Sister Mary Michael CHC on some lessons from John Charles Ryle (1816-1900), the first Bishop of Liverpool, who taught the importance of working together for the sake of evangelism, in spite of internal disagreements

Staunch Evangelical though he was to the end, J.C. Ryle came at last to see that the continued wellbe-ing of his beloved CofE, as the Established Church of the land, mattered more than trying to oust ritualism and High Church doctrine. Despite inconsistencies along the way, his final stance could be described as: live and let live while getting on with the real job of mission. Have we something to learn here?

Ryle was in fact an ecumenist ahead of his time, seeing the need for courteous relations and dialogue not only between the denominations but actually within his own church. There was a perpetual threat of attrition in the late nineteenth-century CofE, with believers opting for Nonconformity or Rome because of the acute divisions within the established Church. But Ryle pointed out that there are always disagreements in any family. Many of the issues involved were only secondary, in Ryle’s estimation. Such minor differences should be tolerated: facing east, wearing a surplice, daily services, etc.

In the spirit of a Cardinal Mercier, or an Abbe Paul Couturier, he urged ‘the great duty of promoting brotherly kindness and avoiding quarrels’. The way to achieve this was to meet up with one another since the opposing parties were living in mutual ignorance of each others viewpoints. As Ryle put it in one of his many pamphlets, ‘I often think they [the High Churchmen] know no more about us [Evangelicals] than a native of Timbuktoo knows about skating and ice cream.’

Much could be achieved, he felt, through the reading of one another’s writings, but nothing could replace actually meeting face to face, especially where prominent churchmen are concerned. They should set aside all else and have only the Bible and Prayer Book with them as they conferred. Ryle was asking for greater mutual trust, with the recognition that both parties were actually on the same side. Do we see it like this now?

Limits of inclusion

Though Bishop Ryle did not believe the parish system to be sacrosanct, he did recognize that the right man had to be found for each local church. Then every incumbent should get on with his job according to his way of doing things, his churchmanship. The clergy were not merely administrators or self-styled social workers however. Two things alone mattered for Ryle: preaching the Gospel and visiting. Old-fashioned? Hardly. As vital now as then, surely.

Ryle admitted that he could not square the circle. How far could extremists go without excommunicating themselves, and any way, who had the ultimate authority in the CofE to exclude them? In response, he urged Ritualists to show restraint and be content with what they had achieved. Meanwhile Evangelicals should stay where they were, but should not be obliged to accept what went against their consciences. Are such attitudes still viable in our current situation or have we reached the parting of the ways?

At all events both sides were encouraged to show ‘charity, consideration and kindness of language in communication towards each other. If they had to differ, Ryle proposed that they should ‘agree to differ pleasantly’. After all, neither side actually had a monopoly of the truth, and so they should agree to work together and share insights. It was not that doctrine was unimportant; rather evangelism was vital and must be carried on despite internal disagreements. Such remains our plea today.

A new evangelization

The burning need to preach the Gospel led Ryle to advocate an additional kind of ministry. Where an incumbent had grown stale and disillusioned, an evangelist, under the bishop’s authority, should be brought in to remedy things. Moreover, the laity were not to sit back idle. Ryle was adamant that they should have a part to play in all aspects of church life, except in those things proper only to the ordained ministry.

He had strong words to say about this: Above all let every parochial incumbent make a point of teaching every communicant that he is an integral part of the Church of England, and is bound to do all that he can for its welfare. On this point, I grieve to say, the Methodists and Dissenters beat Churchmen hollow. With them every new member is a new home missionary. Never will things go well with the Church of England until every individual member realises that he is ‘part of the concern’.’

And women were not excluded here. Ryle instituted what he termed ‘Bible Women’. They were sent into some of the worst of the Liverpool slums where men could not go, to preach the faith as much by their works of mercy as by their teaching and example. There are obvious similarities here with the work done by the early sisterhoods of the Catholic Revival.

Ryle’s desire for lay involvement anticipated later developments. He wanted lay representation in Convocation and in the Bishops’ Councils, which he felt should be set up. However, he was hampered by the ever-present reluctance of the church to change its ways. As he amusingly puts it: ‘Like some fossilised country squire who lives twenty miles from a railway and never visits London, the poor dear old Church of England must still travel in the old family coach, shoot with the old flint-locked, single-barrel gun, and wear the old jack-boots and long pigtail’

Looking to ourselves

So what would Ryle think of us today? He was deeply apprehensive in his earlier years about ‘ritualism’, even seeing its continuing growth as a sign of the coming of the End Times. He was not averse to satirizing it as mere ostentation and an insincere holiness: ‘This holiness was a delusion, which satisfied only silly young women, brainless young men and Italian bandits. ‘Real’ holiness consists of a tender conscience based on the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount, and the last half of all of Paul’s epistles.’

How do we measure up to this now, whether as Catholic or Evangelical Anglicans? We can only expect to retain an honoured place in our much-loved CofE if our aspiration to holiness is totally without guile or humbug and our genuine love for one another at least aspires to the standards of 1 Corinthians 13.