You also should wash one another’s feet. — John 13:14

If you live alone, whose feet do you wash? — Basil of Caesarea

In an extraordinary move at the 1998 Lambeth Conference, nearly 700 bishops washed each other’s feet. Each lavished care and each received care in a moment of intimate fellowship. The narrative of the Last Supper in John’s Gospel, read year by year on Maundy Thursday, gives us the image of Christ washing the feet of his disciples followed by his command that they are to wash one another’s feet. Much like his words in the synoptic gospels, when he presents the disciples with bread and wine, Jesus is fairly direct. One can speak of symbols and metaphors and allegories, but the words are plain: wash one another’s feet. It is a wonder, then, that Christians have spent so much time inspecting his words about his body and his blood, but quickly pass by this command. It is equally if not more clear and direct. Martin Luther’s dislike of foot-washing presents a great irony — the same Luther who held so tightly to the clear, surface meaning of Christ’s words “This is my body” at the Marburg Colloquy (1529).

Washing the feet of guests was and remains an important part of hospitality in the Middle East, and examples of it are scattered throughout Scripture (Gen. 18, 1 Sam. 25, Luke 7, 1 Tim. 5). Christ, as he gathered with his close followers the night before his passion, made it the very mark of Christian community: the Christian kneels before his brothers and sisters and washes their feet, and then (what may be more daunting), the same Christian allows others to serve him. Tertullian describes it as a common practice in the liturgies he knew in the late second century, while John Chrysostom encouraged his late fourth-century followers to imitate Christ in a similar way: not simply having one’s feet washed, but also washing. In the Middle Ages, however, the rite became something connected to abbots, bishops, and even civil magistrates and kings: the leader of a community made a great display of servanthood and washed the feet of the poor. Those whose feet were washed were often carefully selected and perhaps even representatives of the whole community. Sometimes the whole rite was given up and money was distributed instead, as if cash could substitute for the intimate act of washing the tired, aching feet of a fellow Christian — a powerful moment not only for the one being washed but also for the one doing the washing.

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Tragically, the pattern of one person doing all the washing is the model we have developed in the Episcopal Church since the liturgical movement of the mid-twentieth century. Nothing could be further from the clear words of Christ to his Church, words that speak of an intimate fellowship in which brothers and sisters care for one another and, perhaps more challenging, are open to receiving care. We don’t do grace well, do we?

The priest, after the sermon on Maundy Thursday, usually stands before the congregation and reads an introduction to the foot-washing rite drawn from the Book of Occasional Services (BOS). The words speak of servanthood, but the focus is on the priest who will do the washing because, so the BOS introduction reads, this ceremony is to remind the priest about his calling in ordained ministry. The whole thing can become a grand display of false humility with people coming forward to have their feet washed by the priest. Do the people wash anyone else’s feet? No, because the rite is to remind the priest that he is a servant, surely not about the intimate nature of the Christian community made up of brothers and sisters who serve one another. Do they allow others beside the priest to wash their feet? Again no, because the rite is about the priest as a servant minister. Does the priest have his feet washed? Maybe, but that’s not really the point now is it?

Marion Hatchett gave only a couple of sentences about footwashing in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book (1981) and these were focused on the anthems to be used. In 1996, however, Leonel Mitchell published a guide to Lent, Holy Week, and Eastertide, and he gives further advice on how the foot-washing rite can be done. Mitchell raises the possibility of having “designated representatives” come forward to have their feet washed.

Upon reflection, this is somewhat worse than the usual pattern described above. The focus is still on the priest who does the washing, but now only a handful experience it (and again they do no washing themselves). Would we dare to have representatives receive the sacraments on our part? Fortunately, Mitchell does mention the possibility of inviting the whole congregation to participate in washing and being washed, but his short discussion is couched in trembling admonitions about people needing direction and advice and warning. Surely congregations need instruction on how things will go, but Mitchell’s cautions likely strike fear in the heart of the average rector reading this while attempting to plan a full Holy Week. He or she is just as likely to give up and revert to the easy clericalist pattern in which the priest just does it all. This then becomes symbolic of the ministry of that particular parish church: the priest does it all while the people are passive recipients of sacerdotal care (and likely not so much the care of sisters and brothers).

I confess that I’ve been accused of clericalism, and I confess to using the expression Alter Christus in describing a theology of the priesthood, but the practices connected to footwashing in most of our churches are beyond the pale — and this is true even in more evangelical parishes. I began this post with a brief anecdote about the 1998 Lambeth Conference, and I described it as extraordinary. I think my chosen adjective, while unfortunate, is accurate.

As a coda, while I have stressed the themes of mutual care and intimacy, I will let the reader draw conclusions about the meaning of mutual submission inherent in washing feet and having one’s feet washed.

