Pregnant in Worship: Thoughts on Liturgy and Birth

I was SO going to post this week on the Curse of Eve (doesn’t that sound like a B-list horror film? spoiler: It’s not.), but then another idea came crashing in. Maybe next week I’ll take us back to the Garden of Eden, but today I want to go inside Christian worship and look for birtheology there.

Note the preggo belly--I was determined to get this one sprinkled before the next one came along.

Note the preggo belly--I was determined to get this one sprinkled before the next one came along.

It seems to me that the church doesn’t offer much in the way of ritual or spiritual support for families in the childbearing year. It seems that most churches do a really good job of helping with the practical considerations of having a baby–chiefly, organizing a baby shower before birth and a care calendar afterward.  And when my church did these things for me, I felt loved and knew that this was a way for people to show that they care about me and my family. But, I wanted more. I wanted ritual–words and symbol used as a way for my church to acknowledge and support the spiritual journey my growing little family was on.

Of course, there is baptism (or baby dedication, depending on one’s tradition), but this happens well after the birth (and if you are like me, you don’t get around to doing this until your baby is a toddler (note the photos of my own family’s experiences) and MUCH less open to the idea of a semi-stranger coming at them with wet fingers). Plus, the baptism or baby dedication ritual is much more about starting the baby off on a solid theological grounding in life than about acknowledging what the parents and older siblings have just experienced.

Clearly I did not learn from my experience the first time around. My apologies to Ken White, the pastor who had to chase after my son’s head as he did his best to duck and dodge.

Clearly I did not learn from my experience the first time around. My apologies to Ken White, the pastor who had to chase after my son’s head as he did his best to duck and dodge.

Credit to  Barb Nunn , a wonderful Dallas-based photographer and friend

Credit to Barb Nunn, a wonderful Dallas-based photographer and friend

This kind of ritual acknowledgement of the incredibly transformative spiritual experience of pregnancy and birth was something I actively searched for when I was pregnant. There are two moments when I felt my pregnancy acknowledged in church that stand out in my memory. One was at my friend and colleague Chantel’s ordination. During the celebration of Communion, I walked up the aisle to her beaming face, and as she offered the bread to me she gestured to my belly and said, “May this nourish both you and your baby.”  I returned to my pew with tears in my eyes.

My other moment came a bit later in my first pregnancy, at Holy Trinity, the Anglican church I attended in Utrecht, the Netherlands.  They hold a healing service every few months in which people are invited to come forward to the altar rail and receive a blessing. I went forward as I approached the end of my pregnancy in order to have the minister pray over me and my baby for a healthy birth. That moment of having hands laid on my shoulders, oil anointing my forehead, and words of blessing spoken over me as I kneeled in church did much to allay some of my anxiety and to remind me that God would be with me in the physical act of delivering my child.

While I treasure both these memories, I did sort of happen upon them by accident. Neither communion nor a healing service are particularly designed to support pregnancy. So where are the rituals for pregnancy and birth? Why does the church, and its vast store of language and symbol regarding advent, and hope, and fear, and creation, and journey, and, well–LOTS of themes which easily relate to pregnancy and birth, remain silent?

I can’t answer that one. I have lots of thoughts, but of course no real answers.

But if the church, or even a church, (hey, what about your church?) wanted to start acknowledging and supporting the spiritual journey expecting families are on, here are some ideas:

  • A blessing for a pregnant woman, as well as for her partner and other children. What I’m suggesting is something that would happen within the context of worship, with the whole congregation present and participating. (As opposed to what is known as a “blessing way“, or “mother blessing”: a home-based ritual meant to provide emotional and spiritual support for a woman in her pregnancy. This is fodder for a whole other post entirely. Stay tuned.) This blessing could be short and simple, but the pledge of spiritual support from her congregation would be quite meaningful to a woman and her family journeying through pregnancy.
I love this image, but I think it is sad that this woman is all alone. Where is her community?

