John R.W. Stott, R.I.P.

John R.W. Stott, the Apostle to American Evangelicals Who Squirm at NASCAR Invocationshas reposed at age 90, reportedly while listening to Handel’s Messiah (HT Wess Stafford on Facebook).

I read a lot of Stott’s books when I was in college through my 20s. Evangelicalism had not yet invented the NASCAR invocation, but British accents felt reassuring to a budding intellectualoid.

In the fractured world of Evangelicalism, where orthopathos reigns, I was predominately an InterVarsity kind of guy, in contradistinction to Campus Crusade or Navigators (whose website remembers some nobody named Larry Whitehouse — harumpf!), and Stott was our guy.

At InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Urbana 70 Conference, Stott was called upon to defend a New Years Eve communion service, to be served to the religiously polyglot assembly of 12,000 or so at the University of Illinois basketball arena.

The question astonished me: why wouldn’t we have communion along with (figuratively speaking) singing Kum Ba Ya and listening to speaker after speaker? But I had to admit that InterVarsity was parachurch, and communion was an Ordinance (as I would have called it, I think) that sorta belonged to the Church kinda. It rattled me for, oh, several hours.

I have no recollection of Stott’s answer, except that it did not entirely reassure me. The question itself had so unsettled my insular evangelical world that I was in no condition to digest the question or the answer. Unfortunately, I lacked even the good sense to recognize that the question was, by intent or not, an important ecclesiological gauntlet thrown down to us acolytes of invisible church, and to follow up the question until I had a satisfactory answer. 30 years later, it made good sense, but I had stumbled onto the answer while exploring something else.

Meanwhile, the 12,000 enjoyed their wafers and grape juice, basking in a glow that we were so ecumenical that one of us didn’t even think a parachurch Eucharist was quite Kosher — a prophet without honor.

It’s interesting to read the New York Times obituary.

[H]e … demanded that evangelicals look beyond liturgy and Christian tradition and remain engaged in worldly matters — “to take more responsible attitudes toward economics, the arts, politics and culture in general,” as Mark A. Noll, a University of Notre Dame professor and scholar of the movement, said in an interview in 2007.

It comes as news to me that Evangelicals could be described as focusing obsessively on “liturgy and Christian tradition.” Granted, that was more likely to happen in InterVarsity’s little corner of the world than over at Crusade or Navigators, but to my knowledge, it was darned unlikely to happen anywhere, at least until IVCF-type Evangelicals began feeling the stirrings that (as Tom Howard put it) “Evangelical is Not Enough” and began to Emerge. This NYT segué just doesn’t work for me.

But enough of making Stott sound like a bumpkin. If he was, then I was bumpkin ten times over, and I credit him and C.S. Lewis with keeping me from going totally adrift.

Although he was distinctly an Evangelical figure (I don’t think I’ve ever heard another Orthodox Christian even mention his name), he was an Anglican, with one foot (at least) firmly in the Great Tradition. In addressing things like parachurch eucharists only reactively, not proactively, he may have been following the salutary ministry principle of beginning where your auditors (or readers) are, not where you’d like them to be.

Perhaps he actually did have something to do with a few Evangelicals looking at liturgy and tradition, if not “beyond” into “worldly matters.” Goodness knows that many good Evangelical boys and girls have grown up to be Lutheran, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic or Orthodox (along with more than a few burnout bitter atheists and agnostics — some of them Lutheran, Episcopalian, Roman Catholic or Orthodox).

The obituary said he feared pride, disliked being fêted, and thought that attitude was normative Christianity. In this, as in many other things, he was exactly right.

Requiem eternam, et lux perpetua!


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