Review of Alister Chapman, Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical Movement

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 20, Number 1 (March 2014)

Review of Alister Chapman,  Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical Movement (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 222 Pp., ISBN  978-0-19-977357-8.

By John S. Conway, University of British Columbia

John Stott was one of the most prominent leaders of the Evangelical wing of the Church of England during the second half of the last century. This sympathetic but not uncritical biography records his achievements and places him in the long tradition of English Evangelicals stretching back to the days of the first Queen Elisabeth, and sustained by the faithful witness of such men as John and Charles Wesley, Charles Simeon, and William Wilberforce.

chapman-godlyambitionJohn Stott was born in 1921 in a well-to-do professional family and, as was the custom, went to one of England’s most prestigious private (i.e. “public”) schools, Rugby, where his talents led to his appointment as Head Boy. At the age of seventeen, he had a classic evangelical conversion experience and invited Jesus Christ into his life. This was largely due to the influence of an itinerant Anglican clergyman named Eric Nash, whose mission it was to attract young public school leaders and lead them to a life of Christian witness and service . Nash remained Stott’s mentor for many years and undoubtedly encouraged him to seek ordination as a Church of England priest. This decision was to be a great disappointment to Stott’s family, as was (even more so) his resolve not to be conscripted to do military service at the very moment when the Second World War broke out in 1939. Stott took advantage of the loop-hole which allowed students in training for the ministry to be exempt from military service. He was thus one of the few young men taking his war-time undergraduate degree at Trinity College, Cambridge, after which he moved on to the nearby theological college, Ridley Hall, which resolutely maintained the evangelical tradition of those martyrs burnt at the stake by Queen Mary four centuries earlier.

After his ordination, Stott served as curate at his home parish in central London, but his initial fame came through his series of university “missions” which he conducted in several British universities during the first post-war decade. These were aimed directly at the intellectual elite. He avoided the kind of approach adopted by earlier Evangelicals which stressed an emotional “hell-fire” approach. Criticism of American evangelists and their “enthusiastic” tactics was widespread. So Stott carefully argued along traditional lines for a reasoned defence of the faith, aiming for a broad social influence among his peers. Student interest was also built up through the writings of T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis, who argued for a rational form of proclamation of Christian truths. Such views only strengthened the desire for a responsible and conservative social order which prevailed in post-war Britain. The ceremonies of the 1953 Coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth II gave full expression to this sentiment. Stott was amongst those who looked for a renewed sense of a Christian moral order for which both church and state would collaborate.

But it was not to be. In the 1960s British popular culture moved rather rapidly away from the establishment conservatism which John Stott embodied and sought to inculcate. These were the years of the Beatles generation. Britain had lost its empire and was unsure of any future direction. The moral seriousness and sense of national destiny that the empire had encouraged faded away. Church attendance declined strikingly. Increasing numbers of the population no longer saw adherence to Christian beliefs as relevant to their lives. To be sure, there were parishes, especially evangelical ones, which flourished. Among them was All Souls, Langham Place, in the heart of London’s prestigious shopping district. In 1950 John Stott was promoted and appointed its Rector, or senior clergyman. But the change in climate only led to these outposts of evangelical fervour to be regarded with even more skepticism, and their spiritual ministries were disdained by the surrounding population. Still, Stott served for twenty years and upheld thoughtfully and tenaciously the central core of evangelical beliefs, such as a strong devotion to the Bible and the importance of a personal devotion to Christ. At the same time, his focus was not fixed on the past. He began to recognize that the church’s witness had to be not solely spiritual but also social, not just local, but also—taking advantage of the new means of communication—world-wide. Even though some of his parishioners grumbled at his frequent absence on preaching tours in different parts of the globe, Stott earned good marks for bringing the gospel to new audiences and new converts in a sober and dignified but also enthusiastic manner.

Stott’s priority was always evangelism and the equipping of his congregants to join him in reaching out to reach new converts with the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ. But Stott’s witness and manner combined a definitive message with an openness which made All Souls a comfortable and appealing place for all classes. Given the high mobility and transience of the local population, this was a recipe which needed to be stressed. Rigid adherence to Anglican formulaic traditions was abandoned in favour of a more open invitation to any and all to attend and take part in the services. This made All Souls particularly welcoming to students and international visitors and reproduced a sense of Christian universalism which Stott was only too glad to encourage. Stott never married, apparently in order to dedicate himself to his ministry. This of course gave him greater freedom to fulfill his world-wide evangelism.

This latter interest was in part driven by the fact that All Souls remained a stubbornly middle-class enclave. The hoped–for converts from the masses never materialized, despite his training of lay evangelists for door-to-door visiting. The social diversity of the parish was elusive, and was only strengthened when the rise of the welfare state severed many of the traditional charitable links between the churches and the working classes. To the latter, All Souls and its Rector appeared patronizing and elitist. All Souls was a parish for the well-educated who appreciated Stott’s learned preaching, his impeccable accent, and the refined music. But even with these devoted followers, the longed-for revival of English Christianity did not occur.

