Obituary: THE REVD DR JOHN ROBERT WALMSLEY STOTT

by
03 August 2011

THE Revd Dr John Stott will be known to future church historians as the man who contributed more than any other to the current revival of classic Anglican Evangelicalism. Like John Wesley before him — but on a vastly bigger scale, geographically — “the world was his parish.” Time magazine once listed him among the 100 most influential people of the day.

Apart from early infancy, and the final years, John Robert Walmsley Stott, who died on 27 July, lived all his life within easy walking distance of All Souls’, Langham Place: a church synonymous with his life and minis­try. He was born in 1921, the only son of Dr Arnold Stott (later Sir Arnold, an extra Physician to the Royal House­hold) and his wife Emily. They had three daughters, one of whom, Rosemary, died in infancy.

From his father, the young John Stott learned his love of the natural world (at first it was butterflies, but soon birds: he described one of his later books as a study in “orni­theology”); and his inter­est in medicine and the medical profession.

Stott followed his father from Rugby School (head boy), to Trinity College, Cambridge (senior scholar). At Rugby, he had been brought to a personal faith in Christ through the Revd E. J. H. Nash, whose house parties for public schoolboys at Iwerne Minster helped to produce a remarkable generation of Christian leaders in a strong Evangelical tra­dition of personal faith and disciple­ship. Stott never tired of telling the story of his conversion.

Fifty years on (to the very day), he found himself giving a short closing address at a “Prom Praise” concert in the Royal Albert Hall, with the Prime Minister in the audience. He de­scribed how “50 years ago today, on 13 February 1938, a young man knelt at his bedside and ‘opened the door of his heart or personality’, and invited Christ to come in. I was that young man. I have now had 50 years to test the reality of Jesus Christ. Tonight, on my 50th spiritual birthday, I want to bear witness to him. . .”

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The wartime years were not happy ones within the family. John Stott’s father was serving with high rank in the RAMC. He did not approve of his son’s desire for ordination, hoping that, as a modern linguist, he might enter the Diplomatic Service. Still less did he approve of John’s pacifist convictions (later, ironically enough, to be considerably modified). But even­tually, though unhappily, he agreed to finance his son’s further training, at Ridley Hall, Cambridge.

In 1945, John Stott was ordained by Bishop Wand as assistant curate to Harold Earnshaw-Smith, the much-loved Rector of All Souls’, on the door­step of the family home in Harley Street. The church was still bomb-damaged, and worship was in St Peter’s, Vere Street. For the last year and more of his curacy, Stott carried the parish during the pro­longed ill-health of the Rector, who died in office in 1950.

The congrega­tion and church­wardens petitioned the Crown as Patron to appoint their curate as Rector. Downing Street eventually agreed. It was as unusual for a curate to succeed his rector as for the Rector of All Souls’ to be still in his 20s.

From here on, Stott’s life’s work can be thought of in four main areas — overlapping, of course, and not ex­haustive.

The next 25 years of parish ministry at All Souls’ represents the first of these, in which the church became a model (indeed, a pioneer, much copied across the world in the following decades) of urban ministry, evangelism, and the nurturing of dis­ciples to Christian maturity. The ap­paratus he devised, intricate but efficient, has often been described. He described it himself for the London Diocesan Conference, and in his paper Parochial Evangelism by the Laity (Church Information Board, 1952).

Guest services, commissioned workers, nursery classes, fellowship groups — all were interwoven and carefully monitored. Reading groups, overseas fellowships, and study circles proliferated in the church, and indeed beyond. One of the curates became, after some delicate negotiations, chap­lain to the large Oxford Street stores; while at the other end of the parish, in Soho, north of Oxford Street, a club­house was opened to bring the ministry of their parish church to the Cypriot immigrants, garment-workers, small restaurateurs, and others not likely to cross its threshold.

A team of able young curates began to gather, the unmarried (most of them, back in the 1950s) living in bedsits in the rectory, as did the Rector himself. Frances Whitehead, a secretary at the BBC, became Stott’s personal secretary, and remained so for the next 50 years, re­cognised in 2001 by a Lambeth MA.

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Soon, though, with the full support of Stott’s church officers, there began to grow, alongside the leader­ship of the parish, a second main area of ministry, characterised by travel. It began largely with a series of uni­versity missions: preaching with a solid, cogent intellectual basis, coupled with moral challenge, and a call to personal commitment.