I love this image, but I think it is sad that this woman is all alone. Where is her community?

  • A blessing for the mother and her family after the birth. There used to be such a ritual, and it still survives in some Christian traditions. It is known as the “Churching of Women“, and for many people it carries negative connotations about the impurity of women following childbirth. However, I am proposing that we move beyond any such connotation, reformulating and reclaiming this ritual as needed in order to focus on welcoming a new mother back into worship, acknowledging the enormity of what she has just done, and lending support to her and her family as they move into a new way of being.
  • Always in the back of my mind when I am working with this concept of birtheology is the knowledge that pregnancy and birth are not always simple or even accessible to all. Of course, considerable discretion would need to be used, but I believe that offering a means of acknowledging the loss of a child through miscarriage or stillbirth and praying for and with the parents who have experienced this within the context of their community of faith could be a powerful means of supporting their grief.
  • Along these same lines, there are those in the pews who silently struggle with infertility.  I have no idea what this might look like, but perhaps there is a way to break the silence and shame on this subject as well. What is the church for, anyway, but to support one another in faith through life’s journey, whatever that journey might hold?

These are just preliminary ideas, and I could write a whole post on any of the points above. What I would really love is to hear your thoughts and experience. Is there a way in which you found spiritual support in the childbearing year within the context of worship, or do you have suggestions for how that could happen? Or have you felt excluded within worship as one who has struggled with fertility issues? How would you suggest the church address people in this situation?

Introducing: Birtheology

Here’s an idea I’ve been kicking around for a while: I’ve been frustrated, annoyed, even angry that though women often describe giving birth as a spiritual experience, there is not much out there in the way of connection between religious belief (specifically Christian, as that is my faith tradition) and childbirth.  I have searched and searched, throwing the weight of my considerable research skills (gleaned over the course of 11–yes ELEVEN–years of higher education) and have come up with…not so much.

A good part of what I have found has focused on submitting to one’s proper place as wife and now mother in “God’s plan” for the family and on praying hard enough (i.e., “Having fertility issues? You are just not praying hard enough. Experiencing pain in childbirth?  PRAY HARDER.”).  That’s pretty much all I’ve found in the way of popular literature/blogs, and honestly, I don’t find that these views accord with my own experience of how God works in the world, nor do I find them particularly empowering.  In scholarly literature, there have been a couple of voices over the past 30 years or so who have called for a theology of birth.  From what I can tell, that idea hasn’t made a lot of progress.  I’m not sure why that is, but perhaps it is because there are not many scholars who have both the ability and inclination  to reflect theologically on childbirth.

I approached my own experiences of giving birth by intentionally minimizing medical interventions in an effort to enhance my own physical, emotional and spiritual experience of the process.  So, I had these holistic birth experiences,  AND I am trained to think theologically.  There are not so many people who fit that description.  Thus, I find myself in a unique position: I am an ordained minister, a birth doula, a theological scholar, a mother.  I can write about this, I can make connections between theology and birth, and I can further the (so far) limited conversation on this topic.  So, I introduce to you, dear reader, my new venture in blogging, in theology, in life:

(credit for the catchy title goes to my incredibly creative, talented, and supportive husband, Thomas)

I hope to use this space to work out some thoughts as I prepare to lead a seminar on this topic at my church in the fall.  This seminar will be geared not just toward pregnant people, but also to the whole congregation.  Birtheology is not just for women having babies, and the church as a whole has essentially ignored this transformative event in the lives of the majority of its members for too long.  Ultimately, I would love to put together a childbirth education class for parents as well, with all the usual stuff about the stages of labor, medical interventions, pain management, etc., but also with a focus on the spiritual elements of giving birth.  Of course, publishing some of this good stuff in a journal, magazine, or book some day would be pretty awesome, too.

So, keep reading!  There will be lots more to come.  And of course, if you have thoughts/experiences to share, I would love to hear about them.  The more voices we can add to this void the better