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Friends tend to say that although we don’t practice the sacraments outwardly, we do practice them inwardly or spiritually. Hence we can talk about communion as an experience of unity with God or with other worshipers. Spiritually, we might call it baptism every time we dedicate our lives to God or when we are called to speak in Meeting and are filled with the Holy Spirit speaking through us.

Quakers tend to keep our discussion to the two Protestant sacraments, but there are of course five additional sacraments practised by Roman Catholics: confirmation, confession, marriage, holy orders, and the anointing of the sick. Most Christians agree that the sacraments, whether 2, 4, 5 or 7 in number, are things that Jesus told his followers to do, outwardly or inwardly, whether or not we agree what exactly the spiritual reality is intended to be.

So… what about foot washing?

Jesus’ act of washing his disciples’ feet is described in John 13:1-17. The disciple Simon Peter initially doesn’t want Jesus to wash his feet, but Jesus replies, “Unless I wash you, you have no part of me”. After washing everyone’s feet (including Judas’) Jesus says, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” The words that he uses after washing his disciples’ feet are very similar to the words Jesus used after sharing a cup of wine and breaking some bread with his disciples.

When theologians try to explain why foot washing shouldn’t be a sacrament, they variously claim that Jesus uses “as” in this passage, not “like”, or that this passage doesn’t contain words that are evocative of covenant but that the wine/bread and baptism passages do. However, linguistic analyses aren’t terribly persuasive to this Quaker. My method of Biblical interpretation involves asking the ultimate source of authority, “the spirit that gave forth the scriptures” in George Fox’s words, and then asking my Friends to help with my discernment.

I was fortunate to spend some time in 1993 in community with people from the Church of the Brethren, where they practice foot washing at Easter every year. Brethren and Mennonites not only practice foot washing before sharing communion (they call it Love Feast), but also require their members to be reconciled with God and with their community members before participating in foot washing. The theology is of servanthood and humility: all Christians are expected to serve others and be willing to humble themselves.

I’m not sure how reconciliation came to be a condition for participating in foot washing. Perhaps because reconciliation may require us to be willing to humble ourselves, either by asking forgiveness or by letting go of “righteous anger”? Or maybe it’s because Matthew 5:23-24 says, “…if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there… First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.” Maybe this is the one time of year when Brethren and Mennonites decide to ritualize the event?

Experientially, reconciling before foot washing makes sense to me. Before I participated in foot washing, I tried to imagine what it would be like to kneel at the feet of someone with whom I was in conflict, and wash their feet. It was hard to envisage it because the symbolism of kneeling is so strong. It was harder still, though, to imagine that same person kneeling down before me and washing my feet. Foot washing is such an intimate act that I don’t think I could give my feet over to someone whom I don’t trust. It is hard to imagine how pride could survive a foot washing ceremony.

In fact, this image has become one of my spiritual tests whenever I am ill at ease with someone or feel tension or possible conflict. In worship, I create a little guided imagery for myself and see if I can live into a scenario where I wash their feet and they wash mine. If the imagery makes me too uncomfortable, one way or the other, I know I have to take steps to address the situation or improve the relationship.

Foot washing seems to me to be an outward expression of an inner state of humility, willing vulnerability, and reconciliation. These spiritual states seem crucial to God’s vision for the human condition. And therefore I do believe that foot washing should be as important, spiritually, as baptism and communion. 

Queries for prayerful consideration:

Have you participated in a foot washing ceremony? What was the inward experience that accompanied the outward event?

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