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March 29, 2011

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Capturing a legacy: A Portrait of John Stott by his friends

by quaesitor

On 27th April, John Stott will celebrate his 90th birthday. In the coming years, there will be a great multitude claiming to be inheritors of the Stott legacy. Just has happened with a towering figure like Bonhoeffer, so will it happen to Uncle John. And it is not as outlandish to put them in the same bracket as some may think. For both, albeit in very different ways and as the result of radically different experiences, made a profound impact on twentieth century (and therefore, twenty-first century) Christianity. Of course, some will pick and choose, some will appropriate its mantle without its substance, while others will wonder what all the fuss is about and doubt whether it matters at all.

Well, I think it probably does matter – not least because not to understand the legacy properly is to open the door to a dishonest, partisan or manipulative abuse of history. It is, in large part, a matter of historical, and indeed Christian, integrity. Therefore, this new book, edited by my Langham boss, Chris Wright, and subtitled A Portrait By His Friends, will play something of crucial role in coming years. This is not a chronological account nor deep historical and theological analysis. Those will certainly come in time (and no doubt draw heavily on Timothy Dudley-Smith’s excellent two-volume biography). This is a collection of sketches by some of those who have been closest to him over the years. Thus it will provide essential insights into grasping his personal (though perhaps not his theological) legacy. It really gives a sense of the man (rather better than the image on the cover!).

Warts and All?

Having said that, if I’m honest, I had a mild sense of unease before reading it – for I didn’t want to read a hagiography (which I feared might result), almost as much as I didn’t want to read a hatchet job (which I certainly didn’t anticipate!). Fortunately, this book is neither, although there are one or two moments when I felt it might have been veering towards the former. And it is a hugely encouraging read about a very remarkable man. John himself had wondered about the idea of having such a book. However, he was insistent that “it should be a frank and honest portrait, ‘warts and all’ as he put it” (p14) and originally wanted it published posthumously. After all, one of his most recent study assistants, Matthew Smith, recounts:

He couldn’t easily tolerate any form of hero worship or flattery – in fact he became visibly embarrassed every time he was given an overly long or exaggerated introduction to the speaker’s platform. The inclusion of John Stott as one of Time magazine World’s Most Influential people in 2005 was genuinely surprising to him. As he said to Frances and me once, ‘I don’t like mingling with the mighty! I’m just an ordinary bloke, and these favours don’t fit comfortably on my shoulders.’ (p205)

Well, he is both an ordinary and an extraordinary bloke.  But the book isn’t quite warts and all. After all, each of the 35 contributors is a personal friend. So their’s is most definitely an affectionate honesty. At times, I couldn’t help feeling that the portraits revealed as much about their writers as their subject – but that’s fair enough in what is primarily anecdotal. That doesn’t mean they’re afraid to touch on his apparently austere self-discipline or his unwillingness to suffer fools gladly; or his old English reserve which seemed (in the early days at least) inhibited and even enigmatic (as David Turner put it, p81). One friend and colleague, Myra Chave-Jones described it like this:

We were two inhibited people trying to meet. He often described himself as a ‘cold fish.’ This was only partly true; it was just that the warm-blooded fish was concealed under iron discipline.
… John was not always a good judge of character, I think. Perhaps this was because, as an eternal optimist, he was always eager to see the best in everyone, so at times his vision became a bit blurred. (p36)

That latter point is a striking detail – and it is hard to be sure quite what she’s getting at there and it might be profitable in future years to work out what it meant.

Too Good To Be True?

But to focus on all that would be completely to miss the point – for the warts are far and few between. It is Stott’s unique combination of temperament, character and ability that shines through. And resounding above them all: his gift for friendship.

John Stott & Chris Wright

Chris Wright even has to ask whether or not it is all too good to be true, as he concludes the book (p213) and makes it clear – yes it is! He likens his subject to a stick of seaside rock, which is the same all the way through. But perhaps the person who can best testify to this is the indomitable Frances Whitehead (the book’s dedicatee, and who officially retired only last Sunday on her 86th birthday!). She has been his secretary for well over 50 years so she should know!

As I look back over the years, I can say without hesitation that my earliest impressions of John as a man of the utmost integrity have proved abundantly true. (p58)

The heart of the man, the heart of his legacy

I think the simplest way to sum up what his legacy is as a person is to pick out a few ideas that recurred through the portraits.

