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J C Ryle: Fight or Flee?

Along with many others, I have often commented that J C Ryle said something to the effect that if things got worse in the Church of England he would leave. It is apparent this is both mistaken and misleading. Ryle did not consider the fact that many in the Church of England taught heresy, engaged in unbiblical practices, and led many away from faith in Christ to be a reason for leaving the Church. While he was deeply and vocally concerned to preserve, defend and proclaim orthodox evangelical belief and practice in the Church of England, there was only one issue that he clearly considered made secession necessary (or in fact, to be considered to have taken place should the Church of England depart from its founding confession).

That is not to say that other issues may have become significant for Ryle if he had seen them as a threat likely to shift the Church from its foundations in the same way he saw the issue of the day for him: Tractarianism. The Oxford Movement, with its “Tracts” did more than promote a shift back to Rome; it was to those within Anglicanism like a tidal wave of re-reform, threatening to sweep all before it. For Ryle and his fellow Anglican evangelicals it was the issue upon which to take a stand.

We may wonder if in this Ryle was not more than a little blind to other influences in his church. Although he regularly addressed issues such as the Authority and Reliability of Scripture, the Atonement, Faith, Conversion and such like, his foundational position was that so long as he and other evangelicals could preach the Bible unopposed from their pulpits, and so long as the official position of the Church (specifically the 39 Articles and the Prayer Book) were unchanged, their calling was to stay in the Church and advocate for truth.

In reality, while each of those doctrines was perverted by the Oxford Movement, they were also under attack from liberalism and Arminianism. Perhaps Ryle did not see this, or perhaps he believed that if Rome could be kept out of the English church, it would then be strong enough to silence those other heresies. But for Ryle it was a return to Rome that constituted the great threat, and accordingly it was the unique issue in which secession could be considered.

From his perspective beyond the confines of the Anglican Church, C H Spurgeon saw this as simply wrong. Spurgeon voiced what for many even today is a concern that union with a Church that teaches heresy is best dealt with by separation rather than an attempt to reform from within:

I see before me now a Church that tolerates evangelical truth in her communion, but at the same time lovingly embraces Puseyism, and finds room for infidels and for men who deny the authenticity of Scripture. This is no time for us to talk about friendship with so corrupt a corporation. The godly in her midst are deceived if they think to mould her to a more gracious form … come out of her, and bear witness for the truth.

[Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Volume 10 1864 p370]

It might at first seem odd that Ryle nonetheless urged laymen in the Church of England to leave their parish church if they were not being taught biblical truth:

Divisions and separations are most objectionable in religion. They weaken the cause of true Christianity. They give occasion to the enemies of all godliness to blaspheme. But before we blame people for them, we must be careful we lay the blame where it is deserved. False doctrine and heresy are even worse than schism. If people separate themselves from teaching which is positively false and unscriptural, they ought to be praised rather than reproved. In such cases separation is a virtue and not a sin. It is easy to make sneering remarks about ‘itching ears,’ and ‘love of excitement;’ but it is not so easy to convince a plain reader of the Bible that it is his duty to hear false doctrine every Sunday, when by a little exertion he can hear the truth. The old saying must never be forgotten, ‘He is the schismatic who causes the schism.’

[“The Fallibility of Ministers” in Knots Untied 1877 p376 (his italics)]

Four characteristics of Ryle’s position are embedded here even if they don’t stand out: 1. He supports the idea of laymen leaving under the duress of heresy – but as he frequently argued elsewhere, clergy should stay, stand and fight; 2. He is not advocating leaving the Church of England (for that would go against everything he believes) but finding another parish within the Anglican communion that gives faithful Bible teaching; 3 With his allusion to “by a little exertion,” he implies that evangelical parishes are so common that a man may ride or walk (for most would not have a horse) to one; 4. Those who teach false doctrine are those who cause schism, and for Ryle that will be seen in their departure from the Church of England to the Church of Rome (either by insinuating Catholicism into Anglicanism or in reality becoming Roman Catholic).

Ryle may in fact have had some basis for his confidence that, at least in the cities, an evangelical parish could be found:

The Evangelical body occupies a commanding position, both in the pulpits of London and almost every other large town in England, which it certainly did not occupy fifty years ago. [There are Evangelical clergy in] Marylebone, Paddington, St. Pancras, Westminster, Chelsea, St. Giles’s, St. George’s, Bloomsbury, Whitechapel, Spitalfields, Islington, Stepney, Greenwich, Southwark.

[“Where are we?” in the Churchman 001/1 1879]

It may be that his validating lay withdrawal from a parish teaching falsely is the source of the myth that there was for Ryle a benchmark of false doctrine that would precipitate secession. But while he allowed for such actions by laymen, he was unstinting in his call for fighting for truth within the Church:

Ryle argued that while there is the possibility of distinctive evangelical witness, and while official doctrine does not deny the gospel, ‘let us stand fast, and fight for the truth. Let us not desert our post to save trouble, and move out to please our adversaries, and spike our guns to avoid a battle. No! In the name of God, let us fight on and contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints.’

