Chris Green, Vice Principal of Oak Hill Theological College, has noted that among the 35 contributors to John Stott: a portrait by his friends, there is none from ‘the other side’ of the 1966 debate with Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones. ‘Perhaps,’ Green suggests, ‘some issues are still too raw.’
It seems extraordinary that such a situation should pertain nearly half a century after the event. I would like to revisit the momentous events of that 1996 debate and its consequences. I shall begin with the perspective of John Stott, primarily as presented by Timothy Dudley-Smith in the second volume of his biography.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones gave the opening address at the Second National Assembly of Evangelicals on 18th October 1966. He had been invited to speak on the subject of church unity. John Stott was chairman.
Although the general nature of what Lloyd-Jones had intended to say was known beforehand to Stott and to others, they were probably expecting it to take the form an analysis, rather than an appeal. But an appeal is what it was (it was later published with the title: ‘Evangelical Unity: An Appeal’).
What exactly Lloyd-Jones was appealing for is unclear. It seems that he was not, in fact, urging his hearers to ‘leave the major denominations and to form a united church’ (as one Christian periodical put it). At least some in the audience, however, took him to be encouraging immediate secession from the main denominations.
Sensing the urgent tone and perceived intention of Lloyd-Jones’s remarks, Stott felt obliged to make an impromptu response from the chair. Stott knew that in the audience were many who, like him, were Anglican clergy. Such was their regard for Lloyd-Jones that, as Stott himself later put it, they ‘were probably ready to go home and write their letter of resignation that very night. I hoped at least to restrain some hotheads from doing this.’
With feelings of ‘much nervousness and diffidence’, Stott said: ‘I hope no one will make a precipitate decision after this moving address.’ He added that the conference had been held in order to debate the issue of unity, and he was concerned lest Lloyd-Jones’ words should be taken to have foreclosed that debate.
The reaction to this public disagreement between two prominent evangelicals – one an Anglican and the other a Freechurchman – was strong and varied. Some thought that Lloyd-Jones ‘had gone off his rocker’, while others asked if Stott was ‘mad’.
A week or two later John Stott called on Lloyd-Jones and offered an apology. He did not apologise for what he had said, but for his misuse of the chair.
The meeting had been sponsored and organised by the Evangelical Alliance. Morgan Derham, the Secretary of the EA, later wrote that he had warned Stott that Lloyd-Jones might exceed his brief (which was to state his case, rather than to issue an appeal) and that if he did so Stott would be ‘well within his rights’ to challenge Lloyd-Jones. For Morgan Derham, the affair was ‘a tragedy for evangelicalism, based on…a monumental error by M.L.J.’
J.I. Packer was another evangelical leader whose subsequent ministry was profoundly affected by these events. Alister McGrath, in his biography of Packer, refers to the ‘broad division’ which opened up on the question of whether evangelicals could stay within the main denominations. Where there had previously been ‘friendly disagreement’ there was now ‘bitter dispute’. McGrath concludes: ‘it is no exaggeration to say that the “shadow of 1966” has lingered over English evangelicalism ever since.’
The consequence of that meeting in 1966 were indeed far-reaching. Lloyd-Jones found himself no longer at the centre of British evangelicalism, but near the periphery. J.I. Packer found himself (and other Anglicans) excluded from an annual conference which he himself had set up with Lloyd-Jones to explore Puritan and Reformed doctrine and practice.
It may seem slightly curious, however, that Stott himself did not view this as any kind of ‘defining moment’ in Anglican/Free Church relations. The National Evangelical Anglican Conference of the following year seems to have proved a bigger cause of division. But it cannot be denied that hurt remained (and remains) on both sides to this day. It is probably fair to say that the events of 1966 formed a part of a wider set of tensions in evangelical relations that led to increasing polarisation and to the creation of bodies such as the British Evangelical Council, which distances itself from ‘pluralist ecumenical bodies’ such as denominations linked to the World Council of Churches.
John Stott remained convinced that he could remain both a conscientious evangelical and a member of the Church of England. He observed that the leaders of the Church of England wanted the evangelicals to remain, and he himself would only contemplate secession ‘if the official doctrine of the Church of England denied the Gospel as I have been given to understand it in any fundamental particular.’