Memories of John Stott

Though I ended up disagreeing with him fairly significantly on pacifism, the interpretation of the atonement, homosexuality and capital punishment, I remain grateful beyond words for the life, work and example of evangelical Anglican leader John R W Stott, who died aged 90 last week.

I had the privilege of knowing him at a number of formative stages in my life, starting when I was a child. My parents took me to All Souls Langham Place, opposite the BBC, for several years from 1968, when I was aged nine. Then in 1977, I briefly renewed my acquaintance with John as a young delegate at the National Evangelical Anglican Conference (NEAC) in Nottingham. This gathering influenced a number of us in a much more open and ecumenical Christian direction than the one we had inherited - though it also ended up producing a backlash that is still seen in some of the sadly vituperative evangelical arguments going on in the churches today.

In 1985, having moved a fair way onwards theologically, I was somewhat surprised to receive an invitation, via a friend, to join John Stott's personal 'Readers' Group', which met on a regular basis for many years at his small flat in central London. Comprising largely students, scholars and younger friends of his (he was always keen to listen to the upcoming generations) this small and changing circle would discuss books, films and other cultural phenomena, seeking to apply what its founder liked to call "a Christian mind" on the secular concerns of the day.

My invitation came after I had spent several weeks in Nicaragua at the height of the Sandinista Revolution. John Stott was fascinated, and perhaps a little concerned, at the involvement of so many priests, nuns and lay Christians in a radical social experiment and government influenced by liberation theology. I was invited to introduce a book on the subject - and then to continue attending the group, even though, at that point, the 'conservative evangelical' label was not one that could have been attached to me.

I found John unfailingly polite, thoughtful and respectful, even when he disagreed with you, or vice versa. He did not always find it easy to stray into certain kinds of disputed intellectual territory, however, and could suddenly end discussions at a point where too much discomfort for himself or the group might have followed - usually with a gracious, if slightly magisterial, pronouncement!

One of the many unexpected and endearing things I discovered about Stott was his rather surprising love of the films of Woody Allen. Given the huge gulf in belief, moral vision and taste between the bawdy Jewish atheist film-maker and the conservative evangelical gentleman-statesman, few would have predicted that affection. But John had a deep love of humanity under his reserved, rational exterior, and this was one of the less guessable ways he allowed his edges to show... though not too publicly.

On the sexuality question, I have several friends and one very close relative who had extremely difficult encounters with John Stott. This was a Rubicon he could not cross. He remained sadly unable to accept that same-sex relationships could be an honoured part of the Christian journey. In private conversation he would sometimes acknowledge examples of holiness among gay people he knew, possibilities of change in Christian thinking, and issues of contradiction in some of the more resistant positions he held. But his overriding fear of betraying what he saw as the unchangeable Reformation principles of biblical interpretation would not allow him to move beyond courtesy.

I also recall the ongoing conversations on peace and war issues which a number of people, not least Mennonite scholar and friend Alan Kreider, had with John over the years - during the second world war he took alternative service, but later shifted his views. Again, he could not accept the full Peace Church position (which has subsequently become absolutely central to my own faith journey), but was always a polite and respectful interlocutor from another part of the Christian tradition.

Likewise, he was disappointed when a growing number of evangelicals began questioning the penal substitutionary understanding of the atonement, which he saw as essential. Again, it was difficult to go beyond a certain boundary in conversation on this subject. I sent him a copy of the book I co-edited for DLT in 2005, Consuming Passion: Why the Killing of Jesus Really Matters, but did not get, or expect, a response.

Someone else who attracted John Stott's fatherly disapproval in this and other theological areas was my valued associate from my time at CTBI, Dr Dhyanchand Carr - an erstwhile student of his, who went on to become a compelling exponent of radical Christianity and enjoyed a distinguished teaching career at the Tamilnadu Theological Seminary, Arasaradi, Madurai in India.

Dhyanchand has done some very fine work on re-reading the Bible with "new eyes", those of the "outsider", and with the example of Christ at the hermeneutical core. He, I and others share John Stott's passion for the Bible, for the person and work of Jesus, for life-changing conversion at the heart of Christianity, and for the healing mission of the church in a broken world - but we have come to understand the text and parts of the message in rather different ways.

In spite of those differences, however, there remains a bond of Christian affection - rooted in humility and mutual forgiveness, hopefully - that goes far beyond doctrine and disagreement, and it was this that I recalled with immense gratitude when I heard of John Stott's death. Deeply flawed though I remain, I am a better person (and Christian) for having known and learned from him; and the Communion of Saints is undoubtedly much richer for his abiding membership. Deo Gracia.

As a footnote, can I add that I still hold a good collection of JRWS books, pamphlets and related materials acquired since the 1950s by my late father - and would be delighted to find a new home for them with someone studying, or otherwise interested in, John Stott.

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

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