“Every Christian should be both conservative and radical; conservative in preserving the faith and radical in applying it.” That’s a quote from church leader and Bible teacher, John Stott, who died on Wednesday.
John Stott didn’t come across as a radical – very much your public school Oxbridge type (Rugby and Trinity, Cambridge as it happens), terribly English, slightly aristocratic and rather academic. Yet in my lifetime he is the one person who has most changed the direction of the Church worldwide.
A truly remarkable man. He had an enormous influence on my life. On a personal level he was surprisingly warm considering his background.
As a student I regularly went to sit at his feet as he gave the Saturday evening CICCU Bible exposition – always crystal clear and simply delivered. You had to concentrate – more of a lecture than a performance. No tricks, not many jokes, no playing to the crowd. And he did not disdain the academic contribution. For above all scripture was an appeal to the mind. Rationality – already then going out of fashion – was paramount.
He was a prolific writer – “Basic Christianity” alone has been translated into more than 60 languages and has sold more than 2.5 million copies. For me his book “The cross of Christ” has been pivotal. I had to buy a new one – my previous copy slowly disintegrated through constant use. Simply a masterpiece explaining this centrepiece of the Christian faith.
For Stott made Bible-centred teaching central in the ministry of the church. And this caused him all kinds of problems, especially in the turbulence of the ‘sixties.
Not least with one of his former curates, Michael Harper, who went pentecostal and founded the Fountain Trust. Looking back now it is hard to understand how the spiritual gift of praying in tongues caused so many problems for so many people. Here Stott was concerned that spiritual experience rather than the plain teaching of scripture was becoming the touchstone. He would not have enjoyed New Wine, for this fault line still exists in the evangelical world.
Where he was at his most formative was in his sharp disagreement with Martyn Lloyd-Jones who in 1966 called on evangelical Christians to leave the Church of England for a more purer fellowship. Stott – who was vicar at All Souls Langham Place for 25 years (the church which gave us Prom Praise) – took Lloyd on and put all his weight on reform from within. His example and teaching gave me permission to rejoin the CofE during my time at Cambridge.
I can think of two more areas in which I have been hugely influenced by John Stott. He taught the importance of double listening – listening to the Bible (of course) and listening to the modern culture, in order to understand the missionary task. So, I always have a novel on the go – it’s part of my job. You don’t stay behind the stockade. Stott was surprisingly open to different forms of modern culture; he made this a priority.
And also his teaching on ethics, often a neglected area in the Christian life. His book “Issues facing Christians today” went into areas other Christian leaders dare not go. He thought even the possession of nuclear weapons totally immoral. He made us think Christianly.
Stott was a first-rate organiser and strategist. For 13 years I was an active member of Eclectics, a fellowship for young (i.e. under 40) Anglican evangelical clergy which he founded. A great resource. I still reflect on one meeting in particular, at Christ Church Southport in 1978. Sadly it no longer exists, at least as I remember it.
I could say a lot more – especially his contribution to the church in the Majority world (his phrase). But all this is beyond my horizon.
For Stott was above all a humble disciple of Jesus, difficult when you consider his worldwide status, especially in North America. “Pride is without doubt the greatest temptation of Christian leaders,” he said in 2006 during a visit to the United States. “And I’m very well aware of the dangers of being feted and don’t enjoy it and don’t think one should enjoy it.”