Chris Wright

John Stott: the centenary of a true radical

John Stott: the centenary of a true radical
John Stott
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Much has been made of the Queen's Christian faith in the aftermath of the death of her husband the Duke of Edinburgh. For decades, John Stott, who served as the Queen's chaplain, shepherded Her Majesty in that faith.

Yet although his preaching brought him into contact with Royalty, led to him selling millions of books and even earned him a place among Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world, Stott – born a century ago this week – remained a humble man.

Stott lived in spartan simplicity in a two-room flat above a garage. Author of more than 50 internationally best-selling books, he assigned all his royalties to a trust fund to provide books for impoverished pastors and seminary libraries in the global south. His death in 2011 was covered by the BBC, every UK broadsheet and the world’s media. His memorial service packed St. Paul’s Cathedral. But his ashes lie beneath a simple slate tombstone in a tiny village cemetery in Pembrokeshire. So why is the centenary of this self-effacing English clergyman being celebrated by churches and organisations on every continent?

Stott was born just two months before the Duke of Edinburgh in 1921, when the world was still recovering from the Great War and a global pandemic. He was appointed curate at All Souls Church, Langham Place, London, in 1945, when Britain was reeling from the Second World War, and then became their youngest ever Rector in 1950.

At that time, evangelicals were a small minority in the British church. Throughout the second half of the century, Stott provided tireless, humble and godly leadership for worldwide evangelical growth. Ten years on from Stott's death, his legacy remains profound: at least 600 million (about a quarter) of the world’s Christians are evangelical by name or conviction.

For many, the word ‘evangelical’ has become tainted by association with the political loyalties and cultural identity of certain white conservatives in the USA, and the shocking spectacle of Trump supporters wielding ‘Jesus saves’ banners as they violently stormed the Capitol on 6 January.

But such evangelicals, a fraction of the global majority, are not typical. Most evangelicals are more aligned with the faith modelled by John Stott, which had nothing to do with ethnic or political allegiance but simply a personal devotion to Jesus Christ as saviour and Lord, belief in the trustworthiness of the Bible, and a commitment to live out their faith in daily practice.

Decade after decade, Stott travelled around the globe, speaking and teaching at conferences, building friendships among church leaders in the majority world, and mentoring young men and women by his own example of humility, integrity, and servanthood. Together with Billy Graham, he launched the Lausanne Movement in 1974 which, in partnership with the World Evangelical Alliance, holds evangelicals to the historical legacy of Wesley, Wilberforce, and Shaftesbury – integrating their evangelistic message and mission with social action in combatting the evils of poverty, injustice, racism and slavery.

As an Anglican clergyman who stayed rooted in his own local parish for 50 years, he had a profound love for the Church of England and the rapidly growing Anglican churches in other continents, especially in Africa. He founded and inspired the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion (EFAC), a global network to encourage faithfulness to the Bible’s teaching and moral standards. But his vision also embraced all denominations of the global church – he founded the Langham Partnership to resource churches worldwide with enhanced theological scholarship, quality literature in local languages and cultures, and training in biblical preaching.

At the heart of his teaching, Stott believed in the power of Christians in every walk of life to make a difference for good in the world around them – to be 'salt and light', as Jesus put it. He explained how, for followers of Christ, everyday life and work is the place of serving God by serving others – every work call, coffee with friends, or trip to the shops is an opportunity to serve God and share his love with others. With this conviction he founded the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity (LICC), equipping Christians to live out their faith in the whole of life.

Stott himself wrote and taught on topics as wide as nuclear disarmament, human rights, civil disobedience, business ethics, and climate change, long before it was waking the global conscience. Christians, he insisted, must be 'radical conservatives' – conservative of their historic biblical faith, but radical in its application to the benefit of others and of society. His was a radical vision with a relevance that will last far beyond this centenary.