he was considered one of the foremost contemporary liturgical scholars of the Orthodox world. Dr. Fountoules authored innumerable scholarly articles and books on the history of liturgy, on Orthodox worship, on the festal calendar, on the liturgical works of St. Symeon of Thessaloniki, and in the area of homiletics.
  5. Why this variation? Nothing I read comments on this, so I’m not speculating here. I’d be interested to read whatever someone might find on this, though.
  6. And this is just my take on it; again, I’m not the scholar.

12 comments:

  1. Father, it seems to me that you go a little too quickly in saying that the difference of treatment between boys and girls is the innovation. In what you call the historical norm in the beginning of your text, you say that boys will be taken also to the western side of the altar (I think that has disappeared in the traditions where girls are not taken beyond the iconostasis) whereas girls only do South, East and North. That does seem to be a distinction related to the question of priesthood, since, as you mention it incidentally, this side where only boys are taken is “where the priest stands” during the liturgy. This is the most logical explanation I can think of for that variation.
    Could it be that the use of bringing girls only up to the Holy Doors is actually derived from this, as a sort of expansion of the meaning of what you describe as the historical norm? For all we know, it could be, and I don’t think we can say the distinction between men who can become priests and women who can’t has nothing to do with it.

    1. You are right that this is a distinction (whether the child is brought in front of the altar), but there was no rationale for this distinction given in any of the notes that I read. So I did not venture any speculation that point, particularly since I was mainly focused on the question of entrance into the sanctuary.

      As to whether it is about the ordained priesthood, since I have nothing to go by, I will say that to say so is really just speculation, especially since there is otherwise nothing in the text of the rite to suggest it. Further, why on that score would it be appropriate to bring a baby boy to that place and yet not allow his older brother who is already serving as an acolyte to stand there? Is his brother not already being more “priestly”?

      1. If this is a distinction that exists, and we are to believe that our rites are meaningful and not arbitrary (ie the core assumption of liturgical theology), don’t we have to try to understand it? I think it pretty odd that the authors of the book you mention left this detail unaccounted for. It is indeed speculation to suggest this might have to do with the perspective of priesthood, but I don’t think speculation is a bad thing, when one does it in the frame of Tradition. Here it might even prove necessary.

        I don’t think I understand the second part of your answer. The reason why we shouldn’t take the older brother to the west side of the altar is because the churching rite is about the human person being brought into church, not anyone else. So that human person is the only one that should undergo the rites that manifest that he or she is now consecrated to God. And again, it might just be that the distinction that we have here is there to show that men and women are different regarding their role in church.

        I don’t think the question should be reduced to whether or not this or that boy is one day going to be made a deacon or a priest. Of course not all men will, and on that basis we should let no one who is not already a priest go to that place, neither go through the Holy Doors etc. But, and this is why I don’t think you can compare the cleaning of the altar with the rite of churching, our rites are here to manifest the spiritual reality hidden behind the physical reality of man. Just as the bishop is dressed and equiped in such a way as to represent that he is Christ inside the boundaries of his local church, so are children taken to the sanctuary to manifest that they are servants of God. That the rite may also manifest that they will serve God in differing ways seems quite possible to me.

        1. You’ve essentially made one of my points for me, namely, that what one sees in one context does not thereby establish a general rule in all contexts. So, just because girls are brought into the sanctuary for the rite of churching (or that women go into the sanctuary at an altar consecration in Romania, because everyone goes through it) does not mean that women ought to be ordained. My point is that “Who gets to go into the sanctuary?” is not a question with a general answer that can be applied, except perhaps “the one for whom it is appropriate at this moment.”

          As to the detail of where the circuit around the altar table stops and why that it so, all I can say is that I wish the distinction had been covered. It wasn’t, though (I’m not hiding anything from you), so I don’t know why. It doesn’t make sense to me, though, to say that it necessarily means ordination, when nothing else about the rite speaks of it. Perhaps it is an echo of the Jewish practice in some way.

          1. I am absolutely not trying to imply that your position amounts to saying that women should get ordained. I am only asking about something that I thought you kind of left aside in your article.

            Again, I do not think we should see this in terms or “ordination”. The discrimination there is in ordination is a consequence of the distinction between the male nature and female nature in Christian anthropology, and to me it is only indirectly related to the distinction made here in this service. Instead, I simply think that it is easy to infer that the distinction made in the churching rite points to the fact that men are made for liturgical service, while women are made for non-liturgical service (ie the deaconesses…), and the place that above all signifies liturgical service is the sanctuary, or the west side of the altar.

            That is what, according to me, can be reasonably infered from said distinction, in light of the use received in many places that I know and attend the liturgy at. That it may reflect the old Jewish practice does not mean it has no meaning in and of itself, since the Jewish practice can’t be seen as purely arbitrary, being ordained by God Himself.

      2. I would venture to say that nothing is said about ‘big brother’ because there is no directive for children to be serving in the altar. As far as I am aware, even taper bearers we’re outside of the sanctuary. Subdeacons, as far as I know, were the lowest order of minor orders granted entrance for service.

  2. And it is well-known in our own time that women enter the sanctuary for various purposes — cleaning, iconography,
    Is it though? Is our jurisdiction (GOA Denver) ultra conservative in this? All of the day to day upkeep cleaning,installation of icons, behind the iconostasis is done by men. Not just men in general but only orthodox men who have been blessed by the priest/bishop to work behind the iconostasis. Like many jurisdictions we have a chronic shortage of deacons so this is done by lay people. During churching little girls are brought before the open doors and boys are carried around the altar by the priest. Not that I would be scandalized by a little girl being carried through the doors by a priest. I admit I would be scandalized by a woman walking through the royal doors or behind the icon screen especially during liturgy.
    As far as iconography I am familiar with the idea of women iconographers I assumed any installation behind the iconostasis could be done by others. They are usually not painted directly on the walls afterall.

    1. A useful article, but the opinion expressed is not about the same topic. Yes, it is also about churching, but my piece is not about whether girls ought to be churched the same or differently as boys, but rather that that historically been the case, and so we should not be shocked when we encounter practices different from our own. My piece is not telling anyone how they ought to practice liturgics in their own churches.

      Anyway, Fr. John’s piece is basically explaining his understanding of why his church does things the way they do. But it is only one practice among several and a relatively later one and not historically normative. He does say of his church’s practice “this has been the universal practice of the Church,” but offers no evidence that that is so. The notes from Fountoules demonstrate that this is not so.

  3. Speaking of being parochial, I never knew that there were parishes where a baby girl would be taken behind the iconostasis! Go figure 🙂

  4. Thank you Fr. Damick for a respectful, logical, and historical perspective on the topic of churching of babies.

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