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Picture of JC Ryle's biography cover

Wait not for the bishops!

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Posted by Andrew Atherstone, 13 Apr 2018

Andrew Atherstone, editor of J. C. Ryle's autobiography, explains how even such a staunch evangelical as Ryle was subject to the constraints of his office. And so, he argues, we should not expect reform of the Church of England to come from its leadership, but from its pulpits and its pews.

Ask evangelical congregations and clergy about our Anglican bishops, and often the response is a mixture of bewilderment, frustration and despondency, with only a few bright lights amidst the gloom. There is a groundswell of disenchantment with the episcopal project. Our bishops are not benefiting the church in the way that they should.

This evangelical angst is nothing new. It was vocalized often by John Charles Ryle, the famous Victorian tract-writer, vicar of Stradbroke in Norwich diocese. His writings resound with criticism of the episcopal bench. Often he contrasted modern bishops with the great leaders of Anglican history. Why is it, he complained, that the bishops of today are so feeble, compared with the giants of a previous age? When the modern Bishop of Gloucester made some foolish pronouncement, Ryle would say: Let me tell you about another Bishop of Gloucester, John Hooper, champion of the Reformation. Or when the Bishop of Salisbury wrote something egregious in the press, Ryle would reply: Let me tell you about another Bishop of Salisbury, John Jewell, episcopal hero of Elizabethan England. Why don’t they make bishops like they used to?, was Ryle’s general refrain.

But he didn’t just criticize particular individuals; he was frustrated with the whole Anglican episcopate as a body. Writing to the church press in 1866, Ryle declared:

But all the Bishops seem hampered and embarrassed by their position. All seem to be weighed down by the difficulty of being chief pastors in a comprehensive Church, and by the fear of being thought “party” men. And nearly all, I must honestly say, seem to forget that the Church of England is eminently a Protestant Church, and that, if there is anything which they are specially bound to check and discountenance in their dioceses, that thing is Popery. Thankful indeed should I be if the Bench of Bishops would rise to the present emergency and come forward boldly to maintain Protestant truth. But my hopes in this quarter, I must confess, are beginning to be very small. … We must not wait for Bishops: at best their practice is to follow movements, and not to initiate them.

He quoted the final words of the martyred William Tyndale, garrotted at the stake in 1536, “Lord, open the eyes of the King of England”, but Ryle added: “I venture to suggest another prayer as very needful for these times: ‘Lord, open the eyes of many of the bishops of the Church of England.’” The major theological battleground in the Victorian era was ritualism or “popery”, undermining the Reformed foundations of the Church of England. Simply substitute any modern heresy from today, and his complaint at bishops is remarkably contemporary.

The same strength of feeling is evident in Ryle’s platform addresses. Lecturing to the Church Association (the forerunner of Church Society) in 1867 on “Why were our Reformers burnt?”, he observed:

The Bishops are a house divided against itself, and seem at present unable to find their hands. They either rebuke mildly as individuals like Eli, saying, “It is no good report I hear” [1 Samuel 2:24]; or else decree collectively an edict as vague as that of Ahasuerus, that every man should “bear rule in his own house” [Esther 1:22], and every bishop does what he likes in his own diocese. And all this time Ritualism grows and spreads.

Again, substitute for “Ritualism” any contemporary heresy troubling the church, and the parallels with our situation today are very striking. In 1868, Ryle lectured on Bishop Hooper of Gloucester, “a splendid pattern of what an English Protestant Bishop should be”. A major part of his application concerned the modern episcopate:

I deeply regret that English bishops in these modern times do not speak out more frequently in the style and manner of Bishop Hooper. I know their many difficulties, and feel for them. But I heartily wish they would understand what good they might do to the Church, and to their own order, if they would take a leaf out of Hooper’s book, and give as certain a sound as he did. We are astounded at the Rome-like charge of one Prelate. We are disgusted with the judicious silence of another. We are sick to death of the well-balanced statements of others. We are tired of being told, with masterly cleverness and fascinating rhetoric, that all parties are a little to blame, and all are a little to be praised; that every body is a little bit right, and every body a little but wrong! In a word, we are wearied at finding that the bulk of modern English Bishops are honorary members of all schools of opinion. Oh, for a few more Bishop Hoopers on our Bench! Of, for a little more plain speaking and downright Protestantism!

