Pope Francis, after careful consideration we are told, has changed the rules for the rite of foot washing so that women as well as men may number amongst the 12. The Pope has clear authority to do this and we must accept the change in good grace. But it does leave me with a question. But first an explanation of the two views that have come to exist within the church surrounding the foot washing ceremony…
The traditional teaching, which I would have strongly emphasised until yesterday, recalls that Jesus did not wash the feet of all his general disciples but specifically chose the apostolic 12. He was thus being an exemplar – teaching them that loving service must always be at the heart of the priesthood. This link to the priesthood makes obvious why the representatives were male.
A more modern understanding, the one which Pope Francis clearly favours, encourages us to look beyond priesthood to emphasise that this call to loving service exists for all the faithful. Clearly we may, under this understanding, include women as well as men amongst the feet being washed.
I have no real issue with either point because both are obviously true. Priests do need to remember they are called to serve in love in a special way. The faithful also need reminding that this call to loving service does not end in the sanctuary. So no sweat there…
My question is more nuanced. Now the Pope has done away with the former teaching to emphasis the more recent idea…. then why do we still choose 12? A number so clearly pointing us to consideration of the priestly ministry.
It seems a very confusing oversight to me. The risk being that the symbolism and the action are now in conflict with each other resulting in mixed messages being sent out. It doesn’t take a genius to realise it will be jumped on by modernists to push for women priests. If they can represent a man amongst the 12 on Maundy Thursday why not at the altar when celebrating the sacraments themselves?
If we have 12 because Jesus chose 12, it strikes me they should be men as well. For Jesus also did that. But if the point is not about the 12 then we should presumably wash everyone’s feet or any arbitrary number for practical purposes. But not 12.
Does anyone have a satisfactory answer? Because people in my congregation are going to be unsettled by this change. Our experience of innovations in the Anglican church was not a happy experience that built up our faith. We are therefore, understandably, a little fearful of changes to sacred tradition and biblical witness.