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 Issues | Church History | John Charles Ryle

Biography of J.C.Ryle
Chapter 5 by M Guthrie Clark
His Reek Did Infect All It Blew Upon

<<Chapter 4

John Wycliffe had a valiant successor in Scotland who did a very similar work. He bore the honoured name of Patrick Hamilton. He was the first of the Covenanters to suffer martyrdom, being burnt at the stake in 1528 at the early age of twenty-four. His influence was contagious and it is graphically stated in the words which I have put down as the title of this chapter. Exactly the same thing might be said about John Charles Ryle. One writer goes so far as to assert that “his virile personality dominated two generations of Evangelicals and set its ineradicable mark upon a third generation”. I propose now to consider his character from several sides and to estimate his influence.

1. Pastor.

Ryle's work as a Shepherd of the Flock is a striking commentary on the adage of Thomas Chalmers, “a house-going minister makes a church-going people.” During the two years of his curacy at Exbury in the New Forest, he went in and out of the cottage homes of his people with a systematic diligence that was exemplary. One witness says that he acquired an entire pastoral knowledge of every man, woman and child under his charge. The same thing happened at Winchester, where he filled his church to suffocation and turned things upside down. At Helmingham and Stradbroke visiting was the main piece of parochial machinery. Our time to-day is taken up with other things, but we arc not getting the results in the same way.

In his paper entitled “Can the Church reach the Masses?” he writes on this subject. “Give him - the working man -a clergyman who will not only preach Christ in the pulpit, but come and sit down in his house, and take him by the hand in a Christ-like familiar way during the week.” That was what Ryle did, and like Richard Baxter before him, of whom he writes so appreciatively, he met with astonishing success.

Since the Oxford Movement, the emphasis has been upon the co-called “priestly” character of the minister, the office of pastor having dropped into the background. The disastrous results are apparent to all; a reaction in the right direction is long overdue.

2. Bishop.

When Ryle went to Liverpool as its first Bishop in 1880, he was, as he said, a committed man. “I come among you as a Protestant and Evangelical Bishop of the Church of England, but I do not come among you as the Bishop of any one particular party!” He certainly was no party-man. The only limits he imposed were the Creed, the Articles, and the Book of Common Prayer; he recognized the historical schools: High, Broad, Low. But men who wanted to have “the Mass at every Parish Communion Table and the Confessional in every Church and sacrificial garments on every clerical back,” got no quarter. One cannot help reflecting that if we had had more Ryles on the Bench, we should not see what we mourn to see to-day.

What he wrote of Latimer in his Bishops and Clergy of Other Days is every bit true of himself. “Promotion did not spoil him. The mitre did not prove an extinguishing of his zeal for the Gospel. He was always faithful, always simple-minded, always about his Father's business, always looking to do good to souls.”

Men who were ordained by him never fail to mention the annual social function when he welcomed at St. Barnabas's Mission all those upon whom he had laid his hands in Ordination. It was always a time of rich fellowship and spiritual inspiration.

3. Missionary Enthusiast.

As one might imagine, he gave his wholehearted support to evangelistic work both at home and abroad. He preached the annual sermon of C.P.AS. in 1882 and was the C.M.S. preacher at St. Bride's in 1862.

On the earlier occasion, his subject was “Paul at Athens” and his heads were : (I) What Paul saw; (2) What Paul felt; (3) What Paul did. The sermon is included in his well-known volume, The Upper Room. Eugene Stock's shrewd comment is, “It is needless to say how easy the application was to broad views that were beginning to become fashionable.” (History of CMS Vol 2 p 342)

In the course of the Sermon, he says, “So long as the Bible is the Bible . . . it is a solemn duty to feel for the souls of the heathen. We ought to have compassion when we think of the wretched state of unconverted souls . . . who live and die without Christ. No poverty like this! No disease like this disease ! No slavery like this slavery! No death like this death in idolatry, irreligion and sin.”

4. Administrator.

Ryle's administration of his freshly-formed diocese was one of steady progress and considerable success. We have seen how quickly he decided to leave to his successor the building of the Cathedral. His supreme aim was to go after the people and win them for Christ; to this end he multiplied lay agents who could get into the homes of the people.

“The humblest cottage meeting, where Christ is preached, and the Scriptures honoured, and a few real believers are assembled, is more pleasing in His sight than the grandest Cathedral in which the Gospel is never heard and no work of the Spirit ever goes on.”

He increased the number of Incumbents from 170 to 206, and the number of curates from 120 to 250. In 1887 there were 45 Scripture Readers and 31 Bible women at work, compared with 2 or 5 when he began his work in 1880.

Mention must be made of his sustentation and Pension Funds. Ryle was an English pioneer in this field and acknowledged his debt to Chalmers in Scotland. The minimum for each Incumbent was to be £300 per annum, which was good for those days.

A careful study of his Charges shows that on many ecclesiastical points he was in favour of Reform. The Courts, the Canons and Convocation all passed under his survey. With regard to the latter, he made four points:
1. Amalgamation, i.e. of the two Provinces.
2. Expansion, i.e. more elected members of the working clergy.
3. Reduction, i.e. of the official members.
4. Inclusion, i.e. of the laity.

