John Stott RIP

The Rev John Stott has died. To many reading this, that may not mean much, but John Stott was had a phenomenal influence on the church and it would be wrong not to mark his passing.

Stott was, for almost all of his ministry, connected with All Souls, Langham Place in London. He was first its curate and then its rector and will be remembered there as a great preacher, whose expository sermons helped to build up that congregation into a powerhouse of the modern Evangelical movement.

People are sometimes surprised at the diversity that is found within Anglicanism. John Stott was one of those who can be credited with keeping it so. It was he who argued convincingly over and against other voices who called for the Evangelicals within the various churches to leave and group together. Though he kept Evangelicals within Anglicanism he also was one of the primary hands behind the Laussanne Covenant, a totemic doctrinal document of the wider Evangelical Movement. That document would have been the kind of thing that all kinds of churches, networks and structures that I once belonged to looked to for inspiration and to codify a certain set of beliefs which would then be held as definitive touchstone of orthodoxy. As I look at it now it looks more like a collection of the things that John Stott might have wished had been in the classic creeds of the historical church but oddly could not find present there.

So influential was John Stott that it was sometimes said that if the Evangelicals had a papacy they would elect John Stott as Pope. In marking his passing I would want to acknowledge that stature but also to remember the consequences of the use to which he put his phenomenal intellect. Already I’ve seen posts on twitter from people remembering the real and lasting harm done to them by reading John Stott’s writings about human sexuality and from engaging with churches which followed his teaching.

His legacy is churches planted. Souls won. Thousands of preachers whose sermons benefited from his considerable intelligence. And his legacy is untold torment for who knows how many thousands. He should be remembered for all his successes, all his good intentions and yet also for the misery of ministries thwarted by those who followed his teaching on the “headship” of women and the impossibility of a Christian being in a loving, physical, faithful gay relationship.

And yet, I’ve no doubt at all whilst thinking about him, that John Stott was motivated in his own way by an intense compassion, a love of God and a desire to be faithful to what he found in Scripture. He (and even more so his disciples) were the architects of a Christianity which believed itself to be utterly right and the only way to God. Such hubris will increasingly seem ever more anachronistic to many. And ever more relevant, right and true to others.

And therein lies a very great deal of our contemporary troubles in the church.

Notwithstanding all that, John Stott was rational, intelligent and one of God’s most gifted children.

May he rest in peace. And rise in glory. (And face one or two surprises).

Being an Inclusive Church

One of the main themes emerging from this year’s Scottish General Synod was the issue of inclusion. I’ve mentioned before the phenomena of getting just about any group of Scottish Episcopalians together and asking them what our church is about. The answers are always the same – good worship and being an inclusive church. (Interestingly, no-one ever defines us as having anything much to do with having bishops. I remember one provincial conference where I’m sure everyone would have voted to change the name to the Scottish Inclusive Church if such a thing could have been proposed).

And all this came up again last week. In the long debate about mission and in other parts of the synod, the ethos of the Scottish Episcopal Church was claimed to be being an inclusive church. I’ve long had a suspicion that part of this is that Episcopalians in Scotland are all a bit odd in one way or another and when we say we are an inclusive church, part of what we mean is, “Thank God, I’ve found a church that welcomes me. There is no-where else to go”.

Anyway, on and on it went. “We are an inclusive church” sayeth the crowd.

Yet I’ve come to the conclusion that this is aspirational talk rather than something that we have already achieved. Some of the most interesting things said at the synod were when people said things that suggested that perhaps the church was not quite yet as inclusive as they would like it to be.

Marion Chatterley got us to agree to a gender audit.

Analu Waller reminded us that cutting grants for buildings could mean cutting support for access for disabled people. She also challenged us to go back to our congregations and count the disabled people there and then ask whether we are really an inclusive church.

Ian Ferguson from the big evangelical congregation Trinity Westhill in Aberdeenshire said, “Inclusion is not just about the gay commmunity”. (And everyone nodded along).

I said that the bishops’ current policy on gay blessings and ministry was not something we could all support. (The bishops are directly stating that they are discriminating against gay people for the first time in our history).

And then there was the Faith and Order Board saying that inclusive language amendments to the liturgy would do tucked into the back of the book as an appendix of permitted texts. It was me again, who reminded them that the liturgy committee has been trying to get us to think of liturgy as formative for faith and that making inclusive language merely optional was not really the kind of thing that lots of us are hoping for.

All these things were comments from people complaining that we are not inclusive enough for them. Yet still we say (and indeed our new Primus seemed to reiterate), “We are an inclusive church”. It is a distinct theme and one which needs a bit of thought throughout the church.

What’s the most important next step?