Why he stays

London cleric shares what he's learned about faith and the church
May 1, 2008

Convictions of a Lifelong Pastor
By John Stott
IVP, 180 pp., $17

In The Living Church John Stott shares with his readers what he has learned. After serving as longtime rector of All Souls, London, Stott is both influential and well-known far beyond the Church of England. His many books, preaching and teaching and 60 years in urban ministry, as well as traveling and speaking throughout the world, have made that a certainty. In 2005, he was honored by Time as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."

As the subtitle claims, these are the "convictions of a lifelong pastor." Turning 87 in April, Stott, an inveterate list-maker, has had plenty of time to develop his convictions. He is not shy about sharing them.

For example, he is short on patience with those who would say and do nothing about obvious false teaching, saying "It is our plain duty to protect God's flock from error and to establish it in the truth." And he is long on understanding "this Trinitarian truth about the church: it belongs to God the Father, has been redeemed by the blood of Christ his Son, and has overseers appointed by God the Holy Spirit." This, he writes, should humble us, inspire us and motivate us in the loving care of God's people.

His chapters are on: essentials, that is, what Stott sees as God's vision for the church; followed by worship; evangelism; ministry; fellowship; preaching; giving and impact, that is, the role that Jesus has assigned to us: being salt and light in the world.

Stott is "Looking for Timothys in the 21st Century." He appeals to church leaders, whether clergy or lay, describing Timothy from Paul's letters to Timothy, as both young, shy and frail. Stott calls for new Timothys to "pursue righteousness, fight the good fight and lay hold of eternal life simultaneously."

Appendices valuable
I found that some of the most helpful parts of this book are in the appendices. First, there is a brief but interesting autobiographical sketch. The next, is an historical appendix that explains why he remains a member of the Church of England. With clear and cogent reasoning, Stott describes four features of his church, which are also four reasons why he belongs to it. To some degree, he writes, they apply to all Anglicans.

First, it is a historical church. He traces it back to the first century A.D. when Roman legions were colonizing. Among the soldiers, followers, merchants, there may have been believers in Christ sharing the good news. And he notes that both Tertullian and Origen spoke of a church in England around the year A.D. 200.

Second, it is a confessional church. Doctrinal standards are found in the Book of Common Prayer and the Thirty-Nine Articles, affirming the supremacy and sufficiency of Scripture. While Stott admits that a few leaders may deny some of the fundamentals of the faith, the Church of England "has never abandoned its confession of faith."

Third, it is a national church, with a mission, "to be the nation's conscience, to serve the nation."
Fourth, it is a liturgical church with "plenty of biblical warrant for liturgical forms." A liturgy enshrines truth and safeguards uniformity of doctrine, he says, and gives a sense of solidarity with both the past and the present. It also "protects the congregation from the worst idiosyncrasies of the clergy," and is an "aid to concentration and congregational participation."

Options for the future
For those who struggle with staying within the Church of England or leaving, Stott describes three options. In our own situation in the Episcopal Church, where profound disagreement and disillusionment being experienced by some of people today, these options are also possibilities. Most of us could probably name church leaders and friends who have already chosen one of these options.

The first option is separation or secession from the church. This is the position of independent evangelicals who, Stott thinks, "tend to pursue the purity of the church at the expense of its unity." He reminds readers that in the 16th century the Reformers were "reluctant schismatics." They did not want to leave the Roman Catholic Church. "Calvin wrote to Cranmer in 1552, for example, that the separation of churches was ‘among the greatest misfortunes of our century.'"

The second option is "compromise or even conformity." Stott thinks this position is "short-sighted." "We should have the courage, with humility, to bear witness to evangelical truth as we have been given to understand it," he writes.

The third option is what he calls "comprehensiveness without compromise, that is, staying in without caving in." From his own experience, he believes that this is the most painful of the three options.

Some years ago John Stott chose the third option for himself and he continues to be a vital and verbal part of those who remain in the Church of England. In The Living Church he offers a valuable perspective that can be helpful for anyone who may be struggling with feelings of frustration, disappointment and dismay as they think about the church's future.

There is hope. In Historical Appendix 2, Stott mentions Martin Luther King's famous dream speech in Washington, D.C., and then in poetic prose adds his own dream for the church, when it will be biblical, worshiping, caring, serving and expectant (waiting and looking for its Lord to return).

In the third historical appendix, which he calls "Reflections of an Octogenarian," he shares some personal thoughts on priorities, obedience and humility.

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