Monday, 2 April 2007

Oils and footwashing

An unbroken personal record has ended. Since being ordained in 1980 I have managed never to go to a blessing-of-the-oils service. It hasn't really been deliberate, it's just that I've never been in a church where anointing with episcopally blessed (and nowadays, undoubtedly fairly traded) olive oil is a normal part of ministry.

Today I went, and the event was OK. I discovered that there are three different oils: for anointing the sick, for signing with the cross, and for chrismation (blessing at baptism). Presumably they could all be mixed together to give a general purpose 3-in-one oil, if that hadn't already been trade-marked.

In days past, this service took place on Maundy Thursday, but our bishop, +Nigel, is the Royal Almoner or something, and has to go and hold the Queen's purse on that sacred day. This year, the service is in Manchester, and I know some people who are to receive the royal small change after due security vetting, and proper recommendation as to their worthiness to receive the queenly largesse.

That latter aspect worries me. I don't doubt that it's an honour, and a way of recognising a few local pensioners for their services to church and community, and so on - a sort of gongless honours event. But is Maundy Thursday the time to do that? It has echoes of the old notion of the "deserving poor". Which is a long way from what Maundy Thursday is about. This is the day when Christians remember the story of Jesus' washing of his disciples' feet. It's an acted parable of service - and above all of God's grace. God doesn't do deserving. He does grace - unmerited giving.

On Maundy Thursday, those in positions of leadership re-enact the washing. It's about saying that we are there to serve, and that the service offered isn't about giving just deserts, but about sharing God's love with sinners. Royal Maundy stuff keeps power firmly where it belongs as far as the world is concerned. It doesn't wash feet (not since James II anyway), and certainly not the feet of the undeserving. It hands out symbolic largesse to duly deferential and security vetted subjects. Grace has been properly sanitised, and God properly cut down to size.

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