THE title of Sam Wells’s latest book indicates a further exploration of the significance of the word with. When so much that is written today about ministry focuses on activity and outcomes, it is refreshing to be invited to spend some time thinking about being with.
The introductory material helps us to locate this collection of reflections in Wells’s own processes of exploration and the people who have shaped his work. The international and ecumenical spectrum in which Wells has ministered indicates a breadth to his being with others which is itself an expression of what the book describes.
His approach to understanding God emerges from this observation located in a simple reading of the Gospels. “If Jesus is all about working for, how come he spent around 90 per cent being with (in Nazareth), 9 per cent working with (in Galilee) — and only 1 per cent working for (in Jerusalem)?”
Having served at the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham, which is also known as England’s Nazareth, I warm to this. It underlines the importance of a hidden life, in which God is present and active, beyond the reach of definition and outcomes.
And, indeed, Incarnational Ministry draws on A Nazareth Manifesto, Wells’s earlier outline of God’s being with us (Wiley-Blackwell; Books, 13 May 2016). In that book, Wells identifies eight qualities that express the inner relationship of the Trinity. They are presence, attention, mystery, delight, participation, partnership, enjoyment, and glory, and they form points of reference in each chapter of this latest work.
Incarnational Ministry begins with being with God, and then ranges across human experience in childhood, vocation, and the challenges of life that include hurt and affliction. This spectrum culminates with death and a new experience of being born again into eternal life.
Wells writes with an ease of expression and cultural references that are wide-ranging, but not impossibly challenging: William Wordsworth, Susan Sontag, and Harry Nilsson, author of the song “I can’t live if living is without you”.
This is solid territory for an author who is a regular contributor to Thought for the day. My impression is that Wells keeps us well away from the platitudes for which that programme has recently been criticised.
The capacity to articulate complex questions with simplicity and directness is on display in these explorations, though there are surprises that stretch us. The observation that Wordsworth uses a host of golden daffodils as “a synecdoche for all creation” was a welcome reminder of the terms used to describe figures of speech.
This familiarity with the formal discourse of learning hints at the depth of study and thought which lies behind the apparent ease of description in Incarnational Ministry. The quotation from a mother’s letter about her daughter who lived only a few years tells us that this author exercises a ministry that is profoundly lived out with those among whom he ministers.
Many will seek enrichment from the account of ministry on offer in this book.
Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester.
Incarnational Ministry: Being with the Church
SCM Press £16.99
Church Times Bookshop £15.30