Thursday, 9 February 2012

John Stott - a one man magisterium?

Alister Chapman's, Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012) is the full length biography of Stott to appear since the publication of Timothy Dudley-Smith's mamoth two-volume official life (1999 & 2001). Where that was a largely uncritical chronicle of Stott's life and ministry, Chapman's study is a richly contextualised attempt to understand Stott in his context. It is, therefore, the first really critical analysis of Stott, dubbed the Pope of the evangelical movement, yet to appear. Published shortly after his death it comes at an opportune moment for analysis and assessment of his life and legacy within worldwide evagelicalism.

Despite my initial disappointment that the book was just a slender 160 pages, I have to say at the outset, that I thought this was an outstanding study - a model of careful and considered scolarship and interpretation, sympathetic to its subject, yet incisive in its evaluations also. In the end I felt that its succinctness, far from detracting from the book, was actually what made it such a convincing, even compelling piece of writing.

While very much a straighforward biography, Chapman approaches Stott's life throught six broad themes; conversion, students, parishioners, Anglicans, society and the world, each reflective of some of the main areas and transitions in Stott's life. I'll comment on just a few of them in what follows.

Stott's background and early Christian development is vital to understanding some of the forces that shaped him; indeed the scope and character of Stott's early ministry was conditioned by it. His upper middle class upbringing (the son of a Harley Street doctor), public school education (at Rugby) and undergraduate years at Cambridge, ensured that Stott never really shook off that elitist air! His early Christian influences came through E. J. Nash, and so were deeply imbued with American fundamentalism, something he gradually moved away from as a result of his activities with the Cambridge Inter Collegiate Christian Union, especially after it came in for criticism from Michael Ramsay in the mid 1950s. Like Nash though, Stott was inspired by his very out-dated example of reaching the top two percent of society for Christ, and it was with this vision very much in mind that he entered the Anglican ministry, at time when things seemed to be looking up for the church in Britain at the end of the Second World War.

One of the most revealing chapters in Chapman's book is his study of Stott's All Souls minsitry. Chapman argues that Stott struggled to adapt to the changing circumstance of the 1960s. While his ministry to the well heeled middle classes who lived in one half of the All Souls parish was predictably successfull, his inabilty to adapt to meet the needs of the poorer inhabitants of the other half of his parish led to Stott to question his suitability to parish ministry, at least in the kind of world that confronted him in the 1960s. Stott's high hopes at the beginning of his All Souls ministry that his efforts would lead to revival ultimately proved to be his undoing. Stott, Chapman argues, simply grew 'tired of parish ministry after twenty-four years' and ran out of ideas (p. 76).

It is surely no coincidence therefore that as Stott's interest in his parish waned so his interest in the affairs of the wider Anglican church increased. Here Chapman argues that Stott was determiend that evangelicals play a full part in the life of their church, something they had reneged on for various reasons for decades previously. In a short discussion of the clash with Martyn Lloyd-Jones in 1966, Chapman argues that ultimately their clash was over different responses to the same problem, the decline of Britain's Protestant identity by the 1960s. For Lloyd-Jones the answer was a new ecumenism among evangelicals only, for Stott the goal remained national influence (p. 94). But again the theme of Stott's gradual disillusionment with the gains possible from his involvement in the affairs of the Anglican communion became apparent. Where the Keele evangelical congress had generated enthusiasm in 1967, its follow-up at Nottingham in 1977 laid bare many of the fractures in Anglican evangelicalism. Stott's inability to hold Anglican evangelicalism together, Chapman argues, as well as his failure to reach the bench of bishops, meant that he quickly 'tired' of Anglican politics altogether (p. 111).

At the same time more and more of Stott's energies were spent on his worldwide ministry, and from the 1970s onward this gradually gathered pace. It was also the time when Stott made a still more dramatic shift perhaps, in his passionate advocacy of social action, as being of the essence of the evangelicals calling in the world. Channelled through the 1974 Lausane Covenant, Stott certainly moved decisvely to the Left, both in religious and also political terms during the 1970s. In Chapman's words: 'he read the left-leaning Guardian while they (most evangelical Anglicans) read the reliably conservative Daily Telegraph' (p. 122). But again Stott's new advocacy of the social reponsibilities of evangelicals had a mixed response. For some it sounded too much like the social gospel of old, while for American evangelicals the thought that their attitudes might actually be impeeding the hearing of the gospel beyond the West was more than they could stomach. Again Chapman is sanguine about the extent of Stott's success here. While Issues facing Christians Today (1984) found its way onto the bookshelves of most evangelicals, his legacy in this area was probably more indirect, he laid out a vision for social advocacy which others were able to take up and act upon to varying degrees.

Then finally Chapman deals with Stott's world wide ministry in the final decades of his life. Largely through Lausanne and then later Stott's own Langham Partnership he came to enjoy an enormous influence on world wide evangelicalism. He became, in effect, the leading thinker, theologian (in a sense) and intellectual of global evangelicalism. But again Chapman is realistic; if Stott encountered problems uniting evangelicals within the Anglican communion in the 1960s and 70s, uniting the global evangelical movement simply 'proved too difficult' (p. 146).

The Stott that, therefore, emerges from these pages is certainly a very attractive one, but one with flaws and obvious limitations as well. But maybe it was in his ability to recognise those flaws and limitiations, and then also face up to their implications, that his claim to true greatness lies?

There's a sense in which I've only really scratched the surface of Chapman's study here: its a terrific study of the development of evangelicalism during the second half of the twentieth century in Britain and beyond, as well as a book that reveals much about Stott's character. As such it repays very careful reading indeed . . .

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