After seven years of service at Duke, Dean of the Chapel Sam Wells will leave July 2012 to become vicar of the Anglican church St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a prominent parish in Trafalgar Square in the heart of London.
Wells is noted for working to bridge the Duke-Durham divide and promoting religious diversity on campus. As a research professor of Christian ethics in the Divinity School, Wells is a prominent faculty member and has taught a popular undergraduate course, PUBPOL 195: “Ethics in an Unjust World.” Wells’ presence has brought an intellectual dimension to the role of Chapel dean, Wells’ colleagues said.
“It’s been important to me to bring conversations about faith, intellect and social good into the different schools of the University and the wider community,” Wells said. “Many of my most significant moments here were not events but conversations.”
Wells will move back to his homeland of England along with his wife, Jo Bailey Wells, director of Anglican studies and associate professor of the practice of Christian ministry and Bible at the Divinity School. The news of Wells’ departure was announced by the University Thursday. Wells said he took the new position out of respect for the leader of the Anglican Church.
“I regard the Archbishop of Canterbury in the highest esteem, and he very much wanted me to take up the post,” he said.
President Richard Brodhead said that he will appoint a search committee to find Wells’ successor. He expects to announce the committee after the start of the new year.
“Sam has thrown himself into Duke,” Brodhead wrote in an email Thursday. “He’s been a powerful presence in the Duke Chapel pulpit—several volumes of his sermons have been published, and they are all marvels.”
Wells has supplemented his role as Chapel dean with active participation in the Durham community. He works in the community group Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham, a nonprofit that works to build relationships with newly released prisoners and families of murder victims. Wells recently co-wrote a book titled “Living Without Enemies,” with Marcia Owen, Trinity ’78 and director of the coalition.
Divinity School Dean Richard Hays said Wells’ deliberate efforts to engage with the Durham community has stood out during his tenure as Chapel dean.
“He sought to encourage the Chapel to be engaged in face-to-face relationships in low-income neighborhoods and has pioneered the establishment of partnerships in those communities in Durham,” Hays said.
Wells has also made significant strides to enrich the Duke community with religious diversity, such as hiring the University’s first Muslim and Hindu chaplains. Wells said the hires came at a time when the world’s major faiths should be cooperating instead of battling.
“We’re in an unprecedented time of interaction between major faiths,” Wells said. “It holds a promise of deep enrichment and renewal, not a threat.”
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Wells was integral in making sure the Muslim chaplain would serve as a chaplain not just for Muslims but for any person of the Duke community, Muslim Chaplain Abdullah Antepli said, adding that the position was Wells’ brainchild as a result of academic and spiritual conversations.
At the beginning of his position as Chapel dean, Wells acknowledged the University’s Methodist roots but said “those days are basically gone,” Antepli said, noting that Wells’ articulation and fulfillment of Duke’s religious goals since his arrival has been impressive.
Antepli said Wells’ passion and commitment to the Muslim chaplain position was the reason he was drawn to Duke specifically.
“This has been a wonderful four years, to have him as a confidant, mentor and someone I can turn to in hope and guidance,” Antepli said. “[Wells’] leaving is bittersweet news for me, but I am happy for the people in London. They are so lucky.”
Students lauded Wells’ openness to giving advice and creating relationships, noting that his classes have profoundly changed the way many students think about the world.
Senior Sam Zimmerman participates in Pathways, the Chapel’s campus ministry, and took Wells’ undergraduate ethics course. He said the course is the best survey of ethical thought he took at Duke because it respectfully presented a number of different viewpoints and their criticisms.
“[Wells] has elegantly taught students how to think intellectually about the world around them,” Zimmerman said. “His primary legacy is using his unique voice to show how the academy has a lot to learn from the world.”
Jenny Denton, a senior who also took Wells’ ethics course, said the class reshaped her thinking of Christianity and ethics. She also praised Wells’ compassion, which shone through his interactions inside and outside of the classroom.
“He could be talking to Duke’s biggest donor or a homeless man in Durham, and you would get the same sense of respect for either one of those people,” Denton said.