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.


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

The Rev. Dr. Calvin Lane has served in various ministry settings and is currently associate rector of St. George’s Episcopal Church in Dayton, Ohio.

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12 Responses

  1. Rodger Patience

    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 a Christian and a deacon, the line in the Gospel that always cuts me to the quick is the one to Peter: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:8). Am I too proud to admit my need and to receive help from another? If I am, how can I “serve” another without lording it over them?

  2. Craig Uffman

    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. We wash feet on Thursday, proclaim the Cross on Friday, and, with the Exultet ringing in our ears, recall the grand stories leading to our baptism, all from that spot. Not only is there a spatial symmetry. There is a symmetry in participation: in all three portions of the Triduum, the whole body participates. We all are invited to be washed and to wash each other’s feet; we all are invited to proclaim the Cross, and we all remember the great acts of God together en route renewal of our baptism.

    The clericalist form of footwashing seems to me improper for the reasons you mention, but also it seems Incoherent with the dramatic arc of the Triduum.

  3. Bishop Daniel Martins

    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 part of Maundy Thursday has been finding twelve willing pairs of feet! And those who *merely* sit and watch are schooled in humility by being the ones *not* chosen. Footwashing is neither a sacrament nor an entitlement, which is an important realization in this culture of … well … entitlement. It is a powerful enacted sign that is inclusive of everyone in the room. To turn it into a free-for-all sentimentalizes it and robs it of its proper bite.

  4. Charlie Clauss

    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?

  5. Christopher Arnold

    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 as to humility. It is just as important to allow our feet to be washed as it is to pick up the pitcher. My answer to the question posed by Charlie Clauss is that the analogy to footwashing in our day is footwashing. Jesus gave a command, which we perform, and then we reflect on what we discover in it.

  6. Calvin Lane

    Bishop, thanks for the charitable and thoroughly Catholic engagement! I completely agree with you when you write that foot-washing isn’t a sacrament. [let no one think I’m next going to argue for the practice of lay presidency]. But because it’s not a sacrament, I’m hesitant to use the icon language you’ve used. At the Eucharist, indeed the priest is an icon of Christ. But foot-washing is not a sacrament, but rather a rite which depicts the nature of church, the nature of the body of Christ (Maundy Thursday, Mandatum Novum, the new command to love one another). I simply can’t get past Christ’s direct words, as direct as he is when he says “this is my body”: our Lord said, “wash one another’s feet” John 13:14. And I can’t get past the patristic practice — the examples I gave from Tertullian in the west and Chrysostom in the east span a couple of centuries and are thus certainly not isolated. As regards entitlement, I would suggest that every Christian (every member of the body) is _responsible_ for washing feet (highlighting the love we owe to each other) and is _entitled_ to be washed (highlighting the love we open ourselves to). I am responsible to my brothers and my sisters and I am entitled to their love. They, likewise, are responsible to me and are entitled to my love. Again, I so appreciate your engagement as my brother in Christ and, perhaps more so, my father in God.

  7. Zachary Guiliano

    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 conform precisely to what is laid out in John 13 as the mandatum, as opposed to conforming to the act of Jesus himself in washing the disciples feet. (I.e. It doesn’t seem clear to me that the apostles went on to wash one another’s feet that night.)

    A liturgical action should preserve as many elements of the biblical witness as possible, but these must not be isolated from the elements that make up the service around it. There is something incredibly dramatic and moving about the priest removing chasuble and stole to wash the feet of members of the congregation, and this will represent Christ’s own prominence and stripping of his clothes and majesty in a way that must be shown (“he did not grasp equality with God as something to be grasped but emptied himself”).

    More might be said along these lines.

    At the same time, there are a lot of things to be said for a more corporate footwashing, involving more members of the congregation, as Cal has laid out.

    Can I point out, btw, that the distribution of funds to the poor in the Middle Ages took the place of footwashing, likely due to a comment of Gregory the Great? When he comments on the woman washing Jesus’ feet, he says that we must imitate her by nourishing the lower members of the body of Christ.

    Frankly, as much as a poor Christian behind on their rent or lacking groceries might enjoy a symbolic liturgical act, they also might like $1000. Just a thought.

  8. 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 wash each other’s feet in succession (I wash the person after me, and he the person after him, etc). I then wondered whether that may have more appeal in church. But I still can’t escape thinking that it’s properly the priest alter christus who should do all the washing, like Becket and the beggar.

  9. 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?

  10. Charlie Clauss

    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 another.”

    If we are going to be literal, why not go the whole way? John 13:2 says “the evening mean was in progress.” Should we not then do the footwashing in between the distribution of the bread and the wine? ;-)

  11. Jonathan Mitchican

    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 washes feet, all feet, of anyone and everyone who wants to come forward, young and old, healthy and sick, rich and poor. The purpose of the entire event is not direct service – if that were the case, I can think of far greater acts that we could do than foot washing. The purpose is to step into the moment and to receive Christ’s command that we who have experienced having our feet washed should go then and do the same for others. When the priest only washes one set of feet, and every one else then follows suit, it places that iconography on shaky grounds and completely loses the dimension of it as part of the whole drama of the evening. It seems to me that it would be far more clericalist to keep the priest from washing all the feet of the people than the other way around.

  12. Calvin Lane

    Jonathan — thanks for the critique! You’ve surely given me more to think about. For clarification, I may be wrong, but it seems that you agree with Bishop Martins only in part. You write that the priest washes the feet of anyone and everyone who wishes to come forward, rather than the group of specially selected representatives (usually 12). To follow out the logic of iconography, wouldn’t it need to be 12?

    It seems to me, that if the point is to repeat the image, then the model of the priest as Christ with 12 “apostles” makes sense. On the other hand, if the point is to follow the command in John 13:14, all should wash and all should be washed.

    Zachary, Johnathan, and Charlie — you raise a very important point: the issue of “real” service. In the two parishes I’ve served, I’ve found that outreach is often simply a committee of comfortable, upper middle-class people who send checks. Financial support is incredibly important. But what about actually getting our hands “dirty” with people? Working in soup kitchens, volunteering in an after school program, going on mission ourselves (the list goes on and on). All of these, I’d like to suggest, are symbolically bound up in washing feet. Perhaps we’re more in agreement than would appear.

    Thank you all for your helpful thoughts and critiques; this is a subject that has long occupied my mind and you all have given me more to chew on.


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