Feet washing and power

IMG_0330The Church of England has been under the spotlight recently. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has been hearing evidence about what went on in the Diocese of Chichester and it has made for disturbing reading. In reality it is not the Church of England as such but how senior people in various dioceses behaved, their failures to deal with complaints and concerns being raised. But for most casual observers that nuance is lost: Diocese means C of E. There are thousands of others who have acted with integrity and decisively in many cases. We have two advisers in this diocese who manage all sorts of cases from fresh complaints to ensuring those with convictions are supervised appropriately. It is an unpleasant area to have to deal with to say the least. The Inquiry led to the Archbishop of Canterbury speaking of his shame at what had happened and I am sure he feels it keenly.

There have been other cases too, not least a Vicar in Oxford Diocese who was inhibited from ministry for spiritual abuse, which is the coercive use of power by one who has spiritual authority. And that is key to so much of safeguarding. The offences are more about power and coercion, and forms of aggression and oppression, than they are about sex. It is the controlling and diminishing of another’s freedom that seems to be central in the offending. And denying personal responsibility for has happened or what has been done is part of that power dynamic. Those who commit these offences do not look any different to anyone else. They are not monster-like, they do not necessarily creep you out. Having walked the landings of a sex offenders unit in a prison, it is deceptively normal, and much less violent in tone than the other wings tend to be.

Power has a central role in tonight’s commemoration. Jesus shows a very different model of power, that of loving service in taking the towel and washing feet. He gives a meal as the central symbol of his life and passion, one which makes all equal as they share in his hospitality round the common table and share the common cup. He is betrayed by a kiss from one wanting to force his hand or disillusioned because he didn’t turn out to be what he wanted him to be. He is taken by force by those with violence in their hearts and wanting to stamp their image on how events should proceed. And he will stand before Pilate, the Roman Governor with power, who takes a bowl of water to wash his hands to show he has nothing to do with what will happen. The guilt lies elsewhere; it’s not his fault.

That hand washing is a powerfully symbolic act. It is one that is echoed by the priest who presides at the Eucharist. Just before the Eucharistic Prayer I wash my hands using a small bowl of water and dry them with a towel. There are a number of bible verses that can accompany this, either out loud or silently said to the self. “Lord, wash me from my iniquity, and cleanse me of my sin” (Psalm 51:2). “I wash my hands in innocence, and go around your altar, O Lord” (Psalm 26:6). Both of these are verses of humility and penitence. They remind the person presiding that we rely on God’s grace and mercy, goodness and blessing for the heart of this celebration, rooted as it is on this night.

Another thought is often in my mind too, though. And it is Pilate’s action. All of us have power to some degree and some of us have far more of it than others by virtue of being white, male, in positions of religious authority and office, with certain levels of education and financial security – however modest. There is a game that can be played where the participants line up at one end of a room taking steps forward to see how far they advance in the power stakes. And the steps are telling, because big people take bigger steps than little people. And men tend to be bigger than women. The facilitator will call out various criteria and each person advances depending on which they match or don’t. So power can be a hidden force, one we don’t realize we have or exercise. And that was one of the aspects to come out of the spiritual abuse case. The judge involved questioned in the Inquiry how clergy are helped to realize that they have and exercise power and need to be careful how it is used, and not abused.

The film Mary Magdalene, currently on release in cinemas around the country, has a scene in it of spiritual abuse. Mary refuses to accept the demands that the men are placing on her – she refuses to marry the man she is told to marry. Her father and brothers assume she must be possessed by an evil spirit because she is disobedient – otherwise she would be compliant – so they subject her to a ritual cleansing to drive out this evil spirit, and it is clearly distressing to Mary. Other women tell of rapes and beatings to suppress the rebellious. It is a #MeToo moment in the film. And her father clearly is distressed by it and calls a halt to it, but not before he has gone along with it. He has capitulated and thereby been complicit in the attack. He has effectively washed his hands not in innocence, but in guilt. And that is Pilate’s crime.

As I wash my hands, I am conscious of the power that I have, of the ways it is used and there is a sharp jab – do I always use it effectively, justly, fully for the good of all, especially the weakest and those most easily abused? It’s a sharp question and not always easy to answer. Sometimes it is, and sometimes big buttons have to be pushed to protect, to stand up to the bullying. And there can be consequences. Not everyone appreciates this. The vulnerable and oppressed don’t always appreciate it, if one consequence is for life to get harder for them. Look at how the Israelite slaves moaned at Moses when Pharaoh took away the straw to make bricks, so their job got harder in having to collect the straw before they could make bricks.

So the hand washing is a powerful symbol of how power is used and abused. It is a simple act, but can be taken in either direction. It can be a symbol of humility, of reliance on God and the need for God’s healing grace. It can be a symbol of complicity – realized and unrealized – and thereby of the sins we can be caught up in, even feel powerless to stop, or perhaps frightened to. Jesus took a bowl and washed feet; he demonstrated the way of self-giving love and said ‘do the same’. In a moment a number of us will do so. May all water poured out be for blessing and nourishment, humility and penitence. May it remind us of God’s grace and goodness.

Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Maundy Thursday, 29th March 2018

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About Revd Canon Ian Black

Ian is Vicar of Peterborough, Canon Residentiary of Peterborough Cathedral and Rural Dean of Peterborough. He previously served for 10 years in Leeds, as Vicar of Whitkirk and as a member of the Chapter of Ripon Cathedral. He has also worked in Kent in Maidstone and as priest-in-charge of a group of parishes 10 miles north west of Canterbury. He was a Minor Canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a prison chaplain and Assistant Director of Post-Ordination Training for the Diocese of Canterbury. Prior to ordination Ian had a career in tax, both with the Inland Revenue as a PAYE Auditor and a firm of Chartered Accountants as a Tax Accountant. Ian is married with two sons. He is the author of three books of prayers: Prayers for all occasions (SPCK 2011), Intercessions for Years A, B & C (SPCK 2009) and Intercessions for the Calendar of Saints and Holy Days (SPCK 2005). His latest book is 'Follow me: living the sayings of Jesus (Sacristy Press 2017). He has been writing online since the mid 1990s.
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