After visiting many UK univers­ities, Stott moved on to campuses in Canada and the United States (spend­ing the Christmas of his visit with the young Billy Graham and his family at Montreat) — to South Africa, Aus­tralia, universities in the Far East, and (later) South America, China, and Eastern Europe.

From these early travels sprang the demand for help in the training of pastors and leaders of young churches through much of the developing world. Indeed, to read the diaries that Stott kept of his overseas jour­neys is to marvel that such a programme could be sustained, let alone that it should be only one area of a multi-faceted ministry.

It was from these travels, and Stott’s exposure to world poverty, that he hammered out a theology of mis­sion that would later inform — not without opposition — the great Lausanne Congresses, where the in­tegrity of a full-blooded evangelism required a no less passionate commit­ment to social justice, and vice versa.

Alongside the parish, and this wider ministry of travel, a third main area of Stott’s innovative vision was his development of structures, organ­isations, societies, and fellow­ships to address, as Evangelicals, the agreed basis of the authority of scripture, and a range of contemporary needs and opportunities. What he saw, on his travels, of Evangelical churchmen facing, in different con­tinents, many of the same issues, led him to found (and for years to be secretary of) the Evangelical Fellow­ship in the Anglican Communion.

At the English branch of this, he set up and chaired the Church of Eng­land Evangelical Council. To meet the needs of younger clergy, some of them feeling frustrated by the backs-to-the-wall Evangelicalism of a faith­ful but embattled earlier generation, he called together a group of friends to begin (or, rather, refound) the Eclectic Society, borrowing the name from John Newton and his friends in the 1780s.

Soon there were branches nation­wide: a whole generation of Evan­gelical curates and younger clergy look back to those days as formative in their thinking and discipleship.

The great culmination of so much study, planning, and organising was the first National Evangelical An­glican Con­gress (NEAC), held in 1967 at the University of Keele.

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Stott, its originator and moving spirit, was to describe it as “a land­mark, a water­shed . . . our Evangelical coming of age, for there we publicly repented of our immature isola­tionism and re­solved to take a more responsible part in the life of both the visible Church and the secular world”.

The Congress was followed up by a range of study groups and publica­tions, and by further NEACs at ten-year in­tervals.

Comparable in some ways to this UK-based activity (though with Australia, too, and its NEAC) was the Lausanne Movement, an outcrop of Dr Billy Graham’s ministry, on a world­wide scale.

As a personal friend (the two men corresponded fre­quently over many years), Stott found himself a key figure in the Lausanne Congress, and the drafter of much of the Lausanne Covenant. This is a story that can only properly be told in a shelf-ful of books and reports, and by its per­vading influence on the think­ing of Evangelical leaders from churches in every continent.

Other “structures” included the Langham Bursary scheme, bringing Third World graduates to the UK to work for the doctorates that would equip them for theological leadership on their return home. It was a matter of pride (and of careful selection and pastoring) that almost every one of these “Langham Scholars” resisted the lure of the West, and returned home better equipped to engage in spiritual leadership.

Stott retired from being Rector after 25 years, retaining his links with All Souls’ by becoming Hon. Curate to assist his successor. By degrees, he was captured by a vision for a training centre or “institute” in central Lon­don, again with the needs of develop­ing countries in mind, and owing much to the pioneering work of Regent College, Vancouver. His aim was to equip a future up-and-coming generation of Christian pastors, politicians, media people, industrial­ists, financiers, and the like to find the part they should play as “Christians in the Modern World”.

The London Institute for Contem­porary Christianity opened its doors in St Peter’s, Vere Street, in 1982; and, year by year, it has fulfilled its founder’s vision — not without vicissitudes, financial anxieties, and changes of leadership. Its continuing work is still very much the lengthened shadow of one man’s vision.

Gifted leaders often find that it is easier to bring a new organisation into being than to ensure its con­tinuance after their departure. With this in mind, Stott began to lay plans for his work to continue; and along­side his publications (and, of course, the individuals who have come under his influence), the Langham Partner­ship International may well prove his great legacy.

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The fruit of careful and patient negotiation — for other countries were involved from the start — the Partnership was formed to subsume a number of Stott’s visions and pro­jects. It took under its wing the Evan­gelical Literature Trust (itself the re­cipient of almost all Stott’s royalties), which for decades had been sup­plying the shelves of scholars, pastors, and libraries in the developing world with at least a basic minimum of Evangelical scholarship and exposi­tion.

