Friday, 25 January 2008

"He being dead yet speaketh": JC Ryle and loyalty to the Church of England

Writing a hundred and thirty years ago, to a different crisis, Bishop JC Ryle has potent words both for the Anglican Communion today and for those who represent orthodoxy:

“In the last place, would you understand what the times require of you in reference to the Church of England? Listen to me, and I will tell you. No doubt you live in days when our time-honoured church is in very perilous, distressing and critical position. Her rowers have brought her into troubled water. Her very existence is endangered by papists, infidels, and liberationists without. Her life-blood is drained away by the behaviour of traitors, false friends and timid officers within. Nevertheless, so long as the Church of England sticks firmly to the Bible, the [39] Articles, and the principles of the Protestant Reformation, so long I advise you strongly to stick to the church. When the Articles are thrown overboard, and the old flag is hauled down, then, and not till then, it will be time for you and me to launch the boats and quit the wreck. At present, let us stick to the old ship.

Why should we leave her now, like cowards, because she is in difficulties, and the truth cannot be maintained within her pale without trouble? To whom can we go? Where shall we find better prayers? In what communion shall we find so much good being done, in spite of the existence of much evil? No doubt there is much to sadden us; but there is not a single visible church on earth at this day doing better. There is not a single communion where there are no clouds, and all is serene. ‘The evil everywhere are mingled with the good’; the wheat never grows without tares. But for all that there is much to gladden us, more evangelical preaching than there ever was before in the land, more work done both at home and abroad. If old William Romaine, of St Anne’s Blackfriars, who stood alone with some half a dozen others in London last century, had lived to see what our eyes see, he would have sharply rebuked our faint-heartedness and unthankfulness. No, the battle of the reformed Church of England is not yet lost, in spite of semi-popery and scepticism, whatever jealous onlookers without and melancholy grumblers within may please to say. As Napoleon said, at four o’clock, on the battlefield of Marengo, ‘There is yet time to win a victory.’ If the really loyal members of the church will only stand by her boldly, and not look coolly at one another, and refuse to work the same fire-engine, or man the same lifeboat — if they will not squabble and quarrel and ‘fall out by the way’, the Church of England will live and not die, and be a blessing to our children’s children. Then let us set our feet down firmly and stand fast in our position. Let us not be in a hurry to quit the ship because of a few leaks; let us rather man the pumps, and try to keep the good ship afloat. Let us work on, and fight on, and pray on, and stick to the Church of England. The churchman who walks in these lines, I believe, is the churchman who ‘understands the times’. (Wants of the Times, from a sermon preached at St Margaret's church, Ipswich, 11 June 1879, at a gathering of evangelical clergy from the Eastern Counties, in Ryle’s Holiness.)

To those here in England who say, “It is time to leave,” I would therefore say, “Feel the force of Ryle’s plea — especially about the ebb and flow of history, the need for courage and the demand of loyalty.”

However, to those who say, “There: you see, we are following Ryle and staying loyal to the church, and are not like those he would condemn for quitting,” I would say, “Look again at the first paragraph. Is this ‘the church’ to which he urged you to stay loyal — the church of the Bible, Articles and Reformation? And does your loyalty consist of manning the pumps, or are you serenely enjoying the trip? Do you work alongside those who see things as more urgent than you, or do you look coolly at them? Above all, is your loyalty doctrinal or merely institutional?” For in the same sermon, Ryle earlier said this:

“In the second place, the times require at our hands distinct and decided views of Christian doctrine.

