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.

Triduum #1 – The Maundy Thursday

Every year I make the promise to people that if you keep the Triduum at St Mary’s (or any church that keeps it) then it will change your life and change your faith. Indeed, I usually say that it is like a lens through which we should see everything else that we do in church through the year. I can guarantee that Easter Day is radically different as an experience if you keep it as part of the Triuduum.

So, firstly, what’s a Triduum when its at home? Well, it just means three days and the three days we are talking about here are the Paschal Triduum which starts with the service in the evening of Maundy Thursday and ends with the Easter Day services. In some ways the services add up to a whole and are better thought of as one whole service than a series of bits that you opt in and out of. Its a rollercoaster of a journey, mind. Emotions all over the place.

So, what to expect. I’m going to try to blog a bit in advance of it all, if I can. I’ll not be giving a line by line explanation as I recognise the wisdom of someone who once said to me that once you explain liturgy it kind of disappears before your eyes. Some things just have to be experienced.

Well, we begin on Maundy Thursday. There are several distinctive features about this service. In St Mary’s we have the joy of the Cathedral choir with us and the music on Maundy Thursday is always lush. This year its a mass setting by Rheinberger which is gorgeous.

Apart from the music, the first thing you might notice that’s out of the ordinary – there’s no spoken sermon. Instead you get an act – we wash feet instead of a sermon, remembering that Jesus washed the feet of his friends. Actually, I said that we wash feed instead of a sermon but that’s not quite right – the footwashing is the sermon. You don’t have to have your feet washed, but it does take you right into things in a very particular way. By the way, I have the ugliest feet in Christendom (apart from Mother Ruth’s of course, which are famous). Its not about having nice neat feet. Few of us like our feet. But that’s rather the point. If there’s a medical condition for not bearing your feet to the world, then washing hands is an option but its foot washing that really carries the symbolism of the day. (And as I’ve said before, its about intimacy and love much more than about power).

We then proceed with the Communion service as usual – bread and wine for all. (Instead of saying that we remember the night on which Jesus did these things, we say, “This, this is the night!”).

After communion, all is peaceful. All is as it should be. But not for long.

We recite Psalm 22, which Jesus quoted on the cross and whilst that is going on, the church is stripped of everything that is lovely. All the gold and tassels disappears. The whole church is stripped quite bare as we remember Jesus having everything stripped from him when he was arrested. The paschal candle which has burned for us at funerals and baptisms for the year past, connecting us with last Easter Day is broken. The font is closed – there will be no more sacraments now, Jesus is taken from us.

The last thing to leave the sanctuary is the bread from the reserved sacrament. This is taken in solemn procession to an altar of repose – a place where we remember Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemene. All is hushed as we hear him say to his disciples, “Can you not watch with me one more hour”. A quiet watch of prayer is kept until midnight. (Its an Open Silence – anyone can come for shared silence during this time). Some people creep away early on. Others stay until later either in prayer or doing some quiet reading. Some people like to read one of the gospels through from beginning to end through this time.

All is still in church. Its part of our tradition not to speak whilst leaving this part of the triduum and people are asked not to speak in the car park or anywhere around the building to preserve the silence for those who are watching and waiting and praying.