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Thomas Howard

John Stott: A Catholic Reflection

The mystery of the Church.

During the autumn of 2011, there died in England a man whose death aroused worldwide attention. It also occasioned affectionate musings in my own mind.

His name was John Stott. Like the whole evangelical Protestant world—and even, apparently, the English public and the secular media—I knew, and mourned, that a giant had gone from the rest of us who were still left here in this mortal coil. The following remarks do not qualify as biographical in any sense. That has all been done. I cannot offer much in the way of dates and events in his life, even though I knew him for over sixty years. In any case, I need not do so. His life and achievements have been canvassed, scrutinized, and hailed by the media.

He visited in our household when I was a boy, and would stay on occasion with my own family after I was married. But I know—or perhaps I should say remember—nothing, for example, of his parents, nor of the religious flavor of the Stott household, nor even of the particulars of his own coming to faith.

He was, perhaps, the godliest man I have ever known, along with my own father. He emerged into a certain public view in the 1940s, I seem to recall, when he began to give talks, often in evangelical university circles. His own world had been the somewhat exalted world of the English public school and Cambridge University. It was the appearance of his early book, Basic Christianity, that expanded, almost globally, his reputation, again principally in the evangelical Protestant domain. He eventually gained a virtually apostolic eminence, certainly by no ambition of his own. There seemed to be no remotest tincture of vanity anywhere in his entire being. Like Enoch, he walked with God. Like Moses, he was meek. Like Abraham, he was the friend of God. Like Samuel, he was among those who called on God's name.

Over the years he and I met and talked now and again. He was, for one thing, a birdwatcher like my father, and since I had grown up regaled with prothonotary warblers, semipalmated plovers, winter wrens, hermit thrushes, and white-throated sparrows, John and I had much to talk about in that vein before we embarked, inevitably, on matters of the faith. He very much admired my father, who was not only a gentleman of the (very) old school like Stott himself, but who, much to John's delight, could both identify the birds and imitate their songs with such perfection that they would come flitting into the branches over his head. I remember John once saying that one of his own keenest hopes was to see the fairy wren some day. I think he did eventually find one—in Southeast Asia or somewhere in that part of the map.

As time went on, my own religious itinerary drew me from my own free-church evangelical moorings to Anglicanism, and thence to the ancient Catholic Church. This, of course, might easily have introduced an obstacle between John and me, since he was, on the surface of things anyway, a "low-church" Anglican, meaning that the English Protestant Reformers would have been the men to whom he looked when it came to matters ecclesiological and, I think, spiritual nurture. I had once asked him, since I trusted him wholly and looked to him for wisdom, if he could give me the rationale for the Church of England, thinking he might be able to offer me a substantial ecclesiology in this connection. He said that the Anglican liturgy offered a dignified ordering for public prayer. This appeared, at the time, to be the whole of the point he wished to make. As the decades went on, I gathered that his global ministry in a wide array of ardent Christian groupings had opened his sympathies to such a wide extent that his Anglicanism became less and less important a category in his Christian outlook. Certainly he ceased wearing the clerical collar very early on.

Once when he and I were having lunch together, the topic of the Eucharist arose (I suspect at my own behest). I was still Anglican at the time, but my reading in Church history, and most especially in the Church Fathers, was drawing me inexorably toward the ancient point of view in the matter. The witness of the Fathers, including those who had been pupils of the apostles themselves, had confronted me with a difficulty. Obviously it was we, that is, the Reformed tradition, who had set on one side the ancient teaching here. Those early witnesses, to a man, held the Eucharist to be, in a mystery, what St. John's language in chapter 6 of his gospel would seem to suggest. One finds no notion of symbolic language in this connection in the first century Church, nor in the centuries that followed. (In the 9th century, Paschasius Radbertus, and, following him, Ratramnus and Berengar of Tours, and then in due course Ulrich Zwingli, taught that the bread and wine are just that: bread and wine, which view later became the accepted Eucharistic doctrine for Protestantism, and a fortiori evangelicalism.) Ignatius of Antioch (AD 36-107), Justin Martyr (100-165), Irenaeus, Cyprian, Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Hilary, Ambrose, and Augustine all understood, and taught, that the elements prayed over at the Eucharist do, in fact, become, in a mystery, the Body and Blood of Christ. (Obviously, no chemical analysis of these elements will yield anything other than wheat and grapes, just as no examination of the foetus in Mary's womb will discover anything other than a human child.)

The point aroused titanic controversy in Christendom in the 16th century, as we all know. But the scene at lunch with John discloses something of the grace that marked this noble and godly man. At no point did the conversation become "difficult." Everyone who knew John will already know this.

What I had in mind as I sought his understanding in the matter was that Ignatius of Antioch, for example, apparently the pupil of the Apostle John himself, puts things this way: "Mark ye those who hold strange doctrines touching the grace of Jesus which came to us, how they are contrary to the mind of God …. They allow not that the eucharist is the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ which flesh suffered for our sins …." Or Justin Martyr (2nd century): "We do not receive these as common bread …. [T]he food which has been eucharized by the word of prayer from Him is the flesh and blood of the Incarnate Jesus." Augustine, much later, says, "That Bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the Body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the word of God, is the Blood of Christ."

Being young, I was curious as to why John followed those later gentlemen in the matter of the Eucharist, rather than the testimony of the early Fathers. He did not argue with me. I think that would have seemed churlish to him. He simply remarked quietly, "We do not see it that way," and we turned to other topics.

As time has gone on, I as a Roman Catholic would, of course, hold an entire stock of views that might scandalize the evangelical world of which John Stott might be thought of as the very icon. But "scandalize" is not a word that would crop up in any consideration of this man, formed as he was by true gentility, but more than that, formed as he was by Grace. There was nothing but Charity in his responses to people because, of course, there was nothing left in his soul but that Charity, the greatest of all gifts on St. Paul's view.

What views? The nature of the Church and the apostolical succession of the episcopacy as the Apostles and Fathers shaped it in accord with what they understood to be Scriptural; the Mass; the Marian mystery, set altogether on one side by evangelicalism; the Communion of the Saints, drawing as it does on Christ's death and resurrection which, by overthrowing the tyranny of death, brings those on pilgrimage here on earth into one living intercessory body with our High Priest and with those who are now before the Throne; and the whole understanding of faith which frequently obstructs fellowship between Catholic and Reformed believers.

I, as a Catholic man, and as a friend of John Stott at whose feet I sit in so many matters, naturally find myself ferreting away at the sort of questions that follow upon the above matters. How can this noble, gigantic, and holy man demur on so many matters that would seem to have the imprimatur of the ancient Fathers?

That would be a shrill and scrappy way of putting the question. But one cannot quite put it that way. In the presence of manifest holiness, one finds oneself hesitant. John Stott scrutinizes me, not I him.

Clearly the riddle touches on the mystery of the Church. In the West it was divided, apparently irreparably, in the 16th century. A remorseless and juridical logic would insist upon a verdict that would expose one side or the other as wrong: "If so and so is the case—this doctrine or that one—then any demurral constitutes heresy." Any Catholic and any Protestant is, on that level, bound to see things that way, no matter how valiantly he struggles in his inner man with Charity. In a different essay, and with a lesser man than John Stott, I might be tempted to wax energetic. Instead, I leave the matter as the mere account of my friendship with that man of God.

Thomas Howard is the author of many books. A good introduction can be found in The Night Is Far Spent: A Treasury of Thomas Howard, selected by Vivian W. Dudro (Ignatius Press).

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