On Thursday of this week, I will be taking part in two profound symbolic actions in the Cathedral which have humility at their very heart.
The first is the Royal Maundy. Her Majesty the Queen will distribute gifts to eighty-nine men and eighty-nine women, honoured for their service to church and community. The tradition goes back hundreds of years and looks back to the moment at the last supper when Jesus knelt and washed the feet of his disciples.
It was at that moment when Jesus gave his disciples a new commandment: love one another. We take the name Maundy from the Latin for new commandment (novum mandatum). The gift of money is a symbolic and practical expression of love for others and, especially, love for the poor.
The recipients gathered in the Cathedral a couple of weeks ago for the Maundy Lecture. The Lord High Almoner told us that the Maundy is the only honour in our national life where the Queen comes to the recipient: she not only travels to Sheffield but also moves within the service to each person to make her gift – a moment we will never forget.
Later that same day, after the royal party have left the city and the crowds have gone, the Cathedral community will gather, like many others all across the Diocese to remember the events of the Last Supper. In that service, I will take a towel and a basin of water, as Jesus did, and wash the feet of twelve of the congregation. The service is a powerful reminder to follow the example of Jesus who came not to be served but to serve.
The theme of humility runs through Holy Week. Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday riding on a donkey. He is arrested whilst praying in a quiet garden. He is silent for much of his trial. He responds to mockery, to violence, to danger with gentleness. In his own agony and passion, he tenderly cares for his friends.
I offer two reflections on these two actions. The first is that humility remains an essential part of all leadership: in the family, in the church, in the wider community. The Christian tradition of reflection on leadership in communities goes back over three thousand years: it is the oldest and richest seam of reflection on leadership the world has ever known. At its very heart, all the way through, however you slice it, is this profound and wonderful quality of humility as essential for wise and good leadership in communities.
Our nation will be thinking a great deal about leadership over the coming weeks in the General Election campaign. Humility is essential as part of that debate in the qualities of the candidates, in the promises which are made, in their vision for this city and region and for the life of our nation.
But, second, humility is not just for leaders. The foot washing can be misunderstood. The lesson Jesus draws is very clear. He does not say: “So if I have washed your feet so your leaders should wash the feet of those they serve”. Jesus goes much, much further: “You ought also to wash one another’s feet”.
Each of us is called to humility. Each of us is called to love and to serve. This calling is rooted in Christ’s love for us, Christ’s offering of himself for us. Humility is to be at the heart of all we are.