Feet first

Photo: Carlos Santa Maria/Shutterstock
Photo: Carlos Santa Maria/Shutterstock
Published March 22, 2016

Feet can be gross. We walk on them. They get calloused. Sometimes they smell. We try to keep them in good order, but most of us wouldn’t consider our feet worthy of an act of worship. (And I suspect if we did, we wouldn’t tell anyone.)

So you can imagine what it was like growing up in a church tradition in which foot washing was practised as often as, and with the same kind of devotion that we usually reserve for, the Eucharist.

I can still feel the trepidation of walking into the packed church hall toward a semi-circle of chairs surrounding washbasins. Sitting down on one of the chairs, a highly respected elder of the church approached me and asked if he could wash my feet.

Obliging, I took off my socks, which to my utter horror, revealed a rather thriving colony of lint between my toes. Not skipping a beat, the elder fell to his knees, lifted my foot into the washbasin and began gently removing the remainders of encrusted sock. When he had finished, he took a towel and tenderly dried my feet. We never traded words, but we didn’t have to. The gentleness of the exchange said enough: you are valuable; you are welcome; you are loved.

It was a holy, humbling moment. Here was this highly respected member of a church community doing something pretty disgusting for a kid, a category of person who can offer nothing in return. Or, at least that’s what I thought, until he sat in the chair next to me and asked me to wash his.

I’ve always found it interesting how often I hear Anglican clergy advocating for open table (in which communion is made available to all present, whether baptized or not), but how seldom I hear them advocating for regular parish-wide foot washing. We may fight each other over access to the sacraments, but as Jean Vanier once insightfully noted, there are few people fighting to wash each other’s feet.

And we know why: because feet can be gross. Giving our neighbours a glance at what might linger between our toes makes us viscerally vulnerable to each other in ways that cause us-steeped as we are in a culture that values image, power and control-profound discomfort. Heroically putting ourselves in a state of service toward others is one thing, but allowing ourselves to be reciprocally severed by others is far more difficult. It calls us to renounce not only our privilege, but also our sense of virtue in renouncing our privilege.

Sometimes I wonder if the discussions around open table are a way of avoiding this kind of vulnerability and renunciation. Advocating for open table might be a way of trying to renounce our control over the sacraments. It might also be our attempt to assure ourselves of how hospitable we are without ever having to take off our socks.






  • Jeffrey Metcalfe

    Jeffrey Metcalfe is the diocese of Quebec's canon theologian.

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