The Rev. Sam Wells re-imagines church

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By on May 1, 2022
Sam Wells
The Rev. Dr. Sam Wells’ lecture gripped and challenged his online audience of more than 170 people from around the Diocese. A link to the full lecture, and others in the anniversary series, is at

The online lecture series marking the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa wrapped up on March 13 with a remarkable lecture from British public theologian the Rev. Dr. Sam Wells, Vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Fields and Visiting Professor at King’s College London. 

While all four of the free lectures, now posted on the Diocesan YouTube channel, have been gifts for all to enjoy and share broadly, this last one on “Re-Imagining Church” seemed to be particularly apt as the diocesan church reconsiders the Shape of Parish Ministry. Wells offered abundant inspiration.

Welcoming Wells, Bishop Shane Parker quoted American theologian Walter Brueggermann’s description of him as arguably having “the liveliest, most agile, best-informed, critically disciplined mind in the entire Christian community and he has a baptised heart of honesty, compassion and passion to match.”

All that was evident as Wells began by reflecting on questions as expansive as “What if we are the early church?” and “If there hadn’t been a fall, would Jesus still have come?” and “Why was there creation?”

That last question is one of the great questions, Wells said. “The answer I’m going to suggest to you is that That-which-lasts-forever, which you and I call God, chose to be in relationship with something beyond itself….

“And then astonishingly, and this is the great claim of the Christian faith, that relationship was constituted by God becoming one of us…. That is Christmas,” he said. Easter, Wells went on to say, demonstrates that “whatever we do we cannot push that relationship away, however much we might reject it,” and the Ascension shows “that the whole point of all things was that God would finally be with us in essence forever.

“What we’ve arrived at is the heart of what church and what heaven are fundamentally about and that is being with one another,” Wells said.

Our churches, however, are structured on a different model, Wells said. It is a model based more on a view of that Jesus came to fix our human problems, like a plumber coming to fix a broken pipe, rather than coming to be in relationship with us. Wells added that we see our problem as our limitations, and all the things we do not have enough of, but it is, actually, isolation. 

“If our human problem is isolation, what we need is one another, and that’s something we already have. We have everything we need. We just have to turn our alienation from one another into ‘being with’ with one another, and that’s what I see Jesus and the Holy Spirit doing….

“My thesis for you tonight, is that the church of the future that I’ve been asked with you to reimagine is a church that focuses on what our true calling is as human beings, as disciples, as the body of Christ, and isn’t preoccupied with a kind of personal escape from present reality, which is the way salvation has too often been conceived.”

He then turned to describing how St.-Martin-in-the-Fields church, where he has been the vicar since 2012, lives out these ideas. 

Wells traced beginning of the decline of the church in the U.K. back to the government’s creation of “the welfare state” and the National Health Service in 1948. The church celebrated the creation of these social services, he said, believing they would end poverty and inequality. And then, he said, the church disasterously “stopped doing interesting things,” in health care and education, for example. 

The reason why St. Martins “has such a high profile in the United Kingdom, is because it never stopped doing interesting things,” Wells said. “It is those interesting things that are our understandings of the kingdom of God.” The Academy of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields is renowned for its music. Amnesty International began at St. Martins, and the church is known for its work with the homeless.

In 2017, St. Martin’s founded an organization called HeartEdge “because we wanted to recapture the imagination of a church that we saw as captivated by scarcity….the feeling that we don’t have enough” information, resources, numbers, money, or social influence.

Wells posited that “we actually have too much God, but to avoid feeling overwhelmed “we’ve developed strong resistances to receiving the too much that God has to give us.”

HeartEdge focuses on the four Cs: commerce, culture, compassion and congregation.

Churches “seem to have created this rather lame culture by which we are a one-trick pony. We do congregational stewardship and if that doesn’t produce enough money, then we close things down. What about all the other ways that you make money in this wonderful world, most of which come under the heading of commerce?,” Wells asked.

In 1987, St. Martin’s no longer had the income it needed for its mission, so it set up its own business. Pre-pandemic, its two cafes, events business, shop, and commercial concerts business employed about 120 people. “It increased by tenfold the number of people coming across our threshold. It obviously paid the bills, but more significantly, it modelled what healthy relationships between adult human beings could look like,” Wells explained. “We still have congregational stewardship, which pays maybe about a quarter of our bills, but we’ve increased fourfold our potential income, and it has hugely expanded our ambition for what we can be doing together as a church.”

The second C is culture, which Wells likened to an “estuary, a place where the saltwater of the sea mingles with the fresh water of a river. So an estuary of culture you can imagine as the place where the creative energy of the world meets the receptive energy of the church. It’s a wonderful place of intermingling,” A classic example would be an art exhibition in a church building, The art may is not necessarily be Christian, but it provokes conversation “which is where the dynamic energy of the Holy Spirit is most at work,” he said.

The third C is compassion, which Wells said, “may begin with pity, but it ends with the renewal of the church. To take in a Ukrainian right now is to enable your church to be renewed by the extraordinary resilience and faith of the person who comes to share your existence with you.”

The fourth C is congregation. “I would like the church to cease to think of congregation as something that can be considered out of relationship to the other three Cs. It’s been our experience at St. Martins that commerce, culture and compassion have redefined how church functions for us.”

A link to the full lecture and the previous three is on the diocesan website and YouTube channel.


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