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Circling the Square

My Three Heroes: John Stott

Posted by Bill Lovell on

The second of my three heroes is the Rev. John R.W. Stott (1921-2011), long-time Rector of All Souls Langham Place in London, England, and the founder of the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion. In 2005, Time Magazine recognized Stott as one of the one-hundred most influential people in the world. He certainly influenced me! Even now, there are more of John Stott's Bible commentaries on my study shelves than anyone else's, and hardly a Sunday passes when I don't incorporate some of his gospel insights into my sermon! 

My relationship with Stott was deeply intertwined with my involvement with Anglicanism. I became an Anglican/Episcopalian in 1978, the same year I became a Christian. Stott was acknowledged as the leader of Anglican evangelicals. While Dr. Packer was a scholar and an academic, Stott was a parish minister and a church organizer--a gifted and natural leader who engaged hierarchies and helped establish not only EFAC, but also the Lausanne Movement, the Langham Trust, and the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

Stott made a name for himself, fairly early in his ministry, through a well-publicized debate with the great Martyn Lloyd-Jones, long-time Pastor of Westminster Chapel. Lloyd-Jones had argued, in the 1950's and '60's, that the Church of England was a lost cause and that evangelicals should leave it to unite in another evangelical association. Stott made the case for evangelicals staying in the C of E and fighting for the gospel from within the church. Like his mentor Eric Nash, Stott believed that, in the UK, Anglicanism was "the best boat to fish from." As an Episcopalian, I spent most of my adult life arguing pretty much the same thing for The Episcopal Church here at home. As it's working out, I guess I'll be spending the last part of my adult life agreeing with Martyn Lloyd-Jones!

I actually first heard of Stott in a different (and slightly embarrassing) context. I've always been an Anglophile, with a fascination for English history and culture. One day, as I was preparing to go to seminary, while researching Queen Elizabeth II--don't judge me--I discovered that one of her chaplains was an English evangelical named John Stott! She appointed him in June 1959, just a few months after I was born and only a few years after Billy Graham's highly successful evangelistic crusades in London. Graham's crusades had influenced the Queen's spiritual life, and Stott had been very much involved with Graham's success in the UK. From 1959 on, for much of his adult life, Stott would regularly go to preach the gospel and minister, privately, to the Queen and her family. 

Starting from this unusual angle, I began to study Stott's works. I found he was much more than an ecclesiastical celebrity with a fancy title. He was also a brilliant preacher, with keen insights into the Bible. It wasn't just the Queen who valued Stott's preaching. Thousands flocked to his church, All Souls, which became a center for local, national and global mission. Through his influential book, Christian Mission in the Modern World, he was one of the foremost proponents of contemporary evangelicalism's commitment to social justice. I quoted Stott's book in my sermon as recently as just last Sunday:

“Dialogue [with non-Christians] is a token of genuine Christian love, because it indicates our steadfast resolve to rid our minds of the prejudices and caricatures that we may entertain about other people, to struggle to listen through their ears and look through their eyes so as to grasp what prevents them from hearing the gospel and seeing Christ, to sympathize with them in all their doubts, fears and ‘hang-ups.' For such sympathy will involve listening, and listening means dialogue. It is once more the challenge of the incarnation, to renounce evangelism by inflexible slogans, and instead to involve ourselves sensitively in the real dilemmas that people face.” 

I first heard John Stott preach in 1987 or 1988 at the Falls Church in Falls Church, Virginia, and shook his hand afterwards. He couldn't have been nicer. After I was ordained, we corresponded for several years, beginning in 1989, when I wrote to invite him to speak at the first Episcopal Evangelical Assembly in 1990. He was unable to attend, but was incredibly gracious and friendly, so I invited him every year until he finally accepted in 1993. He wound up being one of the speakers at the last of the four Assemblies I helped to organize, in Trumbull, Connecticut. 

His Bible talks in Trumbull were helpful and wise, as always, but my most enduring memory of the weekend was when I asked him if we could pray together. To my delight, he said yes, and we went to the room where he was staying. After a few pleasantries, he gestured towards two chairs. I was about to sit down, when Stott got on his knees, facing into his chair, lowered his head, and folded his hands. I'd never seen anyone do that before, but I followed his lead. Then, for the next thirty minutes, the great John R.W. Stott and I prayed for one another. He didn't use particularly eloquent words or a "stained-glass" voice. He just talked to God, with humility and reverence and what I can only call love. I have little doubt it's exactly how he prayed to God with the Queen. 

After that experience, I always thought of John more as a friend and brother than as a celebrity. Over the years, I wrote him and managed to see him often, in London, in Canterbury, in Vancouver, and twice in Dallas, and, although he met thousands of people, from all over the world, from the greatest to the least, he always greeted me by name and made a point of sharing a private word and, as often as he could, a prayer. He was truly one of the kindest, most Christ-like people I have ever known. 

John died in 2011 and went to be with the Lord Jesus. I didn't see him during his last illness, but my dear friend, Dick Lucas, did. Dick says that even when he was much too frail to talk, John was always the perfect gentleman, kind, gracious, accommodating, and deeply committed to the God to whom he had prayed for ninety years. I am honored to have known him and look forward to seeing him again in glory.