The Glorious Fault of Angels and of Gods: Ungodly Reflections on Alister Chapman's John Stott
Article by March 2012
While for me, J I Packer and Dr Lloyd-Jones are the most important British evangelicals of the last hundred years, there is no doubt that, in terms of world impact, it is John Stott who looms largest for the current generation. His life shaped so much of modern world evangelicalism: the Lausanne movement; the current interest in social justice; and the understanding of the church's mission as involving both word and action as non-negotiable partners. For good or for ill, he is a key figure.
For this reason, Alister Chapman's relatively slim but carefully constructed biographical study, Godly Ambition; John Stott and the Evangelical Movement (Oxford University Press, 2011) is an important contribution to the growing literature on recent British evangelicalism. That it comes on the heels of the collection of scholarly essays on Martyn Lloyd-Jones gives hope that perhaps we are witnessing the start of serious, critical but respectful discussion of the immediate British evangelical past. For the general historian, Chapman's book is also an encouraging example of a particular approach to historical narrative.
Chapman has done sterling service in the past in placing self-understanding back at the centre of historical narrative, and with it the significance of religious belief. Others involved in such a project include Brad Gregory, the Notre Dame historian whose new book on the Reformation I will be reflecting upon next month. This approach is an excellent corrective both to hardcore Annales and materialist approaches to history and to postmodern excesses in the historical field. It is, however, not without its own contentious aspects, as will be more apparent when I address the Gregory volume.
In dealing with Stott, Chapman sets him clearly within the context of English society from the 1930s. As such, Stott is part of the larger English narrative of recent times - and what times they have been. By Stott's birth in the aftermath of the Great War, the class system was starting to change (for the soap opera fans out there, think Downton Abbey). The Second World War effectively guaranteed the demise of the British Empire, something made so very public in the Suez crisis. The impact of post-imperialism on a nation which no longer knew where it stood in the world can scarcely be overestimated. Then came the Swinging Sixties, the industrial turmoil of the seventies, the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Thatcher decade, the crisis of conservative politics and the reign of New Labour. On the world stage, the Cold War came and went; militant Islam put paid to naïve secularization theories and also pointed to Europe, not America, being exceptional at least in the matter of the decline of organized religion. Throughout it all, Stott sought to minister in ways that recognized the cultural conditions.
Chapman is surely right to place class at the heart of the story. Stott was born and remained a man of privilege. He was taught almost from birth that leadership was both a class right and a paternalist responsibility. In this, he contrasts with Packer and Lloyd-Jones. Packer found his way into Oxbridge via the state school system. He enjoyed no innate class privilege. To such as Packer, the Establishment is something we can share a corridor with at university but to which we can never really belong. Lloyd-Jones was a Welshman with all of the general dislike of the English (as a people, not necessarily as individuals) which that implies and an especial suspicion of the Anglican Church (a sentiment with which English non-conformists can also sympathize).
On Chapman's reading, this desire/need/duty to lead was a (perhaps, humanly speaking, the) major dynamic in Stott's ministry. We might say that the great dilemma of his life was how a patrician could lead in an increasingly democratized and secularized environment. In fact, there is a sense in which much of his story - at least his UK story -is one of failure, or at least of a failure to live up to his own expectations. He was never really able to transcend the class divide in the parish of All Souls, Langham Place. He never really came to terms with the collapse in church attendance in Britain from the fifties onwards. Much as the Anglican Church in the sixties was clearly a theological disaster, he could never leave her - and one suspects his reasons were not simply because she was 'the best boat to fish from' (sic) but also because of the ties that bound him to the Establishment and (as Chapman hints) the desire for a bishopric that was always tantalizingly just out of reach. Stott at times reminded me of Orson Welles: they both in a sense lived their lives backwards. If Welles' greatest achievement was Citizen Kane, followed by forty years of occasionally great near-misses and much mediocrity, so Stott's career began with a number of remarkable university missions whose success was never really matched by any subsequent English venture. It was a mercy that he avoided the Anglican equivalent of those ghastly and embarrassing sherry commercials.
