In late July 2011, the church lost a great statesman, and A Rocha lost a great friend. News of John Stott’s death reached us just as we were setting off for Strumble Head in Pembrokeshire to watch seabirds, walk the cliffs and scan the skies for Peregrines. John’s beloved cottage, The Hookses, lay just a few miles to the south. Fitting, somehow.
Six months later, I joined several hundred others in St Paul’s Cathedral to honour this remarkable man and celebrate his life. As tribute followed tribute from representatives of the global church, the huge crowd was hushed. His extensive teaching and preaching, and the impact of his fifty and more books on millions of readers around the world, have had unimaginable influence on countless lives, but what struck me, as one person after another came forward and spoke simply from the heart about John, was that this was not a celebrity occasion for grieving fans, but rather a gathering of his friends. ‘He knew our names and our children’s names,’ said one African bishop, ‘he called us by our names.’
John loved A Rocha. More than once he said wistfully, ‘If I were two or three decades younger, I’d be doing this with you!’ Instead, he gave us his unwavering support from A Rocha’s inception in 1983 until his death. As a biblical scholar he was fully persuaded of the intrinsic value of creation and the Christian responsibility to care for it. As an avid birdwatcher, he was quick to understand our vision for a Christian Field Study Centre and Bird Observatory as a response to the Creator and an expression of mission, but he made it clear that he would only lend his name to our bright idea if his involvement was active and practical.
Making this point in reply to Peter’s invitation to join the Council of Reference in a letter dated December 1982, he added ‘Perhaps also I should insist on your inviting me to visit the field study centre and bird observatory in Portugal at the earliest possible moment!!’ True to his word, he arrived on our Portuguese doorstep shortly after negotiations began for the purchase of Cruzinha. No centre to visit yet, but he got to know our children, developing a particularly competitive relationship with our four-year-old son who had a broken arm. For the next 25 years, no visit to John ended without a genuine enquiry about his well-being, and a brief prayer for his blessing. The bishop was right.
Everyone needs a role model. The apostle Paul invited the Corinthian believers to imitate him, to copy what they saw him do and heard him say. We used to say to our kids, ‘Don’t do what I do, do what I say!’ But John was different; here was someone with a brilliant theological mind, a towering intellect, a highly disciplined devotional life (how many of us get up at 5.00 am to study the Bible whatever time zone we are in?), a practical commitment to the poor, and to the transformation of society through the power of the Gospel, a global ministry − AND a passion for birdwatching in particular and creation care in general, offering to throw in his lot with these crazy Christian birders, who most people assumed had well and truly lost the plot. What better role model could we have hoped for?
So over the next few months I’ll be looking at A Rocha’s five core commitments, the famous ‘5 C’s’, as lived by John. His life revealed what he believed. All lives do. DL Moody, the American evangelist, used to say that in a group of a hundred people, one might read the Bible − the rest will be reading the Christians. I wonder what people are reading in the lives of this growing global family of Christian conservationists?