In 1970, after twenty-five years of pastoral ministry in the same parish, Stott believed he had said his piece. He was disappointed with the results, and tired of the minutiae of parish life. However his ambition drove him to believe that in other places, particularly overseas, new opportunities for evangelism were to be found with more receptive audiences. Stott was a life-long Anglican, but he now began to look beyond the established church, and to seek out occasions where his kind of evangelism could be the vehicle for a wider Christian unity. Although the Church of England had the advantage of a church in practically every town and village, often inherited from the Middle Ages, Stott was worried about the fact that it had too few evangelical clergy. After the 1958 meeting of the world’s Anglican bishops at Lambeth Palace, Stott took the initiative in founding the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion in order “to bear witness with courage and clarity to the great Biblical and Reformation principles.” One of the results was his leadership in the campaign to maintain Parliament’s control over the form of services as enacted in the Book of Common Prayer, which had remained unchanged since 1662. Three hundred years later, both the Archbishops of Canterbury and York had petitioned to have the right to institute more flexible and timely changes to the Church of England liturgy, but Stott and his faction saw this as a dangerous move to increase the influence of Anglo-Catholics in their national church . Naturally the Archbishops were incensed at such opposition, but were relieved when Parliament allowed their petition with hardly any murmur. All this meant that the long-standing identification of the national destiny with evangelical Protestantism was no longer valid. Stott and his friends were dismayed. They were fearful of a Catholic drift in the Church of England and were determined to challenge it. By this time, his position of leadership in this cause, and his years of faithful service, naturally led him to believe that he might be in line for promotion to a bishopric, where his influence would be greatly increased. But in fact this never happened. Chapman gives no reason for this lack of preferment, but possibly it was because his outspokenness was too rebarbative for his superiors among the clergy. On the other hand, Stott was not tempted to join in any move away from the national church and kept his faction of Evangelicals loyal to the traditional establishment.

The challenge for Stott and his less rigid colleagues was to try and hold together Evangelicals of different persuasions with no power other than that offered by loyalty, persuasion and success. At the same time, he was aware that approaches for dialogue with other branches of the church might raise alarms among the staunchest Evangelicals. But as he explained, when accepting an invitation to the World Council of Churches Assembly in 1968: “our desire for dialogue does not mean we think all points of view are equally valid, or all theological and ecclesiastical systems equally pleasing to God”. This balancing act between a willingness to learn from others, and a resolve to hold on to the rightness of evangelical faith, was not easy and at times led to misunderstandings. But it was one he sought to implement in a variety of settings around the world. Agreement among Evangelicals, Chapman suggests, is made all the harder because of their individualistic streak, coupled with a tradition-bound rigidity of outlook, which still looked back to the Reformation and was suspicious of any possible infiltration of Catholic ideas or practices.

Evangelicals have often been tempted to focus on their own holiness rather than on social righteousness. But Stott had seen enough of the social problems in London to recognize that the Church’s witness needed to reach out to those who did not or had not aspired to personal salvation. And his many trips abroad widened his horizons. He began to see that the world’s concerns needed a Christian response. Social action to relieve suffering in an unjust world was to become his insistent theme. As he opened his eyes to global poverty, he was ready to hear the critique of Western capitalism that non-Western Christians were making. In Chapman’s opinion, from being a young preacher with little time for social problems, he became a major advocate for Christian social action.

Increasingly Stott’s sphere of action became world-wide. He readily accepted invitations from numerous countries, and made use of the new intercontinental air travel services, so that, for many, he became a new type of evangelical hero for the jet age. His favourite audiences were students, but his wider fame was seen at the notable Lausanne International Conference on World Evangelism in 1974, where he was the principal speaker and chair of the committee writing the conference report. But Lausanne, which had been funded by Billy Graham’s organization, and supported by most of the American evangelical leadership, saw itself as the rival of the World Council of Churches, and therefore downplayed the emphasis on the social gospel and theological modernism, which characterized the WCC. Stott had a hard task in trying to convince the Americans that his view of social responsibility had to be built into any talk of world evangelism. This was an uphill battle, and in Chapman’s view, it largely failed. But that did not stop Stott from pursuing his hopes for the world without apology.

In summary, Stott was a missionary with a world-wide parish. His ministry was to show that evangelicals could present an intelligent witness based on more than just enthusiasm. His numerous books enjoyed a wide circulation, and, although not original, presented orthodox Christianity with verve, and hence were justifiably influential especially among students. He successfully opened the minds of many followers beyond the engrained rigidity of evangelical fundamentalism, and thus restored the intellectual credibility of his message. He showed evangelicals that it was possible to be devout and intellectually creative as well as politically conservative. In this manner he was able to fulfil his godly ambitions.