Lecture by Andrew McGowan (Berkeley Divinity School, Yale University). Ptarmigan Foundation Series on Early Christianity and the Ancient World. Free and open to the public.
Although the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet (John 13) includes an injunction to continued performance just as clear as those attached to the Eucharist and Baptism, Christians in general did not develop a tradition of communal foot-washing such as those later “invented” in Medieval rituals for Holy Thursday or by pietist protestant groups. Some suggest an implied but short-lived communal ritual in the Johannine community, but there is no evidence for this. Scholars have however paid little attention to evidence for actual foot-washing, often practiced by women, particularly in prisons and similar settings of extreme need. 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 assimilable to the emergent notion of Christian worship as leitourgia, with its public and gendered implications, but had some survivals in ascetic communities.
Andrew McGowan is Dean of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and McFaddin Professor of Anglican Studies at Yale Divinity School. His work considers early Christian thought and practice, including ritual, and with particular focus on Christianity in Roman Africa. His re-description of 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. In his most recent book, Ancient Christian Worship (Baker Academic, 2014) he seeks to provide a revised overview of discursive and ritual practice in the ancient Church, including use of music and speech as well as sacramental action. He is also editor of the Journal of Anglican Studies.