The featured image is a stained glass detail from Ampleforth Abbey, showing St Thomas of Canterbury and a beggar. The photo was taken by Flickr user Lawrence OP and is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

Calvin Lane is associate rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Dayton, Ohio, affiliate professor of church history at Nashotah House Theological Seminary, and adjunct professor of history at Wright State University in Dayton.

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I believe in each of the five parishes I have served as deacon in the Dioceses of Milwaukee and Fond du Lac we have simply invited people to come forward and have their feet washed, and then to wash the feet of others if they choose. It is not difficult to coordinate, as it mainly requires having acolytes ready to quickly replenish water or towels. People turn about (still barefoot) and wash each other’s feet pretty naturally. Also helps to have a couple extra chairs away from the “action” where people can put their shoes and socks back on. As… Read more »

I greatly appreciate your description of this practice as ‘misguided’ and your warnings of clericalism, Calvin. Spot on. An added thought: When we implemented the Triduum here there was wide-spread anxiety about foot-washing. We place three chairs in the nave, right before the chancel. Two are on either far side as stations for removal and putting on shoes and socks. The other is the focal point, located in the same place as the Good Friday Cross and the Vigil Paschal Candle. There is a symmetry here. On all three parts of the Triduum the drama is centered in that spot.… Read more »

I’m going to be the skunk at the garden party here. I believe the protocols presumed in the BOS (which, I believe, reflect practice in the Roman Rite) are well-founded and an ample lesson in humility for everyone involved. The priest (or bishop, and appropriately assisted by a deacon if one is available) is an icon of humility by being the one kneeling and doing the washing. The “designated representatives” are signs of humility by virtue of their sheer willingness to be on display, which is, for many, an experience of real vulnerability. In my pastoral experience, the most challenging… Read more »

I think you have laid out well the case for foot-washing as a Liturgical action. It has the capability to opening us up to each other in powerful ways.

But the question still remains: what is the analogy to footwashing in our day? That is, what task of serving one another do we feel is beneath us, and we refuse to do?

Having written my MA thesis on the history of footwashing as a liturgical element, I’ve Got Opinions. First, I can’t stand the language used in the BOS, “so that I may recall whose servant I am by following the example of my Master,” which smacks rather of turning the whole thing into a spiritual service for the celebrant. Second, I feel that either option is fine (either the priest washing or the round-robin) depending on the charism of the parish. I would like to point out that, in this day and age, footwashing opens the door to vulnerability as much… Read more »

I’ll admit that I’m slightly of two minds on this one. I think that the representative method has the potential for demonstrating deep humility. And, in certain situations, it may be the only practical choice (e.g. in a really large church). We also have to consider a couple things: liturgical actions aren’t always going to conform precisely to the original event that they commemorate, symbolize, or make present. The modern-day Eucharist is not exactly like the Last Supper, in various superficial details, nor should it be, I would argue. Similarly, I don’t see the need to make a liturgical footwashing… Read more »

Ian Wetmore

I don’t see clericalism in the traditional rite, and I do see a proper display of Alter Christus. (What I don’t get is HM Queen Elizabeth II passing out the Royal Maunds in lieu of footwashing.) However, having spent the first 16 years of my ordained ministry in parishes of the classic BCP tradition (= Canada, 1962), footwashing was not done. So coming to a TEC mission I fully expected to wash feet, but found enough grumbling resistance to put me off. Then, as a member of a Kairos Prison Ministry team, one of the team formation activities is to… Read more »

Ian Wetmore

I suppose the question I would ask is, Whom was our Lord ordering to do this? The Apostles as a sign of humble leadership? or all Christians as a sign of mutual service?

I think it unlikely that we have obeyed Jesus’ command when we have, in a ritual, washed each other’s feet. How do we know what “kind” of command is “wash each other’s feet”? Seems clear to me that it is the same category as “Take up your cross and follow me.” Not meant (except for those living under Roman – and anyone else who used crucifiction) to be taken literally, but as a command to *sacrificial* living. Near the end of chapter 13 (v 34) I think we have the general case of which footwashing is the particular: “Love one… Read more »

I have to agree with Bishop Martins here. Footwashing on Maundy Thursday may not be a sacrament, but it is part of the overall liturgical drama of Holy Week in which numerous iconographies are at play. In the context of the Maundy Thursday liturgy itself, we relive Christ’s last night in multiple ways, from the Last Supper itself to the moments of agony in the garden. During the foot washing, the priest and people are stepping into iconographic roles, priest as Christ and people as apostles. The priest takes off all symbols that might be considered “rank.” He kneels and… Read more »