Tuesday marks the centenary of the birth of the Rev John Stott, widely acknowledged as one of the most influential Church of England figures of the 20th century. His light did not diminish. In 2005 Time magazine ranked him among the 100 most influential people in the world.
Who was John Stott (who died in 2011), and why is he relevant today? It would be easy to pigeon-hole him as a typical product of white, privileged, Oxbridge Anglicanism. His father, Sir Arnold Stott, a self-confessed agnostic and a Harley Street doctor, was appointed physician to George VI’s household in 1946. The Christian influence came through his mother, Emily “Lily” Stott, who attended All Souls Church, Langham Place, opposite the BBC. Stott graduated with a double first in French and theology from Trinity College, Cambridge, before training for ordination. In 1950, aged 29, he was appointed rector of All Souls. In the years that followed, he developed a global reputation as a preacher and Bible teacher. He wrote more than 50 books published in 65 languages.
Stott believed that people reject Christianity not because they think it is false, but because they consider it irrelevant. And it was irrelevant because it didn’t listen. “The contemporary world is positively reverberating with cries of anger, frustration and pain. Too often, however, we turn a deaf ear to these anguished voices . . . The better way is to listen before we speak.”
Stott’s listening extended beyond his tribe, theological tradition, and culture. He had a global outlook. He listened to the voices of Christians in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, who grew enormously during his lifetime. The experience changed his theology, not least regarding social activism in mission. Stott was the principal author of the 1974 Lausanne Covenant, which served as a rallying call to the evangelical church to engage in social activism.
In 2006 he said: “My hope is that in the future, evangelical leaders will ensure that their social agenda includes such vital topics as halting climate change, eradicating poverty, abolishing armouries of mass destruction, responding adequately to the Aids pandemic, and asserting the human rights of women and children in all cultures. I hope our agenda does not remain too narrow.”
Stott set out to destroy the myth of the sacred-secular divide, the idea that some parts of life (church services, praying, reading scripture) are important to God, but everything else (work, the arts, science, sport) is “secular”. “We must not marginalise God, or try to squeeze him out of the non-religious section of our life,” he wrote. Similarly, Stott was committed to the “liberation” of the laity, recognising that while clergy had a crucial job to do, so did lawyers, industrialists, politicians, social workers, scriptwriters, journalists, and homemakers.
Stott’s appeal lay in his authenticity. He did not want power or status. He was unassuming and lived simply. He gave his wealth away. “Pride is without doubt the greatest temptation of Christian leaders,” Stott said in 2006 during a visit to the US. “I’m very well aware of the dangers of being fêted and don’t enjoy it, and don’t think one should enjoy it.”
He delighted in seeing others succeed. In his extensive travels, he encountered outstanding young scholars with no means of continuing their studies. So, back home, he set up the Langham Partnership to help gifted students from the “Global South” to earn doctorates abroad and then return to teach in theological seminaries in their home countries.
Towards the end of his life, he was asked by a friend of mine what he would change if he had his time again. Stott considered the question carefully before replying: “I would pray more.” Given that he woke each day at 5am to pray, this might seem like the last thing he needed, but his understanding of prayer reflected his wider understanding of God, the world, and himself. “Prayer is not a convenient device for imposing our will upon God, or bending his will to ours,” he wrote, “but the prescribed way of subordinating our will to his."
It’s against the spirit of our age to imagine that someone born a century ago can be contemporary, still shaping the culture of the moment. Stott was. And his writing, vision, and authentic life could not be more relevant, or more needed, in the modern age.
Paul Woolley is CEO of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity