Man of a movement

by
04 May 2010

David Winter reads abiography of Dr Stott

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Inside Story: The life of John Stott
Roger Steer

IN 2005, Time magazine included John Stott among the 100 “most influential people in the world”. This placed the retired Rector of All Souls’, Langham Place, among such luminaries as Bill Clinton, Clint Eastwood, Rupert Murdoch, and Nelson Mandela. Those names would be recognised worldwide, but it’s quite likely that a quick poll of people on a UK high street would fail to find one person who had heard of John Stott.

That is the intriguing background to Roger Steer’s sympathetic story of a man whose life has already been recorded in an exhaustive two-volume biography by Timothy Dudley-Smith. John Stott is an Evan­gelical icon, the man who piloted Anglican Evangelicals to their highest point of influence in the 1970s and ’80s. He is one of the finest preachers of our age, and an eloquent advocate of the gospel. But, by his own choice, these rich gifts have been exercised almost exclusively within the Evangelical constituency, which means that he is better known in the United States and many parts of Africa and the Far East than in his homeland.

Steer’s book is aimed firmly at the Evangelical market, but it de­serves to be read by anyone who wants to understand the story of the Church of England in the ’60s and ’70s, when Dr Stott’s leadership and charisma gave Evangelicals a confi­dence to come out of their ghetto, and earned them a new respect in the eyes of the wider Church. By the ’70s, it even seemed likely that the future of the Church of England would be, as David Edwards recog­nised, predominantly Evangelical.

It didn’t quite work out like that. A quote from a letter to Dr Stott from his friend Michael Green in 1988 probably explains why: “The evangelical movement is now so disparate and so multiform that it is hard to see it holding together after your presidency (of the Anglican Evangelical Council). . . There is no individual capable of replacing you.” That is both a tribute to the achievements of Dr Stott and a shrewd analysis of the inherent weak­ness of a “movement” held together by the sticky tape of minute doctrinal definition.

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Inside Story charts many of the issues raised by these “definitions”. Dr Stott himself fell out with the redoubtable Martyn Lloyd-Jones of Westminster Chapel over the notion of a “pure” Church. Some leading Evangelicals were unhappy about his rejection of the concept of eter­nal punishment, or his endorse­ment of a hermeneutical approach to scripture. Others were suspicious of his enthusiasm for the social impli­cations of the gospel — “justice for the poor”. On the other hand, Dr Stott was not happy with the Charis­matic movement’s talk of a “baptism in the Holy Spirit”, nor with Reform’s “dogmatic” claims that the ordination of women is “plainly contrary to scripture”.

These and other contentious issues are frankly faced in the book, and show that, for all his total com­mitment to a “propositional revela­tion of truth”, Dr Stott is far from a hidebound fundamentalist.

He was converted as a teenager at a camp for public schoolboys by a man in khaki shorts known to them as “Bash”, whose mission in life was evangelising the “leaders of the future”. It took John Stott a long while to escape from the embrace of that oddly male, oddly élitist, and oddly simplistic world. He did, and that is the true “inside story” of the man.

Canon David Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC.

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