Foot washing and Christian leadership

In his John for Everyone (Part II), Tom Wright reflects on the foot-washing practices of the modern church. He asks why it is so hard for us to mirror the foot-washing practice of Jesus – which is precisely what Jesus invites us to do. He writes:

Why is this so hard?… Because we are proud. Today, when we perform the foot-washing ceremony in our churches . . . it is the leader, the senior minister who does it . . . . . Though it is a deeply intimate and moving thing to do, it is still, rather obviously, the leader of the congregation copying Jesus – and, in a strange way, having his or her own authority and status enhanced by doing so.

In the press we have learned that Pope Francis will wash feet at a youth detention facility this Maundy Thursday, rather than in a cathedral. This is consistent with his earlier practice, as Archbishop of Buenos Ares, when he has washed the feet of drug addicts in a shanty-town. At some level I think Wright’s comment resonates as we reflect on the pope’s ceremonial washing of feet – in this case a task normally associated with humility and service becomes a task that reinforces the authority and status of the church leader. On the other hand, in the case of Francis we have a pope who seems to be pushing the papacy and the church in a particular direction in relation to the poor, and thus toward more faithful service. To that extent his actions do not merely enhance his status.

I think of this also in terms of communion practice in my own Presbyterian tradition, where the minister is served the bread and wine last. Of course the fact that the minister is served last is intended to indicate her or his humility and service (the first shall be last, etc…) yet I have always felt that the practice perverted the intent. That the minister was served last came to be a sign of her or his significance and status. Clericalism dies hard.

At Kensington Church, where I serve, this has been undone, somewhat, through the fact that during communion I now sit in the congregation – and I receive from the elders when they serve everyone else in the congregation. Our flexible seating, and particular setup for communion allows this. And I am grateful for it. I am no longer served last in a kind of false humility. I am simply served with everyone else.


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