Great Churchmen (No 4)
Chapter 1 by M Guthrie Clark
“Yon mon’s na Bishop; I can understand every word!” Such was the exclamation of a working man who heard Bishop Ryle speaking in Liverpool soon after his Consecration. Evidently in the judgement of the speaker, Ryle was no ordinary man, and he was right, though perhaps the inference attaching to the remark is too sweeping a generalization. Anyway, this spontaneous testimony is a good starting-point for this chapter in which I want to trace the course of a truly remarkable man, from his birth on May 10th 1816, to his home-call on June 10th 1900, a period of eighty-four years.
John Charles Ryle was the eldest son of John Ryle of Macclesfield, a prosperous banker, whose father had been an intimate friend and supporter of John Wesley. There seems to be little doubt that it was his father's wish that he should succeed him as M.P. for Macclesfield, and it appears that Ryle fell in wholeheartedly with this design. We are not surprised, therefore, to find him first at Eton and then at Oxford.
At both places, he distinguished himself in his studies as well as at sport. From Eton he got a Fell Exhibition to Christ Church, an honour connected with the illustrious name of Dr. Fell, a former Head of the “House”:
I do not love thee, Dr. Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell ;
But this alone I know full well,
I do not love thee, Dr. Fell.
In spite of his devotion to sport, he was elected a Craven Scholar in 1837 and the following year took a First in Literae; Humaniores, commonly called “Greats”, his name being coupled with Highton and Stanley (later Dean of Westminster) in a class quite by themselves.
He was an outstanding cricketer, being Captain of his School XI and subsequently skipper of the University team, besides rowing in the Oxford boat against the Light Blues. In the 'Varsity Match of 1836, he took ten Cambridge wickets. His experience in this direction stood him in good stead, as he states unhesitatingly in his Fragment of Autobiography. “I believe it gave me a power of commanding, managing, organizing and directing . . . bearing, forbearing and keeping men around me in good temper, which I have found of infinite use on hundreds of occasions in life, though
in very different matters.”
Many thought that he would accept the offers of Fellowships which came his way, but he was too much a man of affairs for a student's life and accordingly he returned to Cheshire. Between the autumn of 1838 and early 1841 we find him reading Law, assisting in his father's bank, acting as a County Magistrate and training in the Yeomanry. Then the crash came-the financial crisis of 1841, when his father's banks stopped payment and the banker himself was completely ruined.
More must be said about this in the next Chapter, because it forms a most important milestone in Ryle's career ; but at this point suffice it to say that as a result of this experience, he turned his thoughts to the Ministry.
He was ordained the same year by Bishop Sumner to the Curacy of Exbury in the New Forest, where he worked so hard among a neglected population that his health broke down. After two years there, he was appointed Rector of St. Thornas's, Winchester; but although he filled the Church to suffocation, he did not stay long, and small wonder, for the stipend was a bare £100 a year. In 1844 the Lord Chancellor offered him the living of Helmingham in Suffolk. This was a great surprise to a young man of twenty-eight, and he remained in that Parish for seventeen years. Most of his Tracts were written there, one of the first of which, “I have somewhat to say to thee,” being his initial message in his new parish.
In 1861 the Bishop of Norwich presented him to the Vicarage of Stradbroke, where he stayed till be was nominated Dean of Salisbury and then appointed Bishop of Liverpool in 1880. Twenty years ago he was still vividly remembered in this parish. One reminiscence is associated with the coachman who often drove the Vicar to Harleston, eight miles distant from Stradbroke, where the nearest station was. On one occasion when leaving to fulfil a preaching engagement, he was pressed for time. “Garnham, we shall lose the train!” he shouted to the driver of his carriage. “I can't go faster, Sir, unless the horses gallop!” “Then make them gallop!” roared the Vicar, as only he could, and as the horses dashed through the streets, folk would run to their doors to see the sight, and then soliloquize in the hush that followed, “Old Ryle late again.”
His nomination as Dean of Salisbury never materialized because before he could be installed, he was called to be Bishop of the new diocese of Liverpool. He held this position for twenty years, during which time he became (as was said of another) “the most hated and best loved man in the place”; hated by worldlings and loved by the children of God.
Let one who loved him pay his tribute. Canon Richard Hobson, who preached the Funeral Sermon in Liverpool pro-Cathedral on June 17th 1900, said, “I am bold to say that perhaps few men in the nineteenth century did so much for God, for truth and for righteousness, among the English speaking race, and in the world, as our late Bishop.” During the first half of his Episcopate, the Palace was graced by the presence of his third wife, who died in 1889.
In 1845 he married Matilda Plumptree, who did not long survive the birth of her daughter. Nearly two years later his second wife, Jessy Walker, came to Helmingham Rectory, where his four children were horn. The best known of Bishop Ryle's children was his second son, Herbert Edward, who was successively Bishop of Exeter and Bishop of Winchester. One of Ryle's favourite hymns was that written by Mrs. A. R. Cousin, “The Sands of time are sinking,” and we cannot do better than close this brief survey of his life with lines which summarize his experiences.
With mercy and with judgement
My web of time He wove,
And aye the dews of sorrow
Were lustred by His love ;
I'll bless the hand that guided,
I'll bless the heart that planned
When throned where glory dwelleth
In Immanuel's Land.
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