Book review: The Life and Times of Stephen Neill

[An extended version of a book review to appear in the journal Anglican and Episcopal History.]

The career of Stephen Neill (1900-84) was among the most truly global of all Christian lives. Born and educated in England, he went to India in 1924 as a missionary, became a theological educator, was ordained priest in the Anglican church, and in time was made bishop of the diocese of Tinnevelly (Tirunelveli). Leaving India in 1945 for Geneva, he was among those who formed the World Council of Churches, a remarkably prolific author, an editor of the work of others, and assistant bishop to the archbishop of Canterbury. He was professor of ecumenics and theology at the University of Hamburg (1962-68) until, at the age of 68, he took on the task of forming a new department at the University of Nairobi in Kenya. Retirement was as a residential guest at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, during which he completed his autobiography, God’s Apprentice, which was published in 1991, after his death.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this variety and geographical reach, Neill’s career has not been fully taken into account by historians of twentieth century Christianity. As such, Dyron Daughrity, professor of religion at Pepperdine University in California, has placed historians greatly in his debt in producing this biography, the fruit of two decades’ engagement with Neill. The source material is copious: more than sixty books, and innumerable articles and reviews, which Daughrity (quite reasonably) does not attempt to list in full. Crucially, a chance conversation with N. T. Wright, bishop of Durham, revealed the existence of an extended unpublished version of Neill’s autobiography, in Wright’s possession. Building on Daughrity’s earlier work on Neill, most notably a 2008 study of Neill’s early career, this new book fills what was a significant gap in the literature, and is unlikely to be superseded.

That such a gap in the literature has persisted might have been explained by the scattered and multilingual nature of the relevant archives. A great many of the biographers of Neill’s generation have been friends or close colleagues of their subject; of these, Neill had relatively few that lived long enough to take the job on. But the gap is perhaps more readily explained by the revelation, made in 1991 by Richard Holloway (soon to be bishop of Edinburgh) while reviewing God’s Apprentice, of the circumstances in which Neill left India, which Neill had omitted from his account. Neill had been accused of inflicting corporal punishment on adult men in his pastoral care, for which purpose he carried a whip, causing scandal in the diocese. Holloway did not know, but Daughrity lays out, that the pattern continued when, remarkably, Neill returned to England to take up a Cambridge chaplaincy; it was known to colleagues in Germany; accounts survive of the same in Kenya. Donald Coggan, of the same wing of the Church of England, disclosed that he had known of it for many years, as had Lesslie Newbigin, a colleague from the WCC days in Geneva. Troubled all his life by insomnia and depression, Neill was (in Holloway’s words) ‘banished’ to spend the rest of his life ‘wandering the earth as a theological mercenary’ (202), leaving behind him a trail of damaged people who ought to have been able to place their trust in him.

Much historical work remains to reckon with the ways in which all the churches dealt, and failed to deal, with abuse of all kinds. Precisely what it was, in the kind of evangelicalism in which Neill was raised, that gave rise to the kind of understanding of sin, repentance and punishment in which Neill placed the kind of discipline he meted out, remains to be explored fully. (Readers may no doubt hear the resonances with the recent scandal in England associated with Emmanuel Church Wimbledon). Daughrity’s study will be a significant resource in those enquiries, as it will in assessing Neill’s scholarly output, on which his reputation is likely to depend. But his achievement as a biographer – and it is no mean achievement – is to steer a course between hagiography and censure, laying out Neill’s undoubted (indeed prodigious) achievements, alongside such grim failures, giving each its due weight while allowing the reader to draw their conclusions.

For this reviewer, Neill’s strengths, through a kind of inability to assess them rightly and temper their exercise, became his weaknesses also. His appetite for work, and tolerance of physical hardship when in India, was great; his commitment to prayer and preaching was genuine and strenuous. Neill’s intellect was formidable, and his facility with other languages remarkable; Daughrity rates him ‘without question, one of the greatest minds in the twentieth century’ (288). As a statement concerning Neill’s facility, this is clearly true, but questions remain over the enduring worth or otherwise of some, though not all of his books. One cannot avoid a suspicion of a certain superficiality in a career that produced a book each year in the midst of extremely heavy commitments and persistent ill health, and much of the time without access to the requisite library facilities. This readiness to write on everything – from St John Chrysostom to the gospels, the medieval Church of England to Kierkegaard, from the history of mission in India to psychology – is the confidence of one who delayed taking up a Cambridge fellowship to go to India, was offered a bishopric at 32 (which he refused) and continued to hear often from others of how brilliant was the mind he possessed.

