Review by Andrew Petiprin
In 2012 Samuel Wells left his position as dean of Duke University Chapel and research professor of Christian ethics at Duke Divinity School to return to England, where he is now vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London. After seven years in the American academy and the Episcopal Church, Wells developed a unique insider-outsider perspective from which those he leaves behind have much to learn. As parting gifts he offers two books with wide-ranging interest for American readers: What Episcopalians Believe and Learning to Dream Again.
Learning to Dream Again
What Episcopalians Believe, the American companion to Wells’s What Anglicans Believe, begins in a defiantly prudent place. Amid all of the controversy in the Episcopal Church, Wells “is not arguing that we live in especially momentous times” (p. xii). What interests Wells in this introductory work is not primarily to analyze positions on women’s ordination or same-sex blessings, but to understand and celebrate what God has done for the world in Jesus Christ. For Episcopalians, what matters is how God uses us to play our part in his work, and for the most part Wells articulates this dream effectively. He brings a fresh perspective to classical Anglican topics in the American context, using the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles as guideposts on a journey to “speak to” the Episcopal Church rather than “for it” (p. xiv). With a few reservations, this is a good book to put into the hands of someone asking the question Wells attempts to answer.
Wells organizes his thoughts into four sections: The Faith, the Sources of Faith, the Order of the Faith, and the Character of the Faith. The most enriching and exciting part is the first chapter — a 28-page sweep through salvation history. Wells puts first things first, telling with rhetorical flourishes the story that centers on the Messiah, “the centripetal goal to which all searches for truth must look … and the centrifugal force from which all goodness flows” (p. 1). He is inclusive in scope while never wavering from the uniqueness of salvation through Christ from the Garden of Eden to the eschaton. Simply put, being an Episcopalian should be all about Jesus. Any notion of an “Episcopal faith” or any broadly labeled “Anglican” way of doing things is a valuable but subordinate subset of the timeless truth of the one Gospel of Christ.
Throughout the book there is helpful material on history, liturgy, and mission; but Wells’s primary task is to argue that Episcopalians possess valuable doctrine, which is “never simply a series of propositions” (p. xiii). Indeed, liturgy, mission, and finally history are best understood through the lens of the content of the Christian faith, about which Episcopalians, as part of the Anglican tradition, tell the world in a special way. Sin, repentance, and forgiveness are understood in the Episcopal Church as “less about being set apart and more about attaining a rhythm of life in accord with the rhythm of the saints” (p. 15). He describes different theories of the atonement while ultimately concluding that we ought to think primarily of justification and salvation in terms of the work of Christ, our justifier. On this and other matters there are strong, welcome echoes of F.D. Maurice.
The book also tackles popular, misunderstood manifestations of the Christian faith as received by the Episcopal Church, including the infamous three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. Wells astutely dismisses the notion of three separate strands of revelation that function as a system of checks and balances; but he does not smash the whole schema to bits and offer something different. This is disappointing. The stage is set for a presentation of a fully evangelical faith poured into immutable Catholic structures, but Wells chooses not to make the case, relying instead on a familiar but uninspiring nod to “a searching, meditating, embodied, and biblically formed encounter with the ways of God in Christ” (p. 48).
One reason for the lack of a fully articulated ecclesial vision may lie in the book’s surprising omission of specific influences beloved by Episcopalians, Anglicans worldwide, and Christians of many traditions, chief among them C.S. Lewis. Likewise, N.T. Wright is completely missing from the bibliography, as is Michael Ramsey’s Gospel and the Catholic Church and anything of major significance by Rowan Williams. The book also contains a study guide by Sharon Ely Pearson that is useful for checking reading comprehension but too heavy on questions such as “What do you believe?” and “Do you agree?”
Learning to Dream Again is a much different book, which better displays Wells’s greatest gifts. If What Episcopalians Believe succeeds in user-friendly analysis, Learning to Dream Again adds layers of both winsomeness and heartache. Wells sets out to talk about the faith on multiple levels: the head, the gut, the heart, and the hand. It is a collection of reflections from a scholar-preacher, who is able to connect the stories of the Bible to the story of each person’s life.
“Who are you?” he asks, encouraging his reader to conclude, “I can’t answer that question except in relation to Jesus” (p. 45). Likewise, he wants to know whether his readers’ commitment to and participation in the body of Christ is so profound that they would “be among those … worth torturing” to bring the whole system down (p. 90). These and other questions provide a welcome challenge and kindle the fire of imagination.
In the fourth and best chapter, “Learning to Read Again,” Wells encourages “reading the Bible and letting the Bible read you” (p. 117). He uses the stories of Moses, Elijah, David, Jonah, Jacob, and Esau to make a variety of provocative and faithful points. He writes: “Where are you? Where is your brother? These are the two most important questions you will ever be asked” (p. 134). There is profound insight about underdogs and overlords, transformation and healing, and a breathtaking perspective on the beatitudes called “Dwelling in the Comma.” Here Wells argues that the pause in between “Blessed are” and what follows is the Christian life, the “valley between the horror of the cross and the wonder of the resurrection” (p. 140). That will preach anywhere.
There are weak moments in this volume as well. The obvious homiletic origin of many of the essays makes reading them tedious at times. He writes “I wonder if” on several occasions — perhaps a good transition when emanating from the pulpit once a week, but less effective in print. His references to films are sometimes misplaced, and his personal stories occasionally seem too tailor-made for the situation to be entirely true. Does it matter? He addresses some hot ethical topics, including abortion, but is so balanced in his presentation that it becomes difficult to find an edifying angle. On the other hand, he makes some generalizations that are both clear and heartfelt: medicine should be about caring first, then curing; decisions about our food are intimately bound up in Christian morality; obsession with taxes and state control gives too much power to Caesar.
On the whole, both books invite seekers and longtime Christians alike to explore a relationship with a loving God, whose call on our lives as individuals and as a Church is never easy. And although Wells may no longer call the Episcopal Church or the United States his home, we who remain in both may give thanks for his time among us, build on the good work he has begun in these creative and highly accessible volumes, and dream of the future for ourselves.
The Rev. Andrew Petiprin is rector of St. Mary of the Angels Church in Orlando, Florida.