Samuel Wells to Become Dean of Duke Chapel

For 10 of his 14 years as a minister, Wells has worked in economically deprived areas and has been deeply involved in those communities

The Rev. Canon Dr. Samuel Wells, Priest-in-Charge of St. Mark's Church in Cambridge, England, will become dean of Duke Chapel, Duke University President Richard Brodhead announced Monday.

Wells has devoted himself both to parish work -- especially in underprivileged areas -- and to a scholarly career that has earned him a reputation as one of the major theologians writing on ethics today.

"With his intelligence, humility, passionate spiritual commitment and depth of social concern, he will bring inspiration to Duke Chapel and will set a high example of wisdom, tolerance and service for the university at large," Brodhead said. "Sam Wells brings an extraordinary group of strengths to this important position."

Brodhead described Wells as a powerful preacher and an impressive writer who has served equally effectively in a university-related congregation in Cambridge and in one of the most socially challenged neighborhoods in England.

Wells said there were many reasons why he was interested in the job, and is excited to come to Duke: The university, the divinity school and the Duke Chapel congregation all offer unique opportunities.

"The university as a whole is engaging with some of the most important issues facing the world. But it's not so surrounded by tradition that it can't move. It's an awesome institution, but it's still light on its feet. That makes it a very exciting university to be involved with," he said.

"I have spent 14 years leading worshiping communities as they seek to embody a theological vision, and this role enables me to continue to do that in a wonderful way. It is great to be a pastor in an environment where continuing to write and explore the intellectual side of Christianity is so much encouraged and valued.

"To bring faith to intellect, and intellect to faith, on the kind of scale involved with this congregation and university community offers a prophetic opportunity that doesn't really exist in the U.K. Once a community of this kind of size seeks not just to speak the truth but to embody the truth in practices of service and reconciliation, pretty much everybody starts to sit up and take notice."

Wells, whose appointment takes effect in August, described his outlook as "generous orthodoxy."

"I believe that the Christian faith as it has been preached for 20 centuries is the most liberating thing in our world. But in believing that I maintain that Christ's offer of resurrection and forgiveness in community is also the most generous and inclusive culture we can imagine. ... I don't feel we need to be altering what we believe in order to be relevant; nor do I believe that to be faithful means to be small-minded, closed-hearted and unable to change," he said.

Wells, 39, is a fourth-generation Church of England priest. He earned a master's degree in modern history from Oxford University, a bachelor of divinity in systematic theology from Edinburgh University and a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Durham. He has been a priest in the Church of England for 14 years, serving in churches in Newcastle, Norwich and Cambridge.

A specialist in theological ethics, Wells also has published numerous books and scholarly articles. Among his publications are "The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics," which he edited with Duke Divinity professor Stanley Hauerwas, and a new book, "Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics," published in 2004.

Wells was recently asked to write the Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book for 2007. The archbishop commissions a book of meditations each year for the period of Lent, and to be selected is considered a high honor.

For 10 of his 14 years as a minister, Wells has worked in economically deprived areas and has been deeply involved in those communities. He said he doesn't expect that to change when he comes to Duke. He said he hopes his relationship with the Durham community will be one of "humility and conversation and a search for friendship."

That mixture of pastoral, community and scholarly commitment was what impressed the selection committee and those who will work with him.

"Sam Wells is a pastor and scholar of remarkable creativity. A gifted preacher and writer, he is emerging as a major figure in Christian life and thought. With a rich sense of the interplay of Duke's motto, 'Eruditio et Religio,' Wells will embody energy, wisdom and imagination as dean of Duke Chapel," said L. Gregory Jones, dean of Duke's Divinity School and a member of the search committee.

Brodhead added that he was grateful to the search committee, which was chaired by the Rev. Charles Michael Smith, a Duke trustee. The committee, which included faculty, students, staff and congregation members, conducted an international search and received about 150 nominations and applications. Brodhead also expressed appreciation to the Rev. Craig Kocher, assistant dean of the chapel and director of religious life, who has been serving as acting dean.

"We're proud of Duke's ties to the United Methodist Church and its history of ecumenism," said Smith, who is a United Methodist minister. "John Wesley, founder of Methodism whose statue stands over the entrance to Duke Chapel, was himself a Church of England priest who powerfully combined personal and social holiness and had a remarkable impact on American Christianity. We anticipate that Sam Wells will follow in Mr. Wesley's train."

Elizabeth Kiss, director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics and a member of the selection committee, said she was very impressed with Wells' thinking on ethical issues.

"He's someone who has tackled quite complex and controversial subjects within the church -- things from homosexuality to debates on genetics and cloning," she said. "He is someone that people from all across the university -- from engineering, the arts, theater and certainly ethics -- will find a very interesting colleague."

(To read Wells' views on a variety of topics, see his letters and sermons on the St. Mark's Web site here.)

Wells' wife, the Rev. Dr. Jo Bailey Wells, also is joining the Duke community. Jo Wells, who has a Ph.D. in Old Testament from the University of Durham, was ordained in the first wave of female priests in England. The former dean of Clare College, Cambridge, she currently is a scholar and lecturer at Ridley Hall, a seminary in Cambridge.

Her responsibilities at the Duke Divinity School will include teaching and serving as director of Anglican Studies.

"Jo Bailey Wells also brings terrific gifts as a pastor and a scholar and teacher. We are excited about Jo's leadership in the Divinity School in the area of Anglican studies," Jones said. "We look forward with great anticipation to having Sam and Jo at Duke."

The couple has two young children, a boy and a girl.

Wells succeeds the Rev. William H. Willimon, who became university minister in 1984 and dean of the chapel five years later. Willimon stepped down in August to assume leadership of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church as a newly elected bishop.

While the university is historically affiliated with the United Methodist Church, services at Duke Chapel are ecumenical. Although most of the former deans of the chapel have been Methodists, Smith noted that "one of the most beloved" -- the Rev. James T. Cleland -- was a Presbyterian from Scotland. Cleland served as university minister and dean of the chapel from 1949 to 1973.

"I count Jim Cleland, my teacher and mentor, former chapel Dean Bob Young and Will Willimon as personal friends. Sam is a worthy successor to that strong tradition," Smith said.

Duke Chapel has hosted renowned visiting preachers such as Desmond Tutu, Billy Graham, Reinhold Niebuhr, Jesse Jackson, Barbara Brown Taylor, Tom Long, Peter Gomes and Samuel Proctor.

Wells said that while he had been deeply formed by the Church of England and its institutional structure, in which he has spent his career so far, he had no reservations about entering a new and diverse religious culture.

"Duke Chapel is clearly a unique institution that is ecumenical in ethos and brings a variety of traditions in harmony," he said. His approach is "about being humble, about being open to learn and sympathetic to various traditions."

As dean, Wells will oversee the operation of the chapel, with a staff of 12, a music staff of seven and a complement of interns. The dean of Duke Chapel plays an integral role in connecting the academic and spiritual lives of the university's students, faculty and staff. In addition to overseeing planned worship, counseling and preaching, the dean serves as a focal point for ethical and theological discussions on campus covering a wide range of topical issues.

Duke Chapel has the largest congregation of any university chapel in the country and is also home to one of the most active religious life programs on a U.S. campus. More than 20 campus ministers and chaplains provide leadership to about 1,500 students involved in religious life on campus.

One of the largest Gothic-style churches ever built, Duke Chapel seats about 1,600 and features 77 stained-glass windows, three pipe organs and a 50-bell carillon. It was designed by architect Julian Abele, one of America's first prominent black architects.