It was also the confidence of one without a doubt in his mind that western mission to Asia and Africa was at base a dispensation of wisdom and civilisation for which the recipient populations ought to be grateful, and could not expect to manage without. Though he was by all accounts loved in India in the 1940s, a colleague in Nairobi three decades later regarded him as at base a racist, who knew little of Africa and was disinclined to learn. It is this unreconstructed understanding of mission which arguably vitiates much of his work. But it was this self-confidence, added to a quick and explosive temper, that made him autocratic and dismissive of the views of others; the same Kenyan colleague found him surprised that African colleagues might refuse to agree with him; in every situation he alienated those who might have become allies. It is at least possible that the his mysterious breach with the missionary Amy Carmichael in the 1920s was in part due to some similar clash of wills. And this unshakeable sense of his own correctness was part of the abuse: dealing the final blow to Neill’s career in India, Neill’s superior Foss Westcott (metropolitan of India, Burma and Ceylon) noted with some surprise the lack of any kind of acknowledgment from Neill of the harm that had been caused. Remarkably, Neill thought it appropriate to put himself forward to succeed Westcott later that year, so complete was his self-belief.

Though overall the book succeeds, there are some imperfections in its execution. Nearly half the narrative is devoted to the two decades in India, and the remaining forty years occupy a similar length. This perhaps matches the importance of those years to Neill; in a sense he never recovered from his departure. But while the account of the Indian period is richly contextualised from archival and other sources, the chapters on Hamburg and Nairobi are notably more reliant on Neill’s own account, which (as, by this point, Daughrity has already shown) was not always full or frank, and on interviews; one wonders whether the university and college archives in Hamburg, Nairobi and Oxford might have yielded information of importance. In the later chapters in particular the narrative energy of the prose flags, such as in the place-by-place relation of Neill’s study tour of Africa in 1950 (228-37), or in the potted summaries of the various books and articles. From time to time, names appear in the narrative for the first time without being introduced. The list of archives consulted is incomplete, Lambeth Palace Library having been omitted. However, these are relatively minor criticisms of what is a major piece of work. Well produced by the Lutterworth Press, which was itself associated with Neill, and reasonably priced, it will be essential reading for historians of world Christianity in the twentieth century.

A Wordly Christian: The Life and Times of Stephen Neill. By Dyron B. Daughrity. (Cambridge, England: Lutterworth, 2021, pp. x, 401. £75 (hardback), £25 (paperback), £16 (epub).

For further reflections on the business of Christian biography, see posts on John Stott, and Michael Ramsey and Walter Hussey.

Reconstructing a late-Nineties web sphere

I was very pleased to take part this week in ‘Engaging with Web Archives‘, originally supposed to take place at NUI Maynooth in April, but which instead took place online. My thanks to Sharon Healy and Michael Kurzmeier for the original idea, and for their remarkable perseverance in making the final event take place. It’s very good to see an event of this kind happening in Ireland, and I expect it will come to be regarded as a highly significant moment in Irish engagement with the archived Web.

My presentation is available on YouTube. It’s a shortened version of ‘Digital archaeology in the web of links: reconstructing a late-90s web sphere’, forthcoming in Gomes, Davidova, Winters and Risse (eds), The Past Web. Exploring Web archives (Springer, 2021)

 

Two new books on John Stott

Thanks to the Lexham Press, I have on my shelves two new books, both relating to the late John Stott. In 2005 Stott was named as one of only three religious leaders in Time magazine’s list of the one hundred most influential people in the world. And since his death in 2011, the reputation that Stott has enjoyed among evangelicals has, if anything, increased. His worldwide fame, which dates from the 1970s and in particular the 1980s, was but an early example of a kind of religious celebrity within worldwide evangelicalism that calls out to be understood better. (Alister Chapman’s essential biography tells us a great deal about this aspect of Stott’s career.)