  • God-honouring: all the time, John has been driven to submit to, and give glory to the God who rescued him. Nothing else could compare. This is what drove his personal discipline and self-sacrifice.
  • Biblically Rigorous: Michael Baughen remembers being at an Eclectics meeting a discussion about some particular issue in which someone had disagreed with Stott – which lead to Stott quickly conceding the point because it had been proved from the Scriptures. (p70) He has never sought to evade or avoid the thrust of where the Scriptures point, so that where they point, he goes. Any who claim to take up his legacy must at the very least follow this.
  • Deep Humility and Honesty: this follows on from the previous point, and it has been evident to all who have known him – and it was particularly moving to hear the account of Rene Padilla or what Mark Labberton witnessed (as one of the first study assistants) on a trip to India as a complete match between what he calls ‘John, the highly visible preacher, and John, the nearly invisible pastor’ (p188)
  • Rigorous with sin: he has always been quick to confess and repent of his own sin, and has modelled that clearly for all who know. Who could fail to be challenged by study assistant Toby Howarth’s experience as he prayed for forgiveness with John after been discovered to have lied about something (p195)?
  • Diligence and Powers of Concentration: his ability to wrestle and think through issues of great complexity to the point of being able to explain them with clarity and thoroughness is obvious to all who have read any of his books. This could also be rather intimidating for study assistants who approached his desk with a cup of coffee while he was lost in thought!
  • Heart and Mind Integrity: But his was never a dry intellectualism, as David Turner recalls:

John liked to quote Rabbi Saunders from Chaim Potok’s The Chosen… a ‘mind without a heart is nothing’. Likewise (quoting Handley Moule), John abhorred in equal measure ‘undevotional theology’ (mind without heart) and ‘untheological devotion’ (heart without mind). (p84)

  • Lifestyle Simplicity: several friends (including the likes of A Rocha founder Peter Harris, or some from the majority world more used to the extravagant lifestyles of some American pastors) remark on the fact that he lived in the same small flat for years, and that he has lived an intentionally simple, almost austere, lifestyle, while always being generous to others.
  • Global not parochial: from Padilla, Samuel Escobar and Peter Kuzmic (as well as others), it is clear that John was determined to hear the voices of the global church – as was clear in the way that he was prepared to give platforms to those from non-English speaking, majority world Christians, despite reluctance from some of the more established western leaders. That John was never parochial is remarkable given that for perhaps 85 of his 90 years his home was in the All Souls parish!
  • Friendship and loyalty: all of these portraits testify to his remarkable loyalty and perseverance as a friend – as well as his prodigious memory for names and life details, that was sustained by his disciplined intercession for all he ministered to. This is truly humbling and perhaps the most wonderful aspect of the whole book (what Chris Wright calls a “beautiful human legacy with God’s fingerprints all over it” p147)

Birdwatching is a pervasive theme – both amongst the converts to ornithology as well as those who tolerated it. It was perhaps John’s only obsession outside his ministry (and even that got subordinated to this when he wrote the Birds our Teachers!) and nearly got him into real difficulties – as when he went in search of one feathered friend with Peter Kuzmic on what turned out to be Hungarian military land (during Communism). Fortunately they were not found, but as Kuzmic points out, an Englishman and Yugoslav crawling through the undergrowth with binoculars would not have looked great!

And the other pervasive theme is his sense of humour – and this is what gives the book its joy. For nearly all testify to the twinkle in the eye, the gentle ribbing of guests or the well-aimed but well-meaning put-down to the puffed up, the quick retort or enjoyment of Saki short stories (it’s fun to read Dick Lucas reminisce about John’s hysterics since he himself is one to be similarly overcome by P G Wodehouse).

But the most moving and wonderful chapter, for me, was the last portrait by John Wyatt under the heading ‘The Final Lap.’ For here we get a very honest and real account of how John has coped (and sometimes struggled to cope) with the onslaught of great old age and frailty by a friend and doctor. It should really be read in conjunction with Stott’s own account of this in the final chapter of his Radical Disciple. There was a moment some years back when it seems that death was a real possibility, while he got a dangerous infection in India – and he impressed on his then study assistant, Corey Widmer, who was with him, that he must ‘above all cling to the cross’ (p198). But as he surely approaches the end, it was very affecting to read John work this out with his lifelong convictions still firmly intact:

With his failing health, we encouraged him to write a legally valid document providing a statement of his wishes and concerns, which could be used by his treating doctors if he became incapacitated or unconscious. This is what he wrote, characteristically bringing his Christian convictions to bear on the matter.

I greatly value the ability to think clearly, to be able to write, to be physically independent and to be able to meet and provide pastoral support to friends and contacts. If I am suffering from a treatable condition in which it is likely that a relatively short period of medical treatment will restore me to my present health and mental functioning, then I would like to receive such treatment. However, I would not wish my life to be artificially prolonged if thereby I am left in a terminal or vegetative state… The reason that I do not wish to cling to life is that I have a living hope of a yet more glorious life beyond death and I do not wish to be unnecessarily hindered from inheriting it. (p211)

So all in all, that resurrection hope and gospel conviction is what surely lies at the very heart of the Stott legacy. And hearing good friends of his from around the whole world testify as to how ingrained and consistent these were, is as powerful an account of a life as well lived as you will ever find.

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