A Missing Sacrament? Footwashing in Ancient Christianity
Although the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet (John 13) includes an injunction to continued performance just as clear as those attached in the Gospels to the Eucharist and Baptism, ancient Christians in general did not develop a tradition of communal foot-washing such as those found in later rituals for Holy Thursday or by pietist protestant groups in modern times. Some suggest an implied but short-lived communal ritual in the Johannine community, but there is no (other) evidence for this. Scholars have however paid little attention to evidence for actual Christian foot-washing, often practiced by women, particularly in prisons and similar settings of extreme need rather than in Christian assemblies. These acts which were ritual and practical but not communal did not persist as a general practice beyond the third century or so - apparently not able to be assimilated to the emergent forms of Christian worship with its public and gendered implications - but a form could be said to survive in foot washings practiced by monastic communities.
Andrew McGowan was appointed Dean of the Berkeley Divinity School in 2014. An Anglican priest and historian, his scholarly work focuses on the life of early Christian communities, and on aspects of contemporary Anglicanism. Professor McGowan’s project of re-describing early eucharistic practice in relation to ancient food and meals is found in Ascetic Eucharists: Food and Drink in Early Christian Ritual Meals (Oxford, 1999) and in subsequent articles and chapters produced in conversation with members of the Meals in the Greco-Roman World group of the Society of Biblical Literature. His most recent book, Ancient Christian Worship (Baker Academic, 2014) seeks to describe discursive and ritual practice in the ancient Church, including use of music and speech as well as sacramental ritual, and to acknowledge the diversity of early Christian belief and practice. He is currently working on how early Christian and other ancient Mediterranean groups used, changed, and created notions of sacrifice.
Before coming to Yale Professor McGowan was Warden of Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, and a Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne. He was an member of the General Synod of the Australian Anglican Church and of its Doctrine Commission, contributing to published conversations on environmental theology, restorative justice, and the theology of worship. He continues as editor of the Journal of Anglican Studies. He blogs at Andrew’s Version (abmcg.blogspot.com) and is on Twitter as @BerkeleyDean (for Yale- and Church-related topics and higher education) and @Praxeas (for ancient world and personal interests).