The Rev. Della Wager Wells Reflects on the “Come and See” Ministry of the Compass Rose Society

Recently the Rev. Della Wager Wells, rector of Emmanuel, Newport, talked with Nancy Bryan of Canticle Communications about her fifteen years of ministry with the Compass Rose Society, an organization founded in 1997 that supports the programs and ministries of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC), the organization that sets the goals and direction for the Communion. 

photo of The Rev. Della Wager Wells
The Rev. Della Wager Wells

I would love to hear a bit about your background and particularly about how you became involved in Compass Rose. How did you learn about the organization, how far back does it go in your life?

Della Wager Wells:
Those two things are inextricably linked. This wasn’t my initial trajectory, unless you go way back to my childhood when at the age of seven I told my mother I wanted to be a Jesuit priest, and she said that was really one of the things that was off the list for me. She hadn’t told me I couldn’t do things before, so that was unusual. I’d read a children’s biography about Jesuit work and the famous Jesuits who were at work as professors and doctors and lawyers and innovators and people who really went to the intersection of God in the world. They didn’t go off and pray on behalf of others in monasteries. They were right out with the people doing the things.

At that time, I couldn’t have become an Episcopal priest, either, although weirdly and coincidentally, my great-uncle, Bishop Robert L. DeWitt, then retired bishop of Pennsylvania, was, with Bishops Daniel Corrigan and Edward Welles, censured by the House of Bishops for ordaining the first eleven women in Philadelphia in 1974.

I was 14 at the time of their ordination and the idea of priesthood still hadn’t presented itself to me. I had church on my mind and was very much an Episcopalian, so I did the next best thing and I went to law school and became a lawyer working in nonprofit finance — public projects that yielded public good — for about thirty years.

In around 2008 I was senior warden at All Saints’, Atlanta. As I was retiring, my rector, Geoffrey Hoare, invited me to go to the upcoming Compass Rose meeting in Canterbury to represent All Saints’, Atlanta. I said, yes, and besides would also go on the follow-on Compass Rose pilgrimage to the Diocese of Cyprus and the Gulf, in the Province of Jerusalem and the Middle East. Everybody thought I was a little crazy to go when I didn’t know anyone, but I went to the other side of the world where everything from the temperature of the air, to the currency, to the language, to everything about the cultural context, was different. It felt like the noise level dropped and all of a sudden what was important was how we were alike instead of how we were different. And that was my epiphany.

I realized at that point that that was what I was supposed to be doing, and I started to take one seminary course every semester while still practicing law full-time. When I finally retired in 2015 and went to Yale Divinity School, I actually had a full year to my credit, although I didn’t use it because I loved divinity school. It was the Compass Rose Society that helped me see that I was made to be a missionary and that I needed to be working in the same area, but with a different client, for God.

After I graduated, I had a fellowship in Jerusalem for a year, before returning to the States to begin my work at Emmanuel, where I’ve been ever since.

And how has your work with Compass Rose continued?

Actively, in that I never am far separated from it, and it infuses everything that we do here at Emanuel. Even in the most parochial context, as I said earlier, it’s when we see ourselves in another whole context and see what is really essential about us that we understand ourselves most fully. …

The Compass Rose Society is not a fundraising entity or a relief and development entity. We have other avenues for that. We have Episcopal Relief & Development, we have the Anglican Alliance, and others. The Compass Rose Society is what removes barriers to relationship.

The origin story of Compass Rose is that then-Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey visited South Sudan in 1994. When the Archbishop’s staff asked the primate’s representatives how many people would come for communion, the response was, oh, we won’t have communion. Upon further conversation, the archbishop’s staff was told that it was “because we have no bread, we have no wine.” Back at Lambeth Palace, George Carey summoned everybody into his office and just said, fix this, fix this.

And so the Compass Rose Society was formed. Our fundraising is to help the Anglican Communion Office operate in aid of the mission of connection of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the global Communion: to somehow get the bread and the wine there. And that’s essentially what we do.

I’m wondering how you’ve seen your parish and the diocese of Rhode Island benefit from these relationships that Compass Rose makes possible.

I think these relationships help us to see that we’re not alone and to connect in critical times, such as the climate crisis, to those who suffer most even while having the least impact. At Emmanuel, I’ve tried to help us see and connect to the land. For example, we started a community garden up in the churchyard.

As we harvested the garden’s produce, we brought the tomatoes forward at the offertory. I talked about how that is very East African — that produce and honey and goats and chickens, they all come forward at the offertory. People bring their offerings of their produce, and then auction them off afterwards with that income becoming an offering to the church. And so, we at Emmanuel brought the produce from our garden forward for blessing. The time, the riches, our gifts are not only the bread and the wine and the money that comes forward, but also what we’re growing together in community, which includes relationship, concern about responding in love, all of those things.

