Dean of Duke Chapel


Wells: new accent  in chapel pulpit

Wells: new accent in chapel pulpit.
Chris Hildreth.

The Reverend Canon Samuel Wells, Priest-in-Charge of St. Mark's Church in Cambridge, England, will become dean of Duke Chapel on August 1. 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. President Richard H. Brodhead describes Wells as a powerful preacher and an impressive writer who has served effectively in a university-related congregation in Cambridge and in one of the most socially challenged neighborhoods in England.

As dean, Wells will oversee the operation of the chapel, with a staff of twelve, 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 and faculty and staff members. In addition to overseeing planned worship, counseling, and preaching, the dean serves as a focal point for ethical and theological discussions on campus on a wide range of topical issues.

Wells says there were many reasons he was interested in the job: "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."

"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.," he adds. "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 describes his outlook as "generous orthodoxy." "I believe that the Christian faith as it has been preached for twenty 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."

Wells, thirty-nine, is a fourth-generation Church of England priest. He earned a master's degree in modern history from the University of Oxford, a bachelor's 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 fourteen years, serving in churches in Newcastle, Norwich, and Cambridge.

A specialist in theological ethics, Wells 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 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 ten of his fourteen years as a minister, Wells has worked in economically deprived areas and has been deeply involved in those communities. He says he doesn't expect that to change when he comes to Duke and adds that 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," says L. Gregory Jones M.Div. '85, Ph.D. '88, divinity school dean. "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."

Elizabeth Kiss, director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics and a member of the selection committee, says 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 says. "He is someone that people from all across the university--from engineering, the arts, theater, and certainly ethics--will find a very interesting colleague."

Wells succeeds William H. Willimon, dean of the chapel from 1989 until he stepped down last August to become bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church. Craig Kocher M.Div. '01, assistant dean of the chapel and director of religious life, has been serving as acting dean.

Wells' wife, the Reverend 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 Duke's divinity school will include teaching and directing Anglican studies.

Samuel Wells says that, while he had been deeply formed by the Church of England, 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 says. His approach is "about being humble, about being open to learn, and sympathetic to various traditions."

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 twenty campus ministers and chaplains provide leadership to about 1,500 students involved in religious life on campus. While the university is historically affiliated with the United Methodist Church, services at Duke Chapel are ecumenical.


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