Saturday, November 28, 2009

Bishop Stephen Neill: Missionary, Theologian, New Testament Scholar

I have an interesting tale about Bishop Stephen Neill, one of the great Anglican Bishops of the last century. Thirty some years ago, I was an  exchange student in Oxford, England. Often, I would spend afternoons wandering around the ancient city, poking my nose in the different colleges, trying to soak up the history of the place. If you've been there, you'll know what I mean as Oxford is unlike any other English city! One afternoon, I stumbled into Wycliffe Hall, the theological college where Bishop Neill was a "senior scholar". One student whispered to me "Come back later, there's a sherry party, and you can meet Bishop Neill!" At that time, I knew Neill had written the definitive book on the history of the Anglican church, Anglicanism (1958), which Anglican clergy used to revere. And when travelling, and low on money, whoever turns down the opportunity to meet a person like Neill and have free sherry and food? I moved on to the next Oxford college, snooped around, returned a few hours later, grabbed some sherry, and had the opportunity to meet the famous Bishop. I don't remember much from our conversation, but I do recall the Bishop being friendly, polite, and interested in what part of America I was from.

Since that sunny afternoon day in 1977, I have come to meet Stephen Neill again and again through his many books. And Neill rarely disappoints. Each time, I read Neill's books, there is almost always something new that I learn. Neill died in 1984, twenty five years ago, yet his writing style and themes are still fresh. Neill is one of the few writers, whose footnotes are  as interesting as his main body of work. As it stands, Bishop Stephen Neill, was one of the towering intellects of the last century. He wrote over sixty books, including some classics in church history, the interpretation of the New Testament, and mission and interfaith relations. It's been stated he could speak 15 different languages. Most importantly to our discussion on Celtic Christianity, Neill, whose family originally came from Northern Ireland, was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on the last day of the Nineteenth Century. Perhaps due to these roots, Neill writes with great affection about the Celtic Church. In A History of Christian Missions (1964), Neill reflects on the early leadership of the Celtic Church:

"We have already mentioned the missionary zeal which sprang from Irish monasticism. The most notable figure of our period is St. Columba, the apostle of Scotland. Born about A.D. 521 of a noble Irish family, Columba had already founded the two monasteries of Durrow in King's County, and Londonderry, when in 563 he decided to cross the narrow seas with twelve companions and to found a new monastery on the island called Hy or Iona. The purpose of this foundation was evangelistic; the Gospel was to be preached to the still heathen Picts...Columba left behind him a tradition of real and simple sanctity. It is written of him that "in the midst of all his cares he showed himself open and friendly to everyone; he bore the joy of the Holy Spirit in the inmost places of his heart".

Neill then turns his attention to another great Celtic leader, Aidan: "After an unsucessful start, Aidan was sent to pull things together, and was given a dwelling at Lindisfarne. Aidan brought with him the gentleness that we have noted in Columba, and also the ascetic traditions of Irish monasticism; it is recorded that he made his journeys on foot after the manner of the peregrini, the wanderers for the sake of Christ".

I don't want to belabor a point mentioned by many others, but what stands out for me in this passage, is that the Celtic church made an impact on the culture because of an "approachable" spirituality which was marked by gentleness, simplicity and charity, especially to the poorest. Morevoer, Neill says in his own way, that the Celts were counter-cultural, as they were "wanderers" who would go from place to place. In other words, the Celts challanged the places where most people at that time put their security and identity; the land, family, tribe, and country. They lived a different kind of lifesytle than the dominant culture, marked by a love of God and dedication to one another. I would recommend that we need to do the same.

About a year ago, I had a chance to read more about Neill's life in Mission Legacies (1994) as Neill was also a great missionary, who spent over twenty years in South India. I also was glad to see a definitive work, Bishop Stephen Neill: From Edinburgh to South India, (2008) by Dyron Daughrity. In both I discovered that Neill suffered from  serious mental illness for much of his life, having long bouts with depression, insomnia, and suicidal ideation. This gave me a renewed respect and admiration for Stephen Neill as a person. That Neill  was able to courageously carry on in his work, continue writing, and lecturing, is quite simply amazing.  He was heroic in every sense of that term, and an inspiration.

Let me also close this entry with another story about Stephen Neill. Last year I noticed a portrait of Stephen Neill on an American artist's website, George Buchanan, which can be viewed here. I sent the George an email, asking him about this, and we later talked on the phone. The story goes like this. Shortly before Neill died, he had been invited to Duke Univeristy to give some lectures. Someone commissioned to have Neill's portriat done, and the painting above was the result. Moreover, what is even more interesting, is that while Neill was sitting to have the portrait done, the conversations turned to spiritual things. The artist told me, that the conversation was a spiritual turning point in his life.  Typical Neill, a missonary to the end! That's a great story, one in keeping with Neill's life, and one our Celtic forefathers would have been proud of. Sharing the gospel in any situation. We would do well to practice that simple model in our world today.


  1. Hello, What do we know about the church in England that existed before and after the Catholic church came there with Augustine of Canterbury? Is there a book that talks about how the church in England was there before and after and what it was like? Thanks, Joel

  2. Joel, a great place to start is the Penguin History of the Church which provides a wonderful overview of the English Church and European as well. Though abit old, the bibliography will connect you with many other useful books and references.

    1. Thanks for this wonderful information Andrew.
      If I'd had any idea about the achievements of the man I was was commissioned to paint, I probably would have respected his wishes, not to painted. He said that "he didn't wish to be idolized in any way"
      But, I was insistent and told him that all he had to do was sit down for a few minutes. Of course those few minutes turned into hours, but he was very patient with me and engaged in the painting process.

      I so wish that I had recorded our conversations. At that point in my life I was very well prepared to question the ideas of organized religion. He met my arrogance and doubts with patience, charm and an unquestionable and convincing spiritual connection with life's greatest of mysteries. I can say that after I finished the painting, I was changed considerably and felt very fortunate to have met Bishop Neill.
      George Buchanan