HERE is yet another book about the late John Stott, one-time Rector of All Souls’, Langham Place, who eventually rose, according to the author, to “global Christian stardom”. From that phrase you might deduce transatlantic origins.
Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical movement (OUP, £35 (£31.50); 978-0-19-977397-8) by Alister Chapman, a Cambridge-educated, American-based academic, is an exhaustive, carefully researched, and plausible analysis of the distinctive part that Stott undoubtedly played in the movement worldwide.
The problem for him and for the reader is that the “evangelical movement” is (in his words) “as dysfunctional as it is dynamic”. How on earth does one define an “evangelical”, let alone count the numbers? Plenty of those claiming the title would deny it to plenty of others. One is entitled to doubt the confidence with which the author quotes global numbers for so imprecise a constituency.
What is not in doubt, though, is the fact that Evangelicals, however defined, make up a substantial part of the worldwide Church, and a vigorous and dynamic one. Nor can it be doubted that Stott’s public ministry, especially from 1970 onwards, was profoundly influential in changing the face of Evangelicalism in many quarters, including its traditional base in the United States.
Once he was freed from the responsibilities of parochial life in London, his international ministry took off, and with it that journey to “stardom” which so fascinates Chapman (and would have embarrassed Stott).
Drawing extensively on Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith’s two-volume biography, and with access to private papers and records, the book is minutely documented. Indeed, more than one sixth of the text consists of footnotes.
The book is less sure-footed, however, where Stott’s earlier ministry in London is concerned; and Chapman, despite his best efforts, does not really “get” the Church of England. He is fascinated by what he sees as English deference to the “upper classes” (among whom he includes Stott), and by our élitism of class and education. It is true, as Chapman asserts, that Stott believed — at any rate, in his early ministry — in a “trickle-down” theory of social transformation. Given gifted and well-educated Christian leaders, England might once again be won for Christ.
In the event, many of the outstanding Evangelicals among his English contemporaries were young men from working and middle-class backgrounds. Posh or plebeian, however, England remained largely impervious to their gospel message.
Like many biographers, Chapman ascribes too much to the influence of his subject. There were other Evangelicals, in Britain and beyond, who were also hugely influential in what history may see as a remarkable late flowering of passionate biblical Christianity. Stott, with Dr Billy Graham, was its public face.
Chapman’s central thesis, however, is beyond dispute. From some point in the late 1960s, Stott came to see that social concern (the struggle for justice, freedom, and human rights) was not simply an optional extra to the gospel, but its very heart. Sadly, this great project — to marry evangelism to social concern — eventually largely foundered amid the wreckage of Evangelical divisions, and even, according to Chapman, put the long-standing friendship between Stott and Dr Graham at risk.
Nevertheless, Stott has left as his legacy Evangelicals in Britain and all over the world who share that conviction, and institutions dedicated to pursuing its fulfilment.
Canon Winter is a retired cleric in the diocese of Oxford, and a former Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC.