Richard Trist is Dean of The Anglican Institute, Ridley College, Melbourne
What a privilege it was to get to know John Stott when my family joined the congregation of All Souls’ Langham Place in the mid-1990s.
By the time we had arrived, ‘Uncle John’ had retired as rector of the church and was carrying out a wider preaching and teaching ministry. He still however attended church services, prayer meetings and staff gatherings as often as he could.
Our first encounter with John occurred just after we arrived in the parish. We were busily unpacking boxes and settling into our apartment when the phone rang. ‘It’s John Stott here. I just want to wish you a warm welcome to London and to All Souls. I have been praying for you all. How are you and the children, Luke, Sophie, Lily and Grace?’ Apart from the fact that one of my theological heroes had just phoned and invited me to join him for afternoon tea the following week, what struck me was that he was interested in us as a family. He knew each of the children by name. He had been praying for this new Australian clergy family, and amidst his busy schedule was willing to find out how we were. What a model of pastoral care!
Over the next four years, we continued to observe and appreciate John’s genuine humility, generous spirit and unpretentious nature. We came to see him not just as a well-known preacher (the church was packed every time he preached), nor just as a writer of well-known books (over fifty, many of which he graciously signed when brandished by American ‘fans’ after a Sunday service). Rather, we came to see him as a quiet, perhaps shy man, humbly seeking to serve God and his church, eschewing any fuss that others made of him. What other characteristics stand out?
HE WAS A MAN OF GENEROSITY.
John lived a modest and frugal life. When he retired as Rector of All Souls’, Langham Place, he was content to take up the offer of a small two-roomed flat behind the parish rectory. It was not flash! Just basic furnishing, a small kitchen, somewhere to sit and greet visitors. John however seemed relaxed with these simplicities. If he could read and write in quietness and peace, he was happy. He did have a place of his own, a small cottage with buildings perched high on a cliff in South Wales. There he would spend many weeks each year writing, birdwatching and entertaining friends with readings from Rudyard Kipling. He generously loaned us the cottage one school holiday, and we soon discovered why he loved it. It was located at the end of a disused WW2 runway and virtually impossible to find. Yet its remoteness and rustic character were what made it so special. We could easily picture John studying and writing every morning, then relaxing in the afternoon photographing what he called ‘the birds our teachers’ (Matt 6:26).
HE WAS AN ENCOURAGER.
Whether speaking with eager visitors keen to get a photo with him after church, or parishioners sharing a personal problem, John always seemed to have the right word to say. I remember the time I was feeling a bit underdone in sermon preparation, only to discover that John was joining the ministry team on the platform that night. ‘That’s great!’ I lamented to a colleague, secretly wishing my sermon would be due the following week, not tonight. But when John asked how I was, and I shared my feelings of inadequacy, he was ever the encourager. He shared his own experiences of feeling inadequate and urged me to simply preach the word. Why? ‘God’s grace is sufficient for your weakness’.
HE WAS PERSON OF PRAYER.
John was a clear and thoughtful pray-er. He would always begin a sermon with the same prayer, ‘Heavenly Father, we bow today in your presence. May your word be our rule, your spirit our teacher, and your greater glory our supreme concern, through Jesus Christ our Lord’. Here was a reminder that the sermon we were about to hear was not about us and our needs, but rather God and his glory.
Prayer was a key focus of John’s life, from his personal prayer life with a notebook packed with names of people he had met, to the Tuesday night parish prayer meeting that he established in the first year of becoming rector. This prayer meeting was one of his enduring legacies—in many ways the powerhouse of the church. No other meetings were to be held on that night and all leaders (several hundred) were expected to attend. John made sure he did not miss it, even when he had retired. He believed that prayer was powerful and set it as a priority in his own life and that of the church.
In this centenary year, what a privilege to recall these years of contact with ‘Uncle John’. Not only to remember John Stott the great evangelical leader (which he certainly was), but also to reflect on him simply as a Christian person—a man of generosity, encouragement, and prayer. May such attributes inspire and shape us as we remember this humble man of God.