This is the tribute I contributed to the Memorial Service for John Stott which was held at the College Church, Wheaton on Friday, November 11.
John Stott was my spiritual father. He trained me for the ministry in the tender, formative years of my late twenties. He encouraged my courtship to my wife, hosted our engagement party, and officiated at our Marriage Thanksgiving Service. I have the distinction of being his last curate, as Rector of All Souls.
My enduring memory of him is on Saturday nights. He gathered us in his study to pray for the Sunday services. Kneeling, he would begin by quoting the words of Abraham from Genesis 18:27 – “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes.” Here was this great preacher humbling himself before the Lord, aware of his unworthiness. He always preached about the exceeding sinfulness of man and the greatness of the grace of God in Christ. He embodied the Prayer of Humble Access in the Holy Communion Service: “We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.”
This was a theme in his life. The postscript of his little book, Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity & Faithfulness, is entitled: The Preeminence of Humility. He begins his last word – with an echo of Abraham: “I make so bold as to claim, in this brief postscript, that the supreme quality which the evangelical faith engenders (or should do) is humility. Already I can see the wry smile on my readers’ faces. For we have to confess that our reputation is very different. Evangelical people are often regarded as proud, vain, arrogant and cocksure.”
In his little booklet, Balanced Christianity, John took on, what he considered one of our greatest weaknesses: the tendency to extremism or imbalance. He took four extremes and demonstrated how we should value both and avoid unnecessary polarizations.
He criticized both cold intellectualism and empty emotionalism. John was raised in a highly intellectual environment and valued the mind. I will never forget him trying to describe a well-known evangelist whom he had seen on television. He couldn’t finish his story because he was rendered speechless by a fit of the giggles. He was suspicious of emotional experience as a substitute for thinking. He believed that a rational God made us rational beings and gave us a rational revelation in Scripture. “To deny our rationality is therefore to deny our humanity.”
This did not mean that genuine, subjective experience of Jesus Christ was to be discounted. God made us emotional as well as rational creatures. Truth can set the heart on fire. John was passionate about the Gospel which was evident in his proclamation and the witness of his life.
He believed that every Christian should be both a conservative and a radical. Conservative because we are called to conserve God’s revelation in Scripture, to “guard the deposit of faith.” When I first went to work with John Stott he was preaching his way through Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy. It was published under the title, “Guard the Gospel.”
He was not opposed to change. His last book was entitled, The Radical Disciple, in which he wrote about the radix, the root of Christian commitment. He was willing to challenge the tradition of the elders, as indeed Jesus did. He believed that we should subject our contemporary culture to continuous biblical scrutiny. He wrote that “the greater danger (at least among evangelicals) is to mistake culture for Scripture, to be too conservative and traditionalist, to be blind to those things in church and society which displease God and should therefore displease us.”
While a faithful Anglican, he was never limited to that tradition, reaching out to all who loved the Gospel. I can remember going with John to have fellowship with the local parish clergy at St. Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Church in Fitzrovia, near All Souls Church. While quintessentially English, he used to poke fun at the British by telling the story of why they loved the Gospel. “The English love the Gospel because it gives them something to talk about. The Welsh love the Gospel because it gives them something to sing about. The Irish love the Gospel because it gives them something to fight about. And the Scots love the Gospel because its free!”
He deplored the tendency of some Christians to become exclusively preoccupied either with evangelism or social action. At All Souls he reached out to evangelize the neighborhood by training lay visitors who were taught how to witness and lead people to Christ. He established a fellowship for lonely, international students, and business and professional young people. He also instituted lunch-time services and a chaplain for the workers in the large department stores in the West End of London. He ministered to the poor, working class people through a clubhouse, and a school, and through sending out welfare visitors to care for the elderly homebound. His Christianity was never words without deeds. Both were needed to love our neighbors.
While he was born and raised in a privileged, upper-class environment he could relate equally to the village plumber and to British royalty, He could take tea and enjoy hospitality in Sri Lanka as well as Sandringham House, where he picnicked with the royal family and appreciated Princess Diana’s sparkling, diamond earrings. Rudyard Kipling might have had him in mind when he wrote:
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son.
I treasure his inscription in the Greek-English Lexicon, that he gave me to mark my ordination, 2 Tim.2:15
“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.”
To use his own characteristic phrase: “I am sure you will all agree with me” that he was such a man, and we are thankful for having been blessed by his life.