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Stott’s ‘Miss Doom’

27 March 2015

Bernard Palmer on a notable secretary

John Stott's Right Hand: The untold story of Frances Whitehead
Julia Cameron
Piquant Editions £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

FOR the latter half of the 20th century, John Stott was one of the best-known and most influential clergymen in the Church of England. From his rectory at All Souls', Langham Place, he was the leading advocate of a biblical Evangelicalism concerned with expository preaching, world mission, and social justice. The prolific author of books published in more than 50 languages, he was recognised universally as an Evangelical Christian statesman of the first order.

It is doubtful, however, whether he would have achieved what he did without the assistance and support of an organisational paragon as gifted in her own field as he was in his. For 55 years, Frances Whitehead acted as Stott's secretary. But she was in fact much more than a secretary. She did, indeed, type all his books, but she also acted as his general administrative aide, both in London and in his Welsh retreat in the depths of Pembrokeshire. It had been, as she reflected in her old age, "a life, not a job".

She came to All Souls' from a post with the BBC, having been converted to a deep faith in Christ at a watchnight service at the end of 1952. Stott, in need of a secretary and recognising her quality, offered her the job - which she accepted. They carried out their joint activities on a shoestring budget, and were proud of each other's efficiency and thrift. Whitehead's duties included the usual range of humdrum chores inseparable from a normal office routine - and she would even run downstairs to answer the doorbell. But her extraordinary ability was acknowledged in 2001, when Archbishop Carey awarded her a Lambeth MA degree. Stott christened her "Miss Doom", for her habit of sounding a note of realism during the course of their often animated discussions.

Julia Cameron worked on the boards of three of Stott's Evangelical initiatives, and so writes as an in-formed insider who has researched her subject deeply. She shows that Frances Whitehead, in spite of her dedication to Stott's interests, had plenty of interests of her own. Nor does she gloss over the potential emotional risk of two people, both unmarried, working, however platonically, side by side. She remarks percipiently: "Clearly John's and Frances's ability to work together so closely was a mark of grace. . . They both had a high level of inner discipline. . . They did not allow for romantic hopes to take root; embarrassment and awkwardness would have undermined a remarkable working friendship."

That friendship lasted to the end of Stott's life. It was Whitehead who gave the opening address at the memorial service for him held in St Paul's Cathedral on 13 January 2012. And she was one of the executors of his will. She had served him for the greater part of her own working life - and was happy to continue that service even after his death. 

Dr Palmer is a former editor of the Church Times.

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