Chapter 2 by M Guthrie Clark
Bishop Ryle was not often in a reminiscent mood, but whenever he was he would always tell how God had ordered his steps. His life was like Nehemiah's in many ways and he could testify that at every crisis it was the good Hand of God upon him which brought him through. I want in this chapter to trace his journey past six important milestones.
1. An Early Illness.
His father's house in Macclesfield was respectable and well conducted, but devoid of that vital godliness which subsequently was so striking a characteristic of his son. “I certainly never said my prayers,” he writes, “or read a word of the Bible from the time I was seven to the time I was twenty-one.” At Midsummer, 1837, that is when he was twenty-one, he had a “rough titch”, as they say in Devon. He was brought very low and in this way driven to his Bible and to prayer. In this respect his experiences correspond with men like Martin Luther and Richard Baxter, who in their extremity sought and found the Lord. There is little doubt that what had been happening in Macclesfield just before had something to do with his spiritual struggles. A short while previously a new Church was opened there and a stir among the dry bones followed, resulting from the work of several Evangelical preachers who visited the parish at the invitation of the Vicar, Mr. Burnett. One of Ryle's sisters was converted and it seems fairly certain that the brilliant Oxford graduate was not kept in the dark as to what had happened. Perhaps, too, a rebuke for swearing from his friend Coote, a year after he left Eton, shook him a little and prepared him for blessing. Whatever went before, we know that this critical illness led to a great change in his life. He manifested a new seriousness and abandoned billiards and dancing, of which he had been very fond. In this way he was abased in order that God might exalt him; but that is the second milestone.
2. His Conversion.
Between Midsummer, 1837, and the beginning of 1838, when, to use his own words, he “was fairly launched as a Christian”, there occurred a transformation in his life to which he always looked back with profound gratitude. He was born again. No wonder he could write so helpfully in later years on the subject of Regeneration. He knew what he was talking about. He had experienced the new birth and could write out of a full and a new heart. I cannot do better than quote the words of Dr. Griffith Thomas, who, as an Oxford man himself and Principal of Wycliffe Hall, had every opportunity to find out what happened. “Many years ago, an Oxford Undergraduate sauntered into an Oxford Church, of which afterwards he was quite unable to remember the name. At that time he was nearing his final examination and feeling somewhat depressed. As he entered the Church, the Second Lesson was being read (Ephesians 2) and the reader made somewhat unusual pauses as he read verse 8, thus, ‘By grace-are ye saved-through faith-and that, not of yourselves-it is the gift of God.’ The divine Word went home to the undergraduate's heart and led to his conversion.”
3. Ruin of his prospects.
In Chapter 1, brief reference was made to his father's bankruptcy in 1841. Something further must now be said about it because it was so notable a turning-point in Ryle's career. When revisiting his old Parish at Stradbroke, he described his early disappointment as follows. “My father was a wealthy man. He was a landed proprietor and a banker. I was the eldest son and looked forward to inheriting a large fortune. I was on the point of entering Parliament. I had all things before me till I was twenty-five, but it then pleased God to alter my prospects in life through my father's bankruptcy. . . . We got up one summer's morning with all the world before us, as usual, and went to bed that evening completely and entirely mined!”
I want to underline the sentence, “It then pleased God to alter my prospects in life.” The Good Hand was upon him.
It must have been a very bitter pill for Ryle in this twenty-fifth year, when everything seemed to be pointing to prominence and fame in the world, to lose a valuable property and an income of about £15,000 a year. “I had two horses which I sold and my uniform, sword, saddlery and accoutrements which old Col. Egerton kindly bought for £100 as a matter of charity.” Writing thirty-two years later he had to confess there was not a single day in his life that he had not remembered the pain and humiliation of having to leave Henbury, the lovely country seat among its 1,000 acres, to which his Father had moved in 1839. His parting with his favourite mastiff, Caesar, is described with a pathos which almost moves one to tears.
But Ryle was submissive to God's will, although the iron entered into his soul. “I had a firm and deep conviction that all was right, though I could not see it and feel it at the time.” What a mercy that God had prepared him for this blow by making him His child in 1837! In it all, as with Joseph in his disappointment, the Lord was with him. He never expected to be ordained, but his choice of a profession was forced upon him by circumstances which God Himself arranged. God shut the door to Parliament, because He wanted Ryle in the ministry, not of the State, but of His Church. The bitterness of financial ruin was the only way. Long afterwards Ryle wrote, “I have not the least doubt, it was all for the best. If I had not been ruined, I should never have been a clergyman, never have preached a sermon, or written a tract or book.” Once again it was the pressure of the Hand. Behind a frowning Providence, God hid a smiling face.
For nearly forty years Ryle was at work in two Suffolk parishes, Helmington and Stradbroke. When the Lord Chancellor offered him the former Living in 1844, he little knew that he was taking a step that would keep him in East Anglia half his life. As we review Ryle's story, we cannot escape the conclusion that God led him into the country in order to train him for his twenty years as a Bishop. It was there he hammered out his position, resting his convictions upon the Bible and XXXIX Articles; it was there he wrote in a way he could never have done in a town parish; it was there that he proved the Gospel to be the power of God unto salvation to all who believe; it was there he read and mastered his favourite Puritan authors who put such mettle into his ministry; it was there that he had the freedom from parochial duties which enabled him to fulfil hundreds of outside engagements every year. We can surely say the Saviour led His servant to Suffolk.
5. Bishop of Liverpool
Ryle was Disraeli's last appointment, in 1880. His name was sent to the Queen only in the nick of time. Rumour has it that Lord Beaconsfield was nettled by the High Church backing of Gladstone and determined to have his revenge upon them. H decided to get an Evangelical of the Evangelicals for Liverpool and he succeeded. Whether this be fact or fiction, God overruled the choice for His glory, and Ryle went to Liverpool for twenty years. The Hand of God in this decision is evidenced in three ways.
At Liverpool, as never before, Ryle had an opportunity to preach the old Gospel which he loved. It is no exaggeration to say that God put Ryle in that high position to vindicate His message. Liverpool became a stronghold of Evangelical truth as perhaps no diocese has been either before or since. Secondly, Ryle attracted an extraordinarily fine lot of men into the Ministry. I could name twenty who were ordained by him; probably hundreds are still alive. I often think that the Revised Prayer Book was defeated by Ryle's men. Then, finally, he put folk before fabric, men above materials. The Cathedral was wisely and deliberately left to his successor. Ryle's objective was the living agent before the dead stone and his policy was right and we must not forget it to-day. This is a very present danger and we must be on our guard. Let us concentrate, as he did, upon spiritual results and all other things needful will be added. First things first!
Long the blessed Guide has led me
By the desert road ;
Now I see the golden towers-
City of my God.
There amidst the love and glory,
He is waiting yet ;
On His hands a name is graven
He can ne'er forget.
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