In this narrative, his move to the world stage was not therefore a natural extension of his ministry in England but rather a rejection of it, as he came to the realization that England would provide only a day of small things. If he wanted to lead, he would have to find others who would follow and the Anglo-Saxons at home proved increasingly indifferent to what he had to say. In this context, the growing social concern, while undoubtedly genuine, hints both at the desire to find a broader constituency than the gospel of the 1950s campus missions would provide for him and at that guilt which the unmerited privileges of a wealthy background often bring in their wake to those of sensitive conscience. As a character such as Paul Foot expressed his public school guilt through the idiom of Marxism, perhaps Stott expressed his through an evangelical paternalism which drew increasingly on the political idioms of the Left.
Three things in particular intrigued me with respect to Chapman's Stott. First, I cannot help but wonder about the move of Packer to Regent College in 1979. Coming at the end of a decade of doctrinal disaster for Anglicanism, the move seems more than just the result of a good offer of employment. Packer had fallen out with the non-conformist wing of British evangelicalism through his disagreement with Lloyd-Jones on evangelical union and then his ecumenical alliance with Anglo-Catholics such as E L Mascall. Yet Stott's Anglicanism was scarcely more conducive to Packer: Stott's suspicion of systematic theology, his increasing interest in social activism, his closer links to the Anglican Establishment and his personal ambition all suggest that he would not have been particularly enamoured of Packer's vision for the church. I once heard a leading Anglican evangelical theologian say that Packer went to Canada because there was nowhere in Britain where he could turn. Reading between the lines of Chapman's book, I find such a view quite plausible.
Second, Stott's parachurch career is emblematic of the potential pitfalls such organizations often bring with them (though they are not exclusive to the parachurch). Parachurch organizations frequently need powerful personalities to start them up and to lead them, to give that all-important vision; but as such powerful personalities make their organizations attractive, so other individuals come to join the club. Success thus brings with it its own problems: the big cheese of the early days, the one who brought the organization into being, suddenly finds that his is not the only voice, that his opinions can be challenged, and that other visions start to compete for the future. Stott's answer at each step of his career seems to have been to declare 'Be reasonable: do it my way. After all, I am John Stott. Remind me again: who on earth are you?' That is how it went within Anglican evangelicalism; and most notoriously it is how it went with the Lausanne movement. He was not the first leader to handle criticism in such a way and he certainly was not the last. There are lessons here for our current parachurch religious culture in the USA which is arguably more enamoured today with the idea of the big celebrity leader than at any point in the recent past. Aspiring critics of the new establishment take note and count the cost before putting hand to plough, or finger to keyboard.
This brings me to my final point: Chapman tries to put this as delicately as he can but it is clear from his narrative that Stott was very ambitious. One might even say he was ruthlessly ambitious at times. Chapman indicates that Stott saw a tension here: godly ambition is of course good ambition; but sinful human nature means that such is also at the same time ungodly. This is where the historian too faces a dilemma: to place an historical agent's own self-understanding at the centre of the narrative is good and proper. For example, how could one write a biography of, say, Winston Churchill without giving a central place to the fact he was a self-conscious politician? But when it comes to ambition, the problem of self-deception is real and pressing. Post-structuralist history, taking its cue from Nietzsche, Freud and Marx, raised spotting self-deception to an art form. In the process, it made self-understanding a meaningless category, at best a pious mask for the agent's hidden, darker and even unconscious motives and intentions.
In a strange, almost counter-intuitive way, the Christian who understands depravity must stand shoulder to shoulder with these Masters of Suspicion. Thus, Chapman does a great job of demonstrating that Stott was ambitious; but it would have been interesting, both in terms of the narrative and for the insights it would have given into historical method, to have had a little more exploration of the ungodliness of this godly ambition. This book is no hagiography but I doubt that a little more time spent on his ungodly ambition would have reduced Stott: after all, as Alexander Pope tells us, ambition is the glorious fault of angels and of gods.