John Stott and David Somerville – Two More Lives to Celebrate

A few years back Catholic philosopher and teacher Peter Kreeft published a very entertaining book where he sets up a dialogue among three notables who died within hours of each other on November 23, 1963 — C.S. Lewis, John F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley. This engaging conversation between theist, humanist and atheist respectively, makes for great reading.

I would like to see someone draft a similar dialogue situation featuring Dr. John Stott and Archbishop David Somerville who both went to their eternal reward a few days ago. Stott is celebrated as “a key architect of 20th-century evangelicalism” by David Neff of Christianity Today, while Somerville deservedly earned a significant place in Julie Ferguson’s 2006 book Sing a New Song: Portraits of Canada’s Crusading Bishops. The title says it all as Somerville is celebrated for his pioneering role in the shaping of Canadian Anglican polity along with George Hills, Douglas Hambidge and Michael Ingham. Ferguson’s book is another great read if you haven’t seen it.

The only time I had an opportunity to hear John Stott was in an engaging debate at Christ Church Cathedral in July, 1992 where he and John Spong discussed key issues around human sexuality. The Cathedral was packed, and the evening one filled with rich volleys from two great minds. Unlike our own Bishop Somerville, Stott did not feel called by God to serve as a bishop. Musing about one particularly attractive bishopric, he said, “I felt I could not now change the whole direction of my ministry without acknowledging that I’d made a mistake. In declining other approached, I believed I’d made the right decision, and I had no liberty to change direction now.” Archbishop David also made the right choice.

In his extensive and long ministry, Stott advocated Christian community that goes beyond its sometimes entrenched conservatism and stands on the front lines of meaningful social change. In a 1996 interview with Christianity Today, Stott said, “I wish it were always Christians who took the initiative in seeking needed social change. But I am still thankful when others take the initiative and Christians follow, even under secular pressure….Public opinion isn’t always wrong. What is wrong is to bow down before it uncritically, like reeds shaken by the wind. Why should the Holy Spirit not sometimes use public opinion to bring God’s people into line? The Spirit seems to have done so on a number of occasions in the debate between science and faith.” I’m sure each of us can think of other good examples.

In terms of his own Christian social activism, Stott has often focused his “laser-like attention” (David Neff) on projects that bless the church in many regions of the world – whether building ministers’ libraries, educating indigenous scholars, or ensuring that majority-world voices are head at global gatherings.

One thing I personally admire about Stott as a fellow Anglican is his faithfulness to the church, rejecting any temptation to affiliate with splinter  groups based on theological differences. He sees such sad dissent as “an easy option”. “The difficult thing is to stay and refuse to give in, because then you’re always in tension with people with whom you don’t altogether agree, and that is painful”. But Stott sees that as the call of God to us: to remain united in the Call of Christ that binds us, and to live with differences which might even cause pain, but keep us faithful to the Gospel.

Stott was ever and foremost an “evangelist” and Bible expositor whose passion for people and his commitment to building God’s reign touched the lives of thousands. As a child he attended All Souls, Langham Place in London, sometimes sitting in the balcony and dropping wads of paper on the ladies’ hats below. I’ve sat in that balcony, but resisted that temptation. At his ordination in 1945 he became curate in that parish, and then in 1950, rector of the war-damaged church. He remained on staff the rest of his life.

Thomas David Somerville had his beginnings in the South Cariboo region of British Columbia and grew into a call to ministry in the context of what Douglas Todd and others have called the unique spirituality – including Christian spirituality- of Cascadia: the distinct cultural region that takes in most of B.C., Washington and Oregon. Somerville understood that context and worked effectively as an Anglican leader as a result. He knew the challenges of a culture suspicious of any religious institutions and helped shape an Anglican practice and polity that characterize a unique culture of place. His strong support of women’s ordination is a case in point along with other significant initiatives that would come before church synods during his tenure as Bishop of New Westminster and Metropolitan of British Columbia and Yukon. Following retirement, he served as chaplain at Vancouver School of Theology, continuing to share his wisdom and insight into the working of the Holy Spirit in this part of the world. An ardent naturalist – a strong component of one raised in the Cascadian cultural context – Somerville was also a life-long lover of music and literature as well as a broadcaster of some note. Like Stott, his ministry influenced thousands and drew from the same deep commitment to Jesus Christ as the evidence of God among us. In Ferguson’s terms, he was, indeed, a “crusading bishop”.

Both Stott and Somerville have touched countless lives in the diocese of New Westminster. Both are reflective of specific and very different cultural and spiritual contexts. Both enjoyed rich ministries to people through their commitment to Anglican christianity – one the “Brit” who David Neff calls “thoroughly English in stereotypical ways: incisive, cool, time-conscious, orderly, and balanced”; the other the “Cascadian”: lover of nature, sensitive to the spirit of “place” that characterized his life-long home and eager to see an expression of Anglican faith reflective of that “place”.

May they rest in peace, and may light perpetual shine upon them.

Steve Bailey is deacon at the parish of St. Laurence, Coquitlam and one of the blogmasters of nwanglicanblog. Your responses and comments are always welcome. If the lives of John Stott and/or David Somerville have touched you in some way, please share that with our diocesan family thorough responding to this post.

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One Response to John Stott and David Somerville – Two More Lives to Celebrate

  1. Allen Doerksen says:

    Steve, Wish my conservative friends would paste Stott’s quotes re: dissent and living into the pain of disagreement on their proverbial fridges! Stott had it so right on that account.

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