Wednesday, 14 March 2012

John Stott: Pastor, Educator, Theologian, Ecumenicist

I finally finished Alister Chapman's new book, Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical Movement. Since the book does not directly relate to my current research or the courses that I am teaching, it took me two months to read. Godly Ambition is an important book on a legendary British evangelical. Chapman describes Stott as a versatile figure who progressed with the times on issues like women in ministry, the social gospel, and missions while maintaining a certain level of traditionalism with regard to doctrine.

Stott grew up in a privileged British home and enjoyed a first-rate education, eventually enrolling at Cambridge University (Trinity College) in 1940 after time spent at elite boarding schools. Chapman shows the early influence of Eric Nash on Stott. Nash was an Anglican evangelical clergyman who led Stott to Christ in 1938 while the latter attended the prestigious Rugby School as a teenager. Chapman writes, "Nash's influence on Stott was immense: strongly committed to the nurture of new converts, he took Stott under his wing and introduced him to the beliefs and practices of conservative evangelicalism" (14). After his conversion, Stott decided to become an Anglican clergyman, much to the dismay of his parents.

Stott began his ministry in the 1940s at All Souls in London at a time when Christianity seemed to be on the uptick in England. Postwar Britons seemed to be interested in faith and moral values. In the 1950s, Billy Graham received a warm welcome by thousands who went to hear him preach at Harringay, North London and Wembley stadium. But evangelicals within the Church of England faced many difficulties as the optimistic years of the 1950s came to a close. The Bishop of Durham, Michael Ramsay, wrote an article in 1956 complaining about "The Menace of Fundamentalism." Significantly, Ramsay went on to become the Archbishop of Canterbury and openly opposed conservative Anglicans like Stott from gaining key leadership positions in the Established Church. Evangelicalism in England struggled in the 1960s and 1970s as Britain became more secular.

Sensing the decline of Christianity in Britain, Stott resigned his charge at All Souls in the early 1970s. He was heralded as a dynamic preacher, and implemented programs to bring in new parishioners, but ultimately failed to sustain the growth that he had experienced in the early years of his ministry. According to Chapman, Stott "was tired of parish ministry after twenty-four years and running out of ideas" (76). Stott's resignation seems to have been a strategic move. He had a grander vision than simply serving as a rector of a parish church. He aspired to become a global leader of evangelicalism. In the years following his retirement from the ministry, Stott wrote several books and articles, jetted around the world to speak, and set up several Christian organizations, including the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. His shining moment was at a conference in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1974 which catapulted him to iconic status as a leading evangelical in the world. As a learned reader, lay theologian, gifted speaker, and ecumenicist, Stott emerged as the most significant British evangelical in the second half of the twentieth century.

I recommend Godly Ambition to anyone interested in key evangelicals in the twentieth century. Other than J.I. Packer, there is no British evangelical who is as important as Stott in this time period. The book is fairly easy to read, but Americans may get lost among the sea of British societies that Chapman names. The most problematic feature of the book is that the narrative jumps around quite a bit, making the chronology of Stott's life difficult to follow. Chapman, for instance, places Stott as the rector of All Souls in an early chapter, progresses him chronologically through a series of events, but then backtracks later to describe Stott's pastoral ministry. In a few chapters, Chapman retells Stott's story chronologically, only to repeat the process again in another chapter as he analyzes another theme. I found this methodology to be a bit confusing.

What I appreciated most about the book is Chapman's fair-handed treatment of Stott. Chapman makes certain to depct Stott as a man with flaws and a person who is willing to take risks. At times a staunch traditionalist, and other times a "radical" proponent of the much-feared (among conservative evangelicals) social gospel, Stott defies simple explanations of his life and thought. Chapman provides an engaging account of a Christian with "godly ambition" to make a difference for the kingdom. After reading Chapman's book, readers will understand why Stott has so many admirers worldwide.

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