On Footwashing


During tonight’s Maundy Thursday service at St Mary’s we don’t have a sermon. Well, not a spoken one anyway. In the middle of the service we set up some chairs and get out some bowls and wash feet. It isn’t so much that we don’t have a sermon is it more that the washing of feet is the sermon.

It is something that puts some people off though it is only every an opt in thing. No-one coming tonight has to have their feet washed.

It seems to me to be important to do it though and it is worth thinking about what’s going on.

Most people who write about footwashing seem to make a big deal about it being about a reversal of power roles. There’s always news about whose feet that bigwig clergy are going to wash. The first time Pope Francis washed feet as pope, he included female feet in and that, rather bizarrely became the story.

This year, there’s been a ruling from someone in the Vatican that washing women’s feet is not in fact a requirement. This seems to me to be making the story even more bizarre. Does anyone really believe that senior clerics are going to be led into temptation by the turn of a woman’s ankle? And in any case, is the implication of all this that no male cleric was ever attracted by a male foot?

Notwithstanding that though, there is no doubt something about footwashing that is very intimate. To let someone wash your feet is a very close physical act.

I find that when I do it, it is more about the intimacy and relationship between the washer and the washee as it is about any reversal of power roles.

It is worth bearing in mind that the last supper only includes bread and wine in three of the four gospels. John’s gospel records footwashing rather than breadsharing.

I always think at this time of the year about the kind of church that might have resulted if things were reversed and we shared bread and wine once a year and washed feet on the other days.

The controversies of the church might look altogether different…

Where is the best place to get towels of the correct liturgical colour sequence?
Can a gay person wash the feet of a straight person?
Are children holy enough to have clean feet?

The invitation at St Mary’s is very much St Mary’s. Anyone is welcome to bring their feet for washing. Just as anyone is welcome to receive the bread and wine at the table.

Oh, and by the way, the foot in the picture is a Muslim foot. Don’t forget that washing feet is a ritual that unites religious people across surprising boundaries.


  1. Meg Rosenfeld says

    It looks like we’re all on an equal footing.

  2. Foot washing is an act of humility. And the church could do with a good dose of humility. My hope: that the water is warm, and the towels soft.

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