This kind of religious celebrity often seems to be followed by a posthumous search to recover more of their voice, that it might continue to sound after their death, and perhaps even more clearly. (See, on the case of C.S. Lewis, the recent book by Stephanie L. Derrick). And the two books I want to discuss here are both attempts to recover and present afresh aspects of Stott’s work that are either unpublished or hard now to get hold of.

Christ the Cornerstone: Collected essays of John Stott (2019) forms part of a Lexham Press series based on the archive of Christianity Today, set up by Billy Graham in 1956. Stott was an early contributor to Christianity Today – the first essay here dates from 1959, an impeccably conservative exposition of the authority of the Bible. However, the bulk of the essays here appeared as Stott’s ‘Cornerstone’ column, published monthly between 1977 and 1981. Taken as a whole, they show us what an English evangelical leader thought worth saying to a predominantly American readership, but also the worldwide concerns that Stott now had, having left stipendiary parish ministry in London. There are essays on church and state in England, and the key National Evangelical Anglican Congress at Nottingham in 1977; on James Barr’s 1977 book Fundamentalism; on the churches in Norway, Australia and Burma; on race relations in the UK, nuclear arms, abortion. Although presented without any critical apparatus and only a short introduction, it is a volume which scholars of evangelical history will want to have to hand.

Published just this month is Pages from a Preacher’s Notebook. The title is slightly misleading, in that the source is in fact a body of thousands of index cards, compiled over a period of sixty or more years, on which Stott recorded facts, quotations and other things of interest, arranged by subject. It was on this modern commonplace book that Stott drew extensively for his writing and his preaching. It is the fruit of a volunteer transcription project at Stott’s church of All Souls’ Langham Place in London, and is edited by Mark Meynell, himself a former member of the All Souls’ staff and co-worker with Stott in his later years. (A larger selection is available as an ebook).

Historians have not paid a great deal of attention to preaching in the latter half of the twentieth century. Rare was the preacher who found a publisher for his collected sermons, as had been the case with figures such as Hensley Henson in earlier years. Rarer still is the preacher for whom such a source as this survives, which gives it an absorbing interest. I would suspect (although could not prove) that Stott was unusual among the clergy in having adopted a method such as this and in having sustained it over such a long period. (It was more common among academics, such as the historians Keith Thomas and Christopher Hill, both of a similar age to Stott.) From whom, perhaps at Rugby school or Cambridge, Stott learned the method is tantalisingly unclear.

But as a resource for historians, this particular selection will remain of limited use, a pointer towards the full body of notes (if and when they are made available for research) rather than a reference source itself. To begin with, there is no attempt to infer the date at which a note was made, leaving the reader to guess from the subject matter; as such, we are missing a crucial piece of context for understanding not only what Stott was reading but under which circumstances. For example: the notes in which Stott engaged with the English Reformation are based largely on the books of Marcus Loane, archbishop of Sydney from 1958 and former principal of the evangelical Moore College. This would be common enough for an evangelical reader in (say) 1960, but one would want to ask questions if this was all Stott was reading in the 1990s, by which time Reformation scholarship had changed beyond all recognition.

Although the editor discloses a certain amount about which cards were selected and which omitted, it is not enough to form a view on how representative the sample is, and of what. The church in which Stott worked was convulsed in the Sixties and Seventies by theological controversy that seemed to touch the very essence of Christian orthodoxy. And the editor tells us that Stott made notes on John Robinson’s famous book Honest to God (1963) and the later The Myth of God Incarnate, edited by John Hick. (Three of the Stott columns in Christianity Today are on the latter and its repercussions). Yet the selection here includes almost nothing on this ferment, from American and European theologians such as Bonhoeffer, Bultmann or Tillich, or Englishmen such as Robinson, Hick, Maurice Wiles, Geoffrey Lampe, David Jenkins (Don Cupitt cuts a lonely figure on page 259, and at second-hand). It may be that these disputes are now purely of historic interest, and it is certainly true that Stott is still read while Robinson and Tillich are not. But a selection based on an idea of enduring value will not satisfy the historian reader.