And yet he never allowed himself to devote too much time and energy to these things. In this connexion, I cannot avoid a reference to a Meeting of Bishops, in one of Ryle's letters, where it is stated that a conclusion was reached which was “weak, evasive and impotent”. And the letter continues, “I came away vexed and annoyed, and I am not at all disposed to go up again to London for one night for such a waste of time.” Each reader must decide whether he shares or deplores these views, whether he considers it a strong or a weak point in Ryle's character. Whatever may be said, Ryle's reaction was, as usual, neither “weak, evasive or impotent”.

In view of the possibility of a revision of the Canons at the present time, it may be of interest to ponder Ryle's careful statement. “We want a new set of Canons for the regulation of all the proceedings of the Church of England. Those that we have at present are many of them practically useless, and little more than curious fossils, rendered needless by alterations of law.” Those who hold Ryle's convictions will have nothing to fear if the Canons are altered in the direction of those contained in the Irish Prayer Book.

5. Student.

It is often forgotten that Ryle was a most diligent student. He had a large library to which he made reference when moving to Abercromby Square. “Mine is a large and important Library of Protestant Theology and whether it will be necessary to convert the stables, for which I have no further use, into a Library, I do not know.”

The Puritans were his favourites. Again and again we find him quoting Manton, Owen, Goodwin and the rest. Without any doubt these men moulded his style and helped to put strength into his convictions.

Then, too, he read the sixteenth-century and eighteenth-century Reformers. His Christian Leaders, where he writes of eighteenth-century worthies, shows us a man quite at home among the writings of Berridge, Harvey, Fletcher and the others. “I confess I am a thorough enthusiast about them,” he declared.

A perusal of his Expository Thoughts on St. John makes it quite clear that he had read all the commentaries, both ancient and modern, on the Fourth Gospel.

Ryle read in fields that are now much neglected, but one wonders whether we are not the poorer to-day.

6. Churchman.

“In the matter of true and real attachment to the Church of England, I will not give place by subjection to those who are High Churchmen for one moment. Have they signed the 39 Articles, ex animo and bona fide? So have I! Have they declared their full assent to the Liturgy and all things contained in it? So have I! Have they promised obedience to Bishops? So have I! Do they honour the Sacraments? So do I! Do they urge on their congregations the privilege of the Church of England ? So do I!” Thus he writes in Knots Untied, and makes his position clear.

And yet he was no narrow sectarian. He never excommunicated other Communions. He recognized ordained men of other Churches as valid Ministers of Jesus Christ. “I loathe the idea of handing over the communions to which such men as Matthew Henry . . . Robert Hall . . . R. M. McCheyne belonged, to the uncovenanted mercies of God.” His relations with Non-conformists were so cordial that when the Wesleyan Conference visited Liverpool, he entertained the President and other eminent leaders at the Palace. He was always urging the importance of being slow to leave the Established Church. “You will only change one sort of evil for another,” he would say, “and you will find that the chimney smokes in Chapel as well as in Church.” It is cheering to remember how prominent a part Ryle took in the earliest Church Congresses. He made his name there. He never hesitated to enunciate those Evangelical principles which we find in all his books. Perhaps he has a message for us on this score to-day, for many Evangelicals hold themselves aloof from many Conferences of this kind, with the result that much which ought to be opposed goes by the board.

7. Prophet.

By this title, I am not referring to his proclamation of Christ's Second Coming, though he believed and preached this most faithfully. “He alone is the true Christian,” he writes in his tract on the subject, “who is always ready to meet his Lord. The precise period, the year, the month, the day, the hour of Christ's Second Coming arc all hidden things.” No, I am not thinking of this subject, but rather I am using the term as indicating one who read the signs of the times and spoke accordingly.” My brethren, we are drifting, drifting, drifting, and what the end will be, no man can tell. There is handwriting on the wall.”

Two points stand out above the others.

(a) The introduction of Romish doctrines. Let one reference suffice; it has to do with the administering of the Lord's Supper. “If a clergyman chooses to wear peculiar dress, as if he were offering a material sacrifice . . . if he consecrates the elements with such gestures and postures that he appears to ordinary minds to be doing a sacrificial action . . . if he treats the consecrated elements with such exaggerated reverence that he appears to believe there is an actual change in the elements . . . in such a case I hold firmly that he exceeds the just and reasonable limits of toleration in the pale of the Church of England.”

(b) The advance of Rome. He had very grave fears on this subject. Listen to his recital of possibilities. “I am no prophet . . . but at the rate we are going, I think it quite within the verge of possibility that in a few years the Church of England may be reunited to the Church of Rome. . . . The Crown of England may be once more on the head of a Papist. . . . Mass may be said once more at Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's.”

What would Ryle do if he lived to-day and knew that there were over 1,000 Clergymen in the Church of England who have subscribed to the tenets of the Council of Trent? This chapter is long enough already, but I cannot refrain from a summing up which I shall give in the words of one of Ryle's clergy, Canon Richard Hobson, at the Memorial Service in the pro-Cathedral.

“A great man has just now fallen in Israel in the decease of the dear Bishop. Yes, he was great through the abounding grace of God. He was great in stature ; great in mental power; great in spirituality; great as a preacher and expositor of God's most Holy Word; great in hospitality; great in winning souls to God ; great as a writer of Gospel tracts; great as an author of works which will live long; great as a Bishop of the Reformed Evangelical Protestant Church of England of which he was a noble defender; great as first Bishop of Liverpool.”

 

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J.C.Ryle
BulletIntroduction to Ryle

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BulletChapter 2
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