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Improvisatory wisdom

19 August 2016

John Inge considers essays on current ethical discussions

How Then Shall We Live? Christian engagement with contemporary issues
Samuel Wells
Canterbury Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30



THE notion of “improvisation” as a way of understanding Christian ethics is increasingly popular. The Faith and Order Commission of the Church of England recently published a volume of essays, Faithful Improvisation, a reminder that it is a rich seam to mine. For it we owe a debt of gratitude to several notable theologians, among them Tom Wright and Jeremy Begbie, but to none more so than Sam Wells. His Improvisation: The drama of Christian ethics (2004) was a game-changer that set the tone for a generation’s thinking on ethics.

In this book, which follows on from his brilliant A Nazareth Manifesto (Books, 13 May), the author shows us faithful improvisation in action. He reflects on contemporary issues, which he divides in three sections: Engaging with the World, Being Human, and Facing Mortality, each of which contains nine essays.

The first ranges over such issues as Islam and Islamic extremism, social media, migration, inequality, Europe, and Israel; the second over the family, domestic violence, disability, and LGBT identity, and marriage; the third over dementia, bereavement, shame, assisted dying, and retirement.

Wells says at the outset that his intention is “not to offer the last word on any subject but perhaps a new word in a sometimes discouraged conversation”. He certainly does that: I found each of the essays challenging and inspiring. Readers engaging with them will, I suspect, be encouraged by the author’s insightful reflections and the imaginative manner in which he brings orthodox Christianity to bear on them in very creative ways.

The essays are written from the perspective of a theologian, preacher, author, institutional leader, and broadcaster — and, perhaps most crucially, a priest of very considerable pastoral experience. The wisdom that shines from the pages derives from years of faithful improvisation in these roles.

There are some highly affecting personal revelations, too. In the chapter on migration, the author focuses on the story of Ruth, the needy migrant who, having been welcomed by Boaz, becomes a bringer of salvation: her son Obed was to become the grandfather of David.

Having done so the author reveals how his mother escaped from Berlin in 1938 and came to this country as an asylum-seeker. Here “she learnt a new language and new customs in a foreign land. In time she found her Boaz.” He ends the chapter with the words: “And, by the way, I didn’t mention my mother’s name. She was called Ruth.”

Wells observes that he can’t avoid the conclusion that if Britain had had the same attitude and policy toward asylum-seekers then as it has today, he would never have been born. I give heartfelt thanks for the fact that he was.


Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.

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