Maundy Thursday

Not much clergy blogging going on this week. We’ve all been working flat out to get everything ready.

Just a few notes about Maundy Thursday.

The focus of the worship today is the supper. Here at St Mary’s, we have a choral mass, that means that the choir have been preparing special music which they will sing for us to aid the devotions. There is no sermon tonight. Well, that is not strictly true. There is the opportunity to have your feet washed. The foot washing is the sermon and comes in the same place in the service that a sermon usually would do.

Some bishops down south are going out into the streets to clean people’s shoes in order to demonstrate in a modern way the gesture that Jesus made in washing people’s feet. [We should note in passing that the BBC call this Easter Week and should know better – Easter week is next week – See update below]. I applaud their effort, though I’m not sure that I think this is what it is all about. There is certainly something about service about Christ’s gesture, but there is also something about intimacy too. Anyway, the invitation is open to people to have their feet washed in church tonight. It is an invitation, not a compulsion.

The service tonight ends differently to every other service of the year. Everything is stripped out of the church whilst Psalm 22 is said. Psalm 22 is the psalm that Jesus himself quoted on the cross. The stripping of the church is an unsettling reminder of everything being taken away from Jesus.

The last thing to be removed is the blessed sacrament, which is carried to what is called an altar of repose. There the sacrament will rest and people stay and pray. We keep the watch until midnight here these days, though someone was telling me that it was once kept all night through. The watch is just a time for quiet prayer whilst we remember Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemene. Some people devote the time to quiet prayer, some to sitting thinking through what these events are about. Some people bring poetry to read quietly (RS Thomas is a favourite for me at this time) and some try to read a gospel through during the watch. It is a peaceful and a lovely time. People are welcome to come and go quietly. Some go away after the service for a break and then come back for the end of the watch later in the evening.

It is my practice to consume the last of the sacrament at the end of the watch. Good Friday and Holy Saturday are strange times. Sacraments have ceased. The experience that so many people know as a reality – that God is gone from them, is made lived out by us all. So, the font will be closed and there will be no baptisms, the tabernacle will be empty and there will be no communion, until the Great Feast begins early on Sunday morning.

Service starts at 7.30 pm. Bring your feet.



Kudos to the BBC for changing the headline to the article after I sent them a comment. It now reads – “Bishops in Holy Week Shoe Shine” rather than “Bishops in Easter Shoe-Shine.”


  1. Have never understood the foot-washing part of the Maundy Thursday Liturgy. I understand its appeal to the clergy. It lets them feel humble. How are the congregation supposed to feel? Grateful?

  2. The name Maundy is a corruption of the Latin mandatum – meaning commandment, or so i’m told in my encyclopedia of christianity. This obviously makes little sense since in the Scriptural passage this refers to – John 13:4-18 – there is specific reference to an example, not a commandment.
    The clergy washing the feet of members of the congregation is a throw-back from medieval Roman Catholicism I imagine and i guess one has to see the clergy as representing Jesus’ authoirty for the ritual to make sense…but then, episcopalianism (?) rests on the beleif that clergy represent Jesus’ authoirty, is that right? oh, dear, everything has stopped making sense at the moment.

  3. just noticed I spelt authority incorrectly, not once, but twice. Oh dear…its worse than I thought.

  4. kelvin says

    As I was hinting above, I don’t think that the footwashing is only about humility. After all, as a member of the clergy, you get plenty of experiences that really do make you feel humble that you don’t really need to act it out. Standing by a grave, hearing a couple talk about the vows they will make in front of you, looking out at a congregation and knowing so many joys and sorrows that make it up – these things really are humbling.

    I think that when I first encountered footwashing as a lay person, it was all about the importance of, just for once in a while, putting a gentle, physical act at the heart of worship. Three of the gospels mention the bread and the wine and one only mentions the washing of feet. I always think on Maundy Thursday that had things been slightly different, we might have footwashing as the sacrament and only break bread once a year.

    Of course, if foot washing had been the sacrament, the church would by now, no doubt, be divided into Onefooters, Leftfooters, Whole Body Washers and so on.

  5. Elizabeth says

    My experience (as a lay person) of footwashing chimes with what Kelvin says. Yesterday it was especially moving to me to be part of the quite chaos of carting water, buckets, soap towels, etc. And then to pause in all that, sit and have my feet washed. It felt like both a greater acceptance of the body and a greater gentleness than usually happens in formal worship. I also wonder that if this gentle, bodily act of intimacy were a greater part of church practice if that would make the church different – more open to the body, to intimacy, gentler.

    Probably not, after all, you could say the same thing about sharing a meal.

    But it’s good to be reminded and to embrace the experience of grace continues to flow, regardless of any obstructions we put in the way.

    This is a very garbled comment, but I have a liturgical hangover.

  6. Muriel Draper says

    Paul – it is worse than you think – how about “beleif”?

    Don’t like carping criticism and I certainly do not want personally to make the clergy feel humble on my behalf. I think the Provost explained very well how HE felt about that particular remark.

    I stood back from the washing of the feet as I wanted to observe the ritual from a distance, never having witnessed it before. Perhaps another year………or is my Aberdonian Church of Scotland background going to keep on getting in my way? I do hope not.

  7. Is it possible to feel humble on someone else’s behalf?

    Somehow I think we are in danger of turning a symbol about love and intimacy into a power game. But maybe I’m misunderstanding.

    Are some of you saying that when clergy wash feet you experience as neither intimacy nor service but a power game? And if so, why?

    My own experience of it is limited — I expected to hate it, and then was deeply moved by the way the priest did it. It spoke very clearly of self-offering love.

  8. I always thought the washing of feet was following the example set by our Lord when he washed the feet of his disciples. One of whom wanted his head washed as well.

  9. Thanks for noticing Muriel, I promise never to write messages late at night when I’m wired from too much red wine and tea!
    Anyway, my only experience of the foot-washing was when I was an alter boy in the RCC and i recall it as being the only meaningful religious/spiritual expereinces of my childhood. I think for the same reasons given above for its significance: physical intimacy and humility. I’ve not yet repeated the experience as an adult. maybe next year…
    Kelvin has got me thinking: how different the faith would be if the act of washing each other (feet or otherwise) was at the heart of worship throughout the year? Maybe Christ would transubstantiate in the water and towel? Cleansing our tired, frail bodies. Just imagine the intimacy between a group of people this would create? Shyness and modesty of the physical body wouldn’t last long. oh how pagan! ; , )

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