The scholarship programme be­came part of its remit, as did a new initiative in the training of preachers, so giving substance to Stott’s long-held conviction that preaching is a divinely appointed means to build a mature and active local church, through pastors who “sincerely be­lieve, diligently study, faithfully ex­pound, and relevantly apply the word of God”.

Inextricably interwoven with these three main areas of ministry — the parish, the global travel, the concern for structures — has been Stott’s ministry of writing. The sheer quan­tity of his output, let alone re­liability, readability, and durability, would be exceptional in any full-time author or academic.

This area of ministry was foreseen by Bishop Wand when, at Stott’s institution to the benefice in 1950, Wand expressed the desire that the church officers should see that their new young Rector had time to study and to write. Three years later, Wand entrusted Stott with the writing of “the Bishop of London’s Lent Book” for 1954, Men with a Message, on the writers of the New Testament.

Long­man’s advance en­abled the author to buy the Hookses, a dilapidated Welsh small­holding, his cherished retreat for the rest of his life, and the only property he ever owned, given some years ago to the care of the Trustees.

After Men with a Message, more than 50 books flowed from Stott’s pen. Basic Christianity, the substance of his mission addresses, is still in print half a century on, translated into more than 50 lan­guages from Afrikaans and Albanian to Viet­namese and Zulu. Issues Facing Christians Today, a more substantial work, appeared first in 1984, and has been constantly updated.

The Cross of Christ, as close to his heart as any of his books, remains a penetrating study, exploring and expounding the proper meaning of substitution in New Testament teaching on the atone­ment.

High among his literary legacies are the books he wrote himself for the series he conceived and edited, The Bible Speaks Today. His latest book, The Radical Disciple, was published in his 90th year.

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All over the world, there are pastors and Christian people to whom the name John Stott means primarily the author of books — well-worn books, for the most part — on their shelves. In the book he wrote jointly with David Edwards, Essen­tials: A liberal-Evangelical dialogue (1988), comes Dr Edwards’s considered judgement of Stott as “apart from William Temple . . . the most influential clergyman in the Church of England during the twentieth century”.

Why, then, was Stott never a bishop? He was approached, of course — as he was for a deanery, principal­ships of colleges, and posts in aca­demia. The simplest answer, perhaps, is found in Lord Macaulay’s tribute to Charles Simeon, himself one of Stott’s heroes: “If you knew what his auth­ority and influence were, and how they extended . . . to the most extreme corners of England, you would allow that his real sway in the Church was far greater than that of any primate.” For “corners of England” we can almost read “corners of the earth”.

Stott never married. It could be said of him, as of Archbishop Cyril Garbett, that “he would have found it hard to fit a wife into his timetable.” As his biography demonstrates, it might have been, but was not in fact to be.

Nevertheless, he was a man of great affections, with a gift for friend­ship, and much loved by his nieces and godchildren. His “study assis­tants” (young graduates, many Ameri­can), who worked as closely with him as anyone except Ms Whitehead, all speak not only of his drive, eru­dition, perfectionism, courtesy, and self-discipline, but also of his warmth and humanity, and the humility (always one of his hallmarks) with which he appreciated their friend­ship.

Many honours came to him. In his 30s, he became a Chaplain to the Queen, and, after retiring, remained (unusually) an Extra Chaplain for the rest of his life. He had declined an academic career, but Hon. Doctorates came his way, as did a Lambeth DD in 1983. In 2006, he was appointed CBE. He placed a proper value on these distinctions, but they had no part in his cherished goal. This he shared with the Albert Hall audience on that 50th anniversary of his conversion to Christ:

“When I am asked if I have any further ambition, as my life ap­proaches its end, I answer that my overriding desire is to become more like Jesus Christ, through the trans­forming power of his indwelling Spirit. For that is God’s eternal pur­pose for us all. And when Christ comes again, in spectacular magnifi­cence, we will at last be fully like him, for we shall see him as he is.”

When failing health meant that Stott could no longer live alone in his London flat, he chose, rather than be dependent on his many friends at All Souls’, to move to the much-valued care and hospitality of the College of St Barnabas in Lingfield. Ms Whitehead continued to visit him, to deal with his correspondence, and to type his books. He died on 27 July, aged 90.

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