So if this selection is not aimed at historians – as we are forced to conclude – for whom is it intended? The back cover suggests a ‘preacher or writer looking for a good idea, or an admirer of Stott’. The editor is surely right to say that Stott’s notes illuminate his practice of “double listening’, of attending both to the Bible and to contemporary culture; the signal contribution of this little book is to show what such double listening meant in practice. But one might hope that modern-day preachers would adopt the method itself, rather than mining this selection for nuggets of wisdom to drop into a sermon. Surely the task is to listen to culture today, rather than to listen to Stott listening to his.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, why not support the blog on Patreon? For only £2 a month, you can help keep as much of the writing here free to read as possible.

Martyrs, memorials and meaning in Protestant England

Sitting in what William Morris described as ‘a great amphitheatre of chalk hills’, the market town of Lewes is one of Sussex’s particular delights. For all its quiet charm, the town is perhaps best known for its elaborate celebrations of Bonfire Night, during which the several bonfire societies in and around the town converge ina grand procession. It is an anarchic mixture of revelry and symbol, pipes and drums, in which effigies of contemporary political bogeymen are burned. In 2019 it was Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but every year Pope Paul V (who was pope in 1605) is also committed to the flames. There is also an act of remembrance for the dead of the two world wars at the memorial in the town centre, and seventeen burning crosses are borne in procession, representing the seventeen Protestants burned at the stake outside the Star Inn under the Catholic Mary I (1555-7). A more eclectic mixture of religious and secular memory and political commentary would be difficult to find in England.

The path from the topmost road of the estate to the memorial field. Image: Peter Webster

But there is another memorial of that Reformation past in Lewes, although one must now work hard to find it. Though it is difficult to see from most of the town, from the vantage point of the castle keep one can pick out, across the Ouse valley on Cliffe Hill to the east, an austere obelisk, described on the tourist viewfinder as a memorial to the Lewes martyrs. Intrigued by this during a visit to Lewes last August, my unplanned pilgrimage to it began.

It was harder than I expected to find my way. There were no signposts that I could see (though I later found it marked on a town guide), and it was invisible from the valley floor due to the trees on the hill. I asked a couple of people – one passer-by, the waitress in the cafe – if they knew it, but no. Eventually, just by a church, I found a road that seemed to snake up the steep hill. But the keepers of the Cuilfail residential estate (which I suppose dates from the 1970s) provide no signposts. Indeed, such signage as there is leaves the visitor in no doubt that the road is private, with no parking allowed. But eventually, up a narrow path (which did have a sign), I found it, on a flat patch of grass sandwiched between the back fences of the gardens of the houses of the estate and a golf course. On a pleasant Sunday in summer, I saw not another soul in the hour or so I spent on Cliffe Hill, while the castle did a healthy trade in visitors, and the town bustled gently; no-one passes by this place. If a memorial must be visible to operate, then this one can have little effect.

As I write, the politics of public memorials are being discussed with a fervency we rarely see, in the wake of the felling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in the centre of Bristol. There is much talk of ‘erasing history’. But – in and of themselves – such monuments tell us almost nothing at all about those they commemorate – about the history that is supposedly being erased. What they do reveal, much more naively, is the intentions of those who created them, acts just as political (in the broadest sense) as toppling Colston and symbolically drowning him in the waters in which so many of his slaves met their deaths. These objects are indeed historical artefacts, but not of what is commonly supposed. In the case of Lewes, the obelisk and the burning crosses represent two distinct ideas of memory and martyrdom – one largely secular and the other strictly doctrinal – that for a time converged but now are as separate as ever.

