Exciting News for an April 1 Maundy Thursday

Episcopal Task Force Nudges Foot-Washing Towards a Third Sacrament

Due to the pandemic, we are not including foot-washing in this year’s Maundy Thursday service. But there is exciting news for the future. The Episcopal Liturgical Sub-Task Force on Reform and Renewal is suggesting the ancient rite of pedilavium (foot-washing) be considered a “sacramental” for a trial period of five years, after which, it will be regarded as a full sacrament along with Baptism and Holy Eucharist. Before long, we can wash feet regularly.

The chair of the task force explains, “When St. Paul writes, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’ [Romans 10:15], he is talking about the Whole Church.  The Gospel moves forward through clean feet.” A Southern Episcopalian on the task force explained her delight that the new proposal takes scripture seriously. “Just as Jesus washed feet and told his disciples to do likewise,” said Tibia Stern, “We need to follow Jesus, even when it involves getting wet, stinky, and maybe downright gross.” Ms. Stern pointed to an unexpected benefit in his town, where the new liturgy has already gained a footing. “For the first time, we have something in common with the Primitive Baptists AND the Mennonites!”

Church historians enthusiastically support pedilavium, footnoting ancient sources. Dr. Elizabeth Corn, an orthopedic theologian with H.E.E.L. (Helping Episcopalians Explore the Liturgy) points to the 4th century liturgical practice in Milan, where Bishop (later Saint) Ambrose washed feet immediately after the Sacrament of Baptism.  Ambrose wrote

Come, then, Lord Jesus…Pour water into the basin, wash not only our feet but also the head and not only the body, but also the footsteps of the soul. I wish to put off all the filth of our frailty. Wash the steps of my mind that I may not sin again. Wash the heel of my soul, that I may be able to efface the curse, that I feel not the serpent’s bite on the foot of my soul, but as Thou Thyself hast bidden those who follow Thee, may tread on serpents and scorpions with uninjured foot.  (Of the Holy Spirit1.13)

Invoking the spirit of Ambrose, the task force suggests congregations might consider serving Ambrosia, the popular potluck salad, at Coffee Hour on Foot-Washing Sundays (though the cherry on top should be avoided in Lent).

As with other sacramental matters affecting the heart of the church, most bishops have declined to wade into the discussion, though several have drafted a new program called, “Plushtice.” The Plushtice Campaign offer plushness and justice at the same time, as it partners with Coptic Anglicans in Egyptian villages to produce unbleached, undyed cotton towels of high quality. This preserves the time-honored Episcopal tradition of supporting the poor while not sacrificing luxury.  Details of the plan will be announced at the Archbishop of Coventry’s Lambast Conference next summer. 

Additional guidelines on tiptoeing forward with the Sacramental of Foot-Washing include:

  1. Environmental Stewardship: Care should be taken regarding the quantity of water used and should, only in unusual circumstances, be recycled for use in the baptismal font.
  2. Hygiene: Foot-washing basins should be stored away from church kitchens and pantries to avoid being mistaken for oversized salad bowls.
  3. Economic Justice: Parishes should use this opportunity to support local nail salons, offering group coupons and gift certificates.  A pre-sacramental pedicure should not only be for the well-heeled.
  4. Evangelism: Congregations in warmer climates may use children’s wading pools and lawn sprinklers in developing their own foot-washing rituals, this being the latest way for the Episcopal Church to try to attract young families with children. Episcopal flipflops (shown below) make great pedilavium presents.
  5. Pastoral Care: Extra resources and counseling should be made available to any, who because of cultural or aesthetic pressure, suffer from a negative self-image or shyness regarding their feet.  
  6. Safety: While socks and hosiery are discouraged during foot-washing, latex socks, available from church supply companies, may be used.  Studies show latex socks to be at least 35 % effective in reducing the spread of toe fungus.

Scriptures offered by the Task Force include Exodus 3:5 (“Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground”), Psalm 119:105 (Your word is a lantern to my feet and a light upon my path,” Romans 10:5 (cited above), and of course, John 13, the Gospel for Maundy Thursday. 

A new litany based on the Footprints in the Sand poem features the moving congregational response, “Where I saw only one set of footprints, it was then that you carried me.” At a recent Celebration of Foot-Washing, task force members and guests were shocked when the Rt. Rev. Hugh Higharch burst into tears and cried inconsolably through the service. Collecting himself during the reception afterwards, he explained, Footprints in the Sand always reminds me of summer church camp at the beach. I look forward to sharing this beautiful gift of prayer with the Whole Church.”

A Happy April Fool’s Day to all!  

The practice of foot-washing in Milan and the quotation from Ambrose are legitimate.
Everything else is fictional . . . for now.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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