We’ve also had visitors. Bishop Emmanuel Bwatta of the Diocese of Western Tanganyika in ACT has visited us and preached here, along with others from around the Communion, particularly last year while I was on medical leave. I had friends from all over the Communion coming in to preach. I think that the parish has come to understand themselves better by seeing that our experiences are not normative of the rest of the Communion. We explore and see what our traditions mean to us by seeing them as different from others and understanding better what they are.

Even something like the use of liturgical colors. I talk a lot about how Jesus is not quoted in any of the four gospels and none of the ancient mothers and fathers of the faith wrote that you can only use green in Ordinary Time and you can only use purple during Advent. That other congregations in the Episcopal church use blue and the Church of South India uses saffron, which is absolutely lovely.

And it was amazing how that lit people up both as a difference and as a discovery of what a liturgical color could feel like, having not necessarily appreciated where it came from or why we used it before. That’s where difference helps us.

I think also difference helps us in that if we aren’t engaged with, if we’re not hungry for — not just tolerant of — and yearning for diversity, then we’re missing a little. It’s easy to become self-focused and idolatrous looking at ourselves and being self-focused.

I understand that your trip this past summer to Tanzania was the first Compass Rose Society visit there since before the pandemic. How did that span of time change the visit? How did it change the relationships, having not seen each other for so many years?

What was different this time was that this was the first time we’ve ever visited a province and not a diocese. We were very spread out! We visited the Diocese of Zanzibar, we visited the Diocese of Dar es Salaam, we visited the Diocese of Tanga and the Diocese of Dodoma, and we visited St. John’s University. So, we were all over from the middle of the country in the political capital, and back out to the financial capital on the coast, over to Zanzibar, up to Tanga. Tanga is also on the coast, so we were all over the place and that was big. I’m looking forward to developing those relationships. I had most recently seen Archbishop Maimbo Mndolwa in England in autumn of 2022.

I’ve spent time with him before several different times. This was the first time I had seen Bishop Emanuel Bwatta of the Diocese of Western Tanganyika since he was here in Newport in January of 2020. But we talk on the phone all the time and on WhatsApp; the relationships don’t go away. They don’t go away. It was wonderful to be back again. I lived there in the summer of 2016 for my internship and to be back in Tanzania and to stretch out and speak a little bad Swahili, kindergarten Swahili. It was fun.

Is there a story from Tanzania that highlights that relationship building?

I have two. First is the capacity that we have, any of us with material resources, to do good. … Church is really important and God is really important in Tanzania. … They don’t divide the world up between what is sacred and what is secular. They don’t say, okay, this is the holy pile and this is the daily pile, the mundane pile. We put food and agriculture and economic development and healthcare and education in the daily mundane pile and put Sunday worship in the holy pile, and that’s got a special gold ring around it, a halo.

They don’t do that. Hence, they have enormous integration in incarnate effectiveness every single day. Trinity Wall Street made an economic development grant to the diocese of Dodoma and built a downtown office building. Guess who the development officers are in East Africa? Typically the mamas, the Mothers’ Union, is in charge of economic development because they are in charge of the family, which is also an inverse, right? It’s different from what you’d expect. But the mamas are in charge. They do all investment and all singing. The building was opened ceremonially by the president of Tanzania the day after we left.

Although it hadn’t been it finished out yet, the building was leased up by the National Bank and by other national corporations, producing investment dollars to operate the social services and every service of the church. The church functions in a very vital way, not relegated to Sundays for an hour, but “all the time,” as they say.

And the other story is that my husband and I spent time in the Diocese of Western Tanganyika, a place where I’ve had a relationship for probably close to 20 years with the Rt. Rev. Emmanuel Bwatta. While we were there, I preached one Sunday to 1600 people. I’d never done that before. It was ecumenical and interfaith because it was in a fishing village where there were Muslim people and Christian people, Anglican people. All of the young people were there to support their friends, with 180 youth confirmed that day by Bishop Emmanuel.

… I think sometimes in the United States, we tend to think that we’ve got everything under control and that we’re going to manage this away and we’re going to manage that away. And we’re just not focused on holy things. And by the time we’ve carved God out of every area of our lives, we’ve got an hour on Sundays and it’s like, “see you next week, call you if we need you.” But there’s nothing else going on. They really integrate faith and the presence of God into their whole lives and there’s something really holy about that that’s compelling.

What have I not asked about? What would you want folks in the diocese to know about the Compass Rose Society?

Our lectionary for Sunday (John 1:43-51; this interview was conducted on January 17, 2024) was “come and see,” and I’ve always said that Compass Rose was a “come and see” ministry. I had no idea in 2008 when I went to the Compass Rose annual meeting: I didn’t know about the Anglican Communion, I didn’t know if it was a letterhead, or if it was an office building. Was it an address? I had no idea. I didn’t know what the Anglican Communion was. And when I found out, I was gobsmacked, and my life was changed forever. It’s a “come and see” ministry.