John Wolffe has recently shown that the Protestant recovery of the Marian martyrs is relatively recent, a twentieth-century reaction to increased Roman Catholic assertiveness of their own recusant martyrs. The Lewes memorial was erected in 1901; elsewhere, in the 1920s, the Protestant Alliance renovated memorials in Brentwood and at Smithfield in London, and set up new ones in Amersham and in Norwich (both 1931). Wolffe points out the particular conflation in Lewes of religious and secular remembrance in the placing of the new memorial to the First World War on the site of the burnings in the town centre. The Sussex Martyrs Commemoration Council, formed in 1925, provided for the illumination of the memorial on every November 5th, further cementing the connection between the events.

But the years after 1945 saw a remarkably swift waning of this Protestant-Catholic antagonism, so much so that the planned canonisation by the Pope of forty English and Welsh martyrs in 1970 jarred with the ecumenical advances being made at the same time between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, regretted the move, both privately and publicly, and appealed for a new shared Christian martyrology. And in time the ecumenical spirit further pushed this kind of polemical Protestant self-consciousness to the margins, though it continued to thrive in the particular conditions of Northern Ireland.

Yet the annual commemoration service at the Lewes memorial continued, and continues still under the auspices of the Commemoration Council – in June, on a date more congruent with the burnings in the 1550s, not November 5th. (The Council also continued to fund new memorials elsewhere in the county to sixteen more Marian martyrs, the most recent in 1997). The church at the foot of the hill that I passed on my pilgrimage was formerly the Jireh chapel, a Calvinistic Independent chapel built in 1805 and now Grade One listed. As the congregation dwindled, the building was taken over by Lewes Free Presbyterian Church, one of only a handful of English outposts of Ian Paisley’s new church in Northern Ireland. And there appears still to be a close connection between the church and the Council, which retains a postal address in Lewes. The church’s minister, Pastor Philip Knowles, an Ulsterman himself, was the preacher at the 2019 service.

And the collected sermons and addresses from these events that the Council publish are of a kind familiar to students of this continuing Protestant remnant. They speak of a self-conscious, defensive community, dwindling with age, at odds with the mainline Christian denominations, continuing to contend for a pure gospel as the martyrs did. The Council is also connected through personnel and joint activities with Christian Watch, formed in 2001 and devoted to ‘informing Christians about the possible loss of their religious liberties from current and proposed developments within the UK and European Union.’ And so the language of persecution persists, but not at the hands of Rome but of an aggressive secularising state. While the secularised commemoration of Bonfire Night burgeons, a smaller, more specifically religious memory still attaches to the gaunt obelisk on the hill. The object remains, but its history is still being made.

A. S. Byatt’s ‘Grouper’

Among the several stereotypes of Anglican clergy in English fiction, there is one which appears relatively infrequently: that of the ‘Grouper’. Partly because of its lack of organisation, the Oxford Group movement has left relatively little trace in the self-understanding of the British churches, but for a time in the 1930s it seemed poised to disrupt and refresh British Christianity from its local roots.

The Reverend Gideon Farrar appears in A.S. Byatt’s Still Life (1985), the second part of the so-called ‘Frederica Quartet’. The novel is set in the mid-1950s, somewhat after the heyday of the Group, and though he is never identified directly with it, or indeed any larger organisation, the parallels are unmistakeable. Farrar’s gospel is one of relationship and mutual self-discovery, which has its intellectual roots in two soils: an understanding of Jesus that stressed his humanity at the expense of His divinity; and the findings of the ‘new sciences’ of psychology and sociology. Farrar’s curate at St Bartholomew’s, Daniel Orton, who distrusts much of it, sees that Farrar has an ‘almost anthropological vision of the source of morals in the life of the family’ (ch. 10).

A moorland hike. Image: bearpaw (Flickr.com), CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

His ministry starts with the ‘agape meal’ in which the rather reluctant parishioners of Blesford are to ‘discuss and discover’ each other. The Young People’s Group, which meets in the church hall for dancing, cider and earnest discussion, is much the same. The Grouper ‘house party’ is a weekend away in which the youth of the parish and others are to ‘experience each other’ as they walk briskly over the moors (ch. 17). In the evening, cosy and hot, the group sit and tell their life stories, an antidote to their English reserve and the repression of emotion that it is thought to entail. Farrar, while affecting to listen, in fact guides and shapes these stories into one larger archetypal narrative, of parental inadequacy, failure or absence; of damage that, once uncovered and owned, can be repaired in the wider ‘family’, the Church.