I cannot withhold my conviction that the professing church of the nineteenth century is as much damaged by laxity and indistinctiveness about matters of doctrine within, as it is by sceptics and unbelievers without. Myriads of professing Christians nowadays seem utterly unable to distinguish things that differ. Like people afflicted with colour-blindness, they are incapable of discerning what is true and what is false, what is sound and what is unsound. If a preacher of religion is only clever and eloquent and earnest, they appear to think he is all right, however strange and heterogenous his sermons may be. They are destitute of spiritual sense, apparently, and cannot detect error. Popery or Protestantism, an atonement or no future punishment, ‘high’ church or ‘low’ church or ‘broad’ church, Trinitarianism, Arianism, or Unitarianism, nothing comes amiss to them: they can swallow all, if they cannot digest it! Carried away by a fancied liberality and charity , they seem to think everybody is right and nobody is wrong, every clergyman is sound and none are unsound, everybody is going to be saved and nobody is going to be lost. Their religions is made up of negatives; and the only positive thing about them is, that they dislike distinctness, and think all extreme and decided and positive views are very naughty and very wrong!

These people live in a kind of mist or fog. They see nothing clearly, and do not know what they believe. They have not made up their minds about any great point in the gospel, and seem content to be honorary members of all schools of thought.”

Ryle has no time — and urges us to have no time — for broad ‘inclusiveness’:

“Mark what I say. If you want to do good in these times, you must throw aside indecision, and take up a distinct, sharply cut, doctrinal religion. If you believe little, those to whom you try to do good will believe nothing. The victories of Christianity, wherever they have been won, have been won by distinct doctrinal theology, by telling men roundly of Christ’s vicarious death and sacrifice, by showing them Christ’s substitution on the cross and His precious blood, by teaching them justification by faith and bidding them believe on a crucified Saviour, by preaching ruin by sin, redemption by Christ, regeneration by the Spirit, by lifting up the brazen serpent, by telling men to look and live, to believe, repent and be converted. This, this is the only teaching which for eighteen centuries God has honoured with success, and is honouring at the present day both at home and abroad. Let the clever advocates of a broad and undogmatic theology — the preachers of the gospel of earnestness and sincerity and cold morality — let them, I say, show us at this day any English village or parish or city or town or district, which has been evangelized without ‘dogma’, by their principles. They cannot do it, and they never will. Christianity without distinct doctrine is a powerless thing. It may be beautiful to some minds, but it is childless and barren. There is no getting over facts. The good that is done in the earth may be comparatively small. Evil may abound and ignorant impatience may murmur, and cry out that Christianity has failed. But, depend on it, if we want to ‘do good’ and shake the world, we must fight it with the old apostolic weapons, and stick to ‘dogma’. No dogma, no fruits! No positive evangelical doctrine, no evangelization!”

Still with Ryle? Then, and only then, you may safely go on being loyal to the Church of England.

Revd John P Richardson
25 January 2008

No comments will be posted without a full name and location, see the policy.


  1. (Chelmsford)

    If the really loyal members of the church will only stand by her boldly, and not look coolly at one another, and refuse to work the same fire-engine, or man the same lifeboat — if they will not squabble and quarrel and ‘fall out by the way’, the Church of England will live and not die, and be a blessing to our children’s children.

    Tell this to Turnbull and Jones who wrongfully dismiss their fellow evangelicals (OK, only one case proved so far), and to Storkey who is asking courts to declare that there is a fundamental difference between her and other evangelicals. Since they can't agree to work together, and at a time of crisis in the Church of England about the real essentials of Christian faith and morality, what chance is there for the church? If Turnbull and Storkey won't man the same lifeboat even while the ship is sinking, you can hardly blame me for taking to someone else's properly manned lifeboat.

  2. A word of caution. Richard Turnbull, as far as I am aware, did not dismiss Elaine Storkey. Note that the further legal action Elaine Storkey is taking is against the Bishop of Liverpool.

  3. Hey, I just made an eBook about J.C. Ryle. After reading Holiness, I wanted everyone to be able to read his stuff.
    Since you quoted him, I figured it may be of some use to you and your readers.

    Mike Anderson

  4. Mike Anderson, I've published your comment - where's your location? You might like to note that JC Ryle was a nineteenth century personality, not eighteenth, as per your blog, but thanks for the link.