In 1869 Ryle toured the country with a lecture about Archbishop Laud, who he saw as the villain of the piece, the inverse of Hooper. Again he concluded:

Wait not for the bishops. They are pressed to the earth with a thousand Gibeonitish affairs, and, in their huge, overgrown dioceses, have no time to weigh and settle controversies. They are fettered and hampered by the necessities of their position as pastors of a comprehensive church, and naturally shrink from the very appearance of taking sides with a party. … The Bishops will not act: they have charged and charged and charged for twenty years, and their Charges have been so much brutum fulmen, and have wrought no deliverance.

Brutum fulmen are empty threats, like the toothless episcopal ad clerum which carries no weight.

Notice three things. First, Ryle helpfully vocalizes the frustration that many evangelicals often feel with our bishops. Why are they apparently doing so little? Who’s taking a lead? Who’s willing to stand up and be counted? Why are there so few evangelicals on the bench? Second, Ryle expressed these sentiments 150 years ago, but could have written them just yesterday. It was ever thus!

Evangelical frustration with the episcopate is nothing new. In fact, it’s a permanent feature of our movement, deeply embedded in Anglican evangelical identity. John Stott often had a difficult time with bishops 50 years ago – so did Charles Simeon 200 years ago – so did George Whitefield and John Wesley 250 years ago. Plus ça change! We may yearn for the glory days of the past. Please bring back Bishop Hooper! Please bring back Bishop Ryle! But there were no glory days. There were only ever a few shining examples amidst a general picture of an Anglican episcopate characterized by blandness, incompetence, limited vision, or anti-evangelical theology.

Third – and here’s a surprise – none of the quotations given above appear in the standard edition of Ryle’s works. Because when he himself became a bishop in 1880, he deleted all those paragraphs, erasing them from the published record. Ryle was undoubtedly an evangelical champion. He was never cowed by public opinion, but he experienced a dilemma many other evangelicals have faced before and since. It’s remarkably easy to criticize the bishops for their inertia and timidity when you’re in the parish, but if you become a bishop the shoe is suddenly on the other foot! Ryle saw at first hand the heavy constraints upon evangelical episcopacy in the Church of England. He acknowledged that as a bishop he could no longer be an evangelical campaigner, banging the party drum – he must be a pastor for the whole diocese. Therefore one of his first actions when nominated to the see of Liverpool was to resign from the Church Association. His strategy had to change. In a private letter in 1883 to Canon Christopher (rector of St Aldate’s, Oxford), Ryle lamented the poor political wisdom of the evangelical societies, but added: “My official position ties my hands very much, and I cannot come forward so prominently as I should like to do.” He still spoke out, criticizing the 1888 Lambeth Conference, for example, as a stage-managed show of unity which failed to tackle the real theological issues dividing the Anglican Communion. But much of his influence was behind the scenes, no longer in the newspapers. Some evangelical friends rebuked him for growing too cautious in his old age. But he hadn’t lost his zeal, he was simply facing up to the pragmatic realities of life on the episcopal bench. It’s never a comfortable place for an evangelical to sit.

“Wait not for the bishops!” Reform of the Church of England, as Ryle well knew, must be pursued by the evangelical laity and evangelical clergy, without the episcopate. The bishops might follow, but they will never lead. Nevertheless, when gospel-friendly clergy like Ryle are appointed as bishops, remember their impossible constraints, treat them with kindness, encourage them in their weighty burdens, and, most of all, uphold them in prayer.


Andrew Atherstone is editor of Bishop J. C. Ryle’s Autobiography: The Early Years (Banner of Truth Trust, 2016), and is currently working on the sequel, Bishop J. C. Ryle’s Letters: The Later Years (due 2019). He is also Tutor in History and Doctrine at Wycliffe Hall, and Chair of the Churchman Editorial Board.

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