All these features of the Group – its emphasis on the personal, the spontaneous, the self-expressive; the influence of a kind of garbled depth psychology – all remained within the bounds of orthodoxy, and (as David Bebbington showed) anticipated much about the charismatic movement of the 1960s, and the related flirtation of the churches with the broader counter-culture. And Farrar appears briefly again in the third book in the quartet, Babel Tower (1996), now in the mid-1960s, as leader of the Children of Joy. The Children meet in large halls in London, and on country retreat weekends, where they ‘dance, sing, shout and encounter each other’s bodies in loving exploration, acting out infant joys and terrors, anger and tenderness, birth and death.’ (c.13) By now the distrust is widespread. But in the Blesford of the 1950s, Farrar’s religion seems to work: though the elderly members of the congregation are disorientated, the young are enthused, the sad held up, those ‘hungry for feeling’ fed (Still Life, ch.20).

The contrast between Farrar and his predecessor Mr Ellenby (who has his own post) is both theological and aesthetic. Ellenby represented the eternal givenness of the faith, and the awesome unknowable Father (ch.10). Now the sentimental Victorian crucifix is removed from the altar; Farrar’s religion is of the human Son as He dwelt among men. The heavy branching candlesticks make way for plain wooden ones; the closely embroidered altar cloth to ‘austere snowy linen’. All this recalls more than one artistically-orientated reordering of a church, as do the new vestments with ‘modern, abstract stitching’. In the vicarage, whole walls are gone, and new bright spaces opened up. It is emptied of its heavy useless things, the mahogany cabinets with glass fronts, the thick Turkish carpets; all is sleek, plain yet well-made, modern, European, young. Picasso, Miro and Chagall prints hang on the newly painted walls in lemon yellow and white (ch.10).

Where Byatt’s character parts company with the historical Group is in what Farrar does with his hold over his flock. There was certainly a kind of personality cult around Frank Buchman, the moving spirit of the Group, and a creeping authoritarianism under certain conditions. But Buchman’s appeal, rather like that of another American, Billy Graham, is exotic and foreign at a time when British culture was unusually susceptible to such things; Farrar’s is a similar handsome and clean charisma but transposed onto an unusual Englishman. Farrar is assertive, indeed intrusive, in his attempts to force an emotional intimacy with others which is not on offer. Stephanie, Daniel’s wife, who sees through Farrar sooner than most, recognised a combination of ‘personal conceit and intrusiveness’ which she had seen in other clergy (ch.10). But where in others it was a mask for shyness, for Farrar his directness is merely the outflow of a restless energy. He is a large man, ‘with a presence he enjoyed’; all is abundance, from his full beard flecked with gold, to his exuberant embraces as he gambols among his hikers on the moor (ch. 17). Daniel detects a compulsive need to both receive and give affection, warmth (ch .10).

Byatt shows us little of Farrar’s inner life, and so (though we are clearly invited to view him as culpable), it is not clear how calculated his manipulation of his young female flock is. But the picture that gradually unfolds – of late night ‘counselling’ in various states of undress, complaints from parents that their teenage girls are ‘interfered with’ – is an unsettling one, of which his wife is well aware. Though she is repelled by it, and by him, she nonetheless attributes it to his nature – to the inevitable inbuilt drives which the new psychology told her that no-one should be expected to regulate – and her own inadequacy in satisfying them (ch. 30). And in Babel Tower (ch. 18) we see the terms in which, after a decade of unregulated elaboration of his own myth, Farrar ends up justifying himself to his victims: ‘a horrible fantasy of sacrifice and communion’, created by Farrar’s exploitation of his own physical presence and clerical separateness. Real theological and social currents in the post-war English churches are eventually a means of sanctifying what Stephanie, the moral centre of the novel, knew immediately as a ‘crude version of the routine pass’.