Early in 1991 I received one of those letters that you keep for posterity. At the time I was the third most northerly Anglican minister in the world, located in the community of Holman on Victoria Island in the Arctic Archipelago. The letter was a blue airmail from England, and the return address on the back said, ‘The Rev. Dr. John R.W. Stott’. When the postmaster (who was also the co-op manager, and who had heard John Stott speak at Urbana conferences in the past) handed it to me, I looked at the return address, smiled, and said, “Shall I frame it?”
But when I met him later that year, ‘The Rev. Dr. John R.W. Stott’ turned out to be not that sort of person at all. In fact, he was one of the most genuinely humble and Christlike people I had ever met in my life. Full of faith, full of godly wisdom, richly taught in the Scriptures, and ready and willing to share the fruits of his learning, not just with audiences of thousands at Urbana or hundreds at Regent College (or at his own home church, All Souls Langham Place in London), but also with an audience of five of us, in a small room at a remote location in the high Arctic.
What he actually wanted to do was to go bird-watching (a lifelong passion of his); he wanted to find the snowy owl in its nesting ground in early summer, and he had already made two trips to the high Arctic in search of this elusive bird. He was writing to me (as the local Anglican minister) to ask if the folks in Holman knew if there were likely places in our area where the snowy owls could be seen, as he was going to be at Regent College in Vancouver in June and wanted to do another trip to the north afterwards. I duly consulted with the locals and reluctantly replied to him, saying that the neighbouring community of Cambridge Bay was a more likely locale. But then (‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’) I asked if he might be willing, if he did come to our area of the Arctic, to speak at a little retreat for a few of us local clergy, both Anglican and Pentecostal. To my surprise, he wrote back immediately saying that he would be delighted to do so, and that there would be no charge to us for the event, as he was going to be in the area anyway.
And so in June 1991 we gathered, three Anglican and two Pentecostal pastors, in the community of Coppermine (now Kugluktuk). We were able to get extra accommodation in a teacherage, which one of the other pastors and I shared with John. We all gathered in the living room each morning and evening and he led us in extensive Bible studies on 1 Thessalonians (which he had been lecturing about at Regent College the week before) in the mornings, and topical studies in the evenings. The studies were wonderful – rich, full of intellectual content (miles removed from the ‘how does this passage make you feel?’ type of study) and spiritual challenge. But even more inspiring, for me, was the chance to be with John for a week, to have quiet talks with him on various subjects, and to get to know this world-renowned leader as the humble man of God that he is.
Make no mistake about that ‘world-renowned’ part. In 2004, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote that if evangelicals selected a pope they would probably choose John Stott (I’m not sure I agree myself – I think they should choose John Stott, but I’m dreadfully afraid they might go for someone like Joel Osteen!). Ordained in 1945, he became first curate and then rector of All Souls Langham Place in London, England, which became the flagship evangelical parish in the Church of England under his ministry. He remained as rector until 1970 and then became ‘Rector Emeritus’, passing the torch to Michael Baughen, as his own global speaking and writing ministry had expanded beyond the point where he could do both jobs. Back in the 1950s he led marvellously effective university missions all over the world; his bestseller Basic Christianity (3 million copies in 50 languages) was based on the talks he gave at those university missions. The book shows the man for who he is: it is not your standard stereotypical emotion-based appeal, but a rigorous examination of the intellectual grounds for Christian belief followed by a no-holds-barred challenge to count the cost and give your life to Christ. In the years following he has written many other books – Your Mind Matters, Christian Mission in the Modern World, I Believe in Preaching, The Cross of Christ, The Contemporary Christian, and Issues Facing Christians Today, to name just a few – and has also edited the superb ‘Bible Speaks Today’ series of New Testament commentaries, to which he has contributed a few volumes himself, including my two personal favourites, on the Book of Acts and the Sermon on the Mount.
