Regulars will know that John Stott is a frequent focus here. I’ve just finished reading Alister Chapman’s excellent, scholarly engagement with John Stott’s legacy: Godly Ambition. A fuller review may come in time…
But I will say this. Having spent 12 years at All Souls (the first few overlapping with John’s final years in the congregation), I’d heard much about the book while never actually getting round to reading it. I was all too aware that some who had known John when rector, and subsequently, had been slightly disappointed by some of its critiques. What strikes me now, though, is that Chapman is nuanced and careful throughout, while never losing his appreciation and admiration for his subject.
The book’s real asset is the deep engagement with Stott’s social and historical context. For example, I had never quite appreciated the psychological effect of the post-WW2 revitalisation of church (especially Anglican) life in the UK (not least because of returning military and the blitz-scarred civilians filling pews). When the seismic cultural shifts of the 60s and 70s struck, it is hardly surprising that leaders (including Stott) who had been buoyed in the 50s found this a shattering experience. Longed-for national revival, bringing a widespread resistance to creeping secularism, simply failed to appear.
This explains in part Stott’s willingness to take risks and explore different paths that the church might need to take. He was forced to engage with the kingdom’s prophetic and holistic demands when his eyes were opened to what was really happening in the world beyond the confines of respectable (and imperial) British Christianity (especially by leaders from Latin America).
However, he rarely had opportunities for direct and tangible influence on the times in which he lived. Nevertheless, this moment leapt off the page and completely blew me away. I had forgotten all about it, if I knew it at all.
There was one moment when Stott made a significant impact on government policy, but it was in America, not Britain. At the close of the twentieth century, an organization called Jubilee 2000 launched a campaign to encourage wealthy countries to cancel the debts of poorer ones in the developing world.
Tony Blair became involved and worked to persuade the U.S. government to get on board. In 1999 the Americans did, and it appears that a short letter from John Stott, sent to prominent Christians in the United States, was instrumental. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, told fellow Labour politician Stephen Timms about how persuasive this letter had proved among members of Congress. Timms also heard that Tony Blair had said that Stott’s letter was worth more than any of the high-profile anti-poverty rock concerts. (Alister Chapman, Godly Ambition, 132)
The Jubilee 2000 Campaign was remarkably successful, which is perhaps a little surprising given that its inspiration came from the Book of Leviticus! What is even more unexpected is that a pastor’s letter to friends across the Atlantic could have swayed so many influencers such that it was recognised by the two most powerful British politicians of the day.