Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Book Review: John Charles Ryle 1816-1900

JC Ryle has gone down in history as the first Protestant (Anglican) Bishop of Liverpool, a leading evangelical churchman, and a prolific writer of books and tracts. It's probably no surprise that his books feature on my shelves, both his commentaries and his devotional, doctrinal works, but I couldn't have told you that much about him. That malady has now been corrected through this little biographical book by Marcus Loane, the former Archbishop of Sydney.

Even before you get to the stuff about JC Ryle, this book is worth getting and reading. Loane begins by presenting an introduction to Evangelical belief and continuity focusing on the fact that evangelical faith is not novel or new, neither during the Evangelical Awakenings nor the Reformation, but rather: 'Our faith... can be traced back through all the ages of its primitive origin in the revelation of the Gospel of the Lord Christ himself.' (p. 12) Alongside this continuity, Loane demonstrates the 'fact that our faith draws its strength from recognised scholarship: it is nothing if not reasonable in its approach to the New Testament.' (p. 14) The third element of Evangelical faith is that 'our faith proves its worth in personal devotion: it is nothing if not spiritual in its response to the New Testament' - a devotion which bears fruit in self-giving and service. These are the qualities which are seen in the life of JC Ryle, which the rest of the biography displays.

Having been educated at Eton and Oxford, where he was cricket captain, and where he learnt important lessons in leadership, Ryle was converted at the age of 21, on hearing Ephesians 2:8-9 being read aloud in his parish church. He was wonderfully converted, yet it was not universally welcomed: 'But the great change in his life was hardly welcome at home. It led to an awkwardness and a sense of estrangement in his own family; it drove a wedge between him and old friends.' (p. 35)

He's not the first, nor even the last to experience such frustration and disappointment, and yet his story is an encouragement for the rest of us. 'In calm retrospect he came to see how God was fitting him for after work in a way he did not know.' (p. 36) Isn't that often the case - our difficult experiences are paving the way for what will later come.

In Ryle's case, it was his father's sudden bankruptcy, going from wealthy banker, silk trader and MP to being left with nothing, virtually overnight, that directed Ryle towards his place in the world, not in the family business, but in the Father's business: 'But there can be no doubt that God used this calamity to turn his heart towards his true life work, for the thought of ordination had not even crossed his mind as long as his hope for a political career had been practicable.' (p. 38)

Being ordained in 1841 at the age of 25, he became Curate of Fawley with responsibility for the Chapel of Ease at Exbury. In a remarkable ministry, he was in every home in the parish every month - something the recent Church of Ireland Gazette letter-writers would be most impressed with! However, such a course of action may have been his downfall, and within two years he had moved to Winchester as incumbent because 'his own health broke down at the end of two years.' (p. 40) Just six months later, he was on the move again, to a better living, that of Helmingham in Suffolk.

It was here that disaster struck for poor Ryle, being quickly widowed twice, with five children between the ages of two and fourteen. Yet even then, 'his faith did not falter; it taught him to echo the words of the Psalmist: "As for God, His way is perfect."' (p. 48).

His next parish was that of Stradbroke, and it was here that he came to national prominence, as a preacher and tract writer. Seeking to promote and maintain the true religion of the 39 Articles in the face of the rise of the Tractarians (the Oxford Movement / Anglo-Catholics), he wrote several more books including Knots Untied, and Old Paths.

Having been appointed as Dean of Salisbury, he never took up his place, instead being appointed as the first bishop of the new diocese of Liverpool by the Prime Minister of the time, Disraeli.

Having mentioned his books, perhaps the most famous of them all were his series of Devotional Thoughts on the Gospels - a useful running commentary on the scriptures, three of which were written in his incumbency in Helmingham (and the fourth in Stradbroke). If I'm to write, perhaps it'll be during my time here?

All in all, this was a good little book to read. It provided an account of a faithful minister's struggles and triumphs, and encourages other ministers to remain faithful and to give all they have in the cause of the gospel, for the glory of Jesus.

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