And it’s not just the books. In 1974 he was one of the framers of the Lausanne Covenant on World Evangelisation and gave it much of its theological rigour, including a controversial statement on simple lifestyle which cost the final document a few notable signatures, including that of Ruth Graham, wife of Billy Graham. A few years later he was one of the convenors of a follow-up consultation on simple lifestyle, and he took the message to heart himself (more on this later). He was one of the main organisers of two national Evangelical Anglican conferences in the UK, at Keele in 1967 and at Nottingham in 1977; these were the conferences at which English evangelical Anglicans came out of the closet and decided to take their full part in the life and work of the Church of England rather than functioning as a ghetto. He has taken a major interest in the ‘Two Thirds World’, travelling and speaking there widely, and the vast majority of the royalties from his books have gone to the Langham Trust, which seeks to provide theological education and study materials for pastors and students from poorer parts of the world. This work continues today through the Langham Partnership International (known in the USA, over John Stott’s vociferous objections, as ‘John Stott Ministries‘).
All of this work has not come without a cost. John Stott has remained single all his life, despite a couple of opportunities to marry as a younger man, and now feels that this has been part of the call of God to him, enabling him to have the sort of wide-ranging ministry that would not have been possible if he had had family responsibilities. But he has been quite open about the loneliness and sense of loss involved in this decision. He has turned down several invitations to become a bishop, believing that the institutional and administrative responsibilities would detract from his ability to carry out the teaching and writing to which he believes he is called.
And he practices what he preaches. The example I will give is of the simple lifestyle which he has advocated since the mid-1970s. When he resigned as rector of All Souls, the parish built a small two-room apartment for him over the garage of the rectory at 12 Weymouth Street: a bedroom and a living room. In the daytime the living room became his study and the bedroom became the office for the series of ‘study assistants’ – young students or graduates, mainly Americans – who he began to hire in the 1980s to assist him with his writing projects. He could have afforded something much better, with all the money he was making from his royalties, but he chose to live the simple lifestyle to which he believed Jesus is calling his church. Almost always dressed formally in shirt, tie, and jacket, his clothes were nevertheless few and bought off the cheaper end of the rack.
His formality is worth commenting on. He was raised in a well-to-do doctor’s home in Harley Street and is naturally a reserved sort of person. Back in the 1970s he chafed a little at the informality that led young people to assume that they could address him by his first name. This led to a discussion as to how he would like to be addressed; after a number of possibilities had been discussed, someone threw out ‘Uncle John’. John visibly brightened; “Oh yes”, he said; “If you want to call me ‘Uncle John’, I won’t protest at that”. And ‘Uncle John’ he has been since, to tens of thousands of people who have had the privilege of meeting him around the world.
I have to say that I have not always agreed with Uncle John. He is far more of a ‘straight down the line’ evangelical than I am, and I certainly part company with him over the issue of pacifism and the just war, to mention just one area of disagreement. His analytical mind sometimes creates tidiness in biblical exposition where no tidiness is actually to be found! But nonetheless, I honour Uncle John as a leader, a preacher, a writer, a role-model, and above all as a faithful and humble follower of Jesus.
Uncle John turns 90 this Wednesday April 27th. He is very frail now, and lives in a community for retired Anglican clergy in the south of England. He is well aware that the end of his earthly pilgrimage is close. His most recent book, ‘The Radical Disciple‘, addresses this issue head-on; suggesting eight ‘neglected aspects of our calling’, he chooses to conclude with ‘Dependency’ and ‘Death’, and is quite open about his own thoughts and feelings about what lies ahead for him.
John Stott would not be pleased with hagiography, and it isn’t my intention to write it, though I hope my respect for the man is clear. But I write in the spirit of Hebrews 13:7:
‘Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith’.
John Stott has definitely spoken the Word of God to me, and I hope to imitate his faith in the years ahead.
For more information:
There is a short biography on the Langham Partnership website here.
Roger Steer has written a very accessible biography, Basic Christian: The Inside Story of John Stott.
Timothy Dudley Smith has written a massive and exhaustive two volume biography: John Stott: The Making of a Leader, and John Stott: A Global Ministry.