[M Graham “Staying In Without Caving In” in Commentary, Oak Hill College, Winter 2013/2014 p10]

Ryle’s basic position was that the Evangelical remnant in the Church of England was the true church, and that those who departed from the faith had left the church. What was needed was for evangelicals to stand firm in the true church. He seems to have considered the Church still “the Church” so long as the 39 Articles were unchanged and the prayer book unchanged – although the specifics sometimes varied slightly. At other times he would argue that doctrines such as the Inspiration and Authority of Scripture, and the Atonement, were critical to the identity of the Church. Yet read enough of his discussion and one gains a very clear impression that so long as he could preach the Bible from his pulpit, he had nothing the secede from, and should there come a day when he could not preach the gospel from his Anglican pulpit, the Church would have by then seceded from him!

There can be no real peace while our church tolerates and fosters popery. God forbid that we should ever sacrifice truth to a love of peace. What others think I do not know. My own mind is made up. I have come to one decided conclusion. I say, give me a really Protestant and evangelical established church or no established church at all. When the Reformed Church of England renounces her Protestant principles and goes back to popery her life and her glory will have clean departed, and she will not be worth preserving. She will be an offence to God and not a resting place for any true Christian.

[ Lessons from Church History Unverified]

Away with this talk about secession! Away with flirting with Plymouth Bretheranism! Let us not play the enemy’s game, by deserting the good old fortress, so long as the Articles are unchanged and the pulpit is unfettered … Rather, …. Let us man the walls, stand to our guns, nail our colours to the mast, and fight as long as we have a foot to stand on … Rabbit-hearted churchmen who are always bolting into holes at the slightest shadow of danger, are the best allies of Ritualism.

[Lesson from English Church History London 1871 p45]

In the day when Evangelical Region is cast out of the Church of England, the usefulness of the Church will be ended and gone.

[“Evangelical Religion” in Knots Untied p23]

Secession is not necessary. So long as the Articles and Prayer Book are not altered we occupy an impregnable position. We have an open Bible and our pulpits are free. … Above all secession would be cowardly. To launch the lifeboat and escape the ship because she had carried away her masts and lost her rudder and is at present helpless – to leave an innocent body of passengers to the charge of a mutinous and unfaithful crew… would be an unworthy and disastrous mistake.

[Is All Scripture Inspired 1891 p62,63]

Those of us who share Spurgeon’s heritage and perspective might be a little too quick to dismiss Ryle on this. Firstly, there is the significance of the Oxford Movement. It was, in Ryle’s day, having a massive impact on the Anglican Church, and evangelicals, like Ryle, saw themselves under attack and needing to defend not only the truth but the church they treasured. It’s noteworthy that the prominent and influential Tractarian, J H Newman’s life (1801 – 1890) parallels Ryle’s (1816 – 1900). Secondly, Ryle truly loved his Church and while being generous in fellowship with all evangelical churches and Christians, had Anglicanism embedded in his being as much as he was embedded in it:

Membership of the Church of England is a great privilege. No visible Church on earth, in my opinion, offers so many advantages to its members, when rightly administered.

[“The Fallibility of Ministers” p382]

But come what may, I trust the Evangelical cause will always have a representative body in the Church of England, and a faithful remnant who can stand the fire, and stand alone. If gaps are made in our ranks, I hope the cry will always be, as it was in the squares at Waterloo, ‘Close up, men, close up; let none give way.’

[“Where are we?” in the Churchman 001/1 1879]

The question of association with heresy within the Anglican Church, so long as it falls short of formal or liturgical association with Rome, seems not to have been an issue to Ryle. Ryle was adamant that association was only valid if built on the true Gospel – so it would seem he did not regard membership in the Church of England as association with its members. True Christian association was to be meticulously maintained with integrity in the pulpit (if not in all pulpits), in Religious Societies[1] (which by some observers could be deemed to be in fact a substitute for the church), in reading and in friendships.

Ryle was under no illusions about the state of the Church of England by 1879, when he identified three broad “parties” (Evangelical, High, and Broad) as well as a significant body of members who stood aloof to such parties[2]. It was a mixed church indeed. Even the Evangelicals were a mixed bunch:

There are Evangelical Ritualists, and Ritualistic Evangelicals. There are Broad Church Evangelicals, and Evangelical Broad Churchmen, and Broad Church Ritualists.

[“Where are we?” in the Churchman 001/1 1879]

In it could be found

…zealous fellows much run after and admired, on whose pulpits you might justly write “Mangling done here!” and whose sermons, like Solomon’s ships, contain not only gold and silver and ivory, but worthless apes and gaudy peacocks.

[“Where are we?” in the Churchman 001/1 1879]

Ryle was under no illusion either that a sad retreat from biblical Christianity could overtake the Church of England. In fact, like many today, while deeming the present situation to be still acceptable, the future looked bleak. He considered the demise of the Church of England all but inevitable:

I see grave reason for alarm. For the true Church of Christ I have no fears at all. But for the Established Church of England, and for all the Protestant Churches of Great Britain, I have very grave fears indeed. The tide of events seems running strongly against Protestantism and in favour of Rome. … I think quite within the verge of possibility that in a few years the Church of England may be once more be re-united with the Church of Rome. The Crown of England may be once more on the head of a Papist. Protestantism may be formally repudiated. A Romish Archbishop may once more preside at Lambeth Palace. Mass may be once more said at Westminster Abby and St. Paul’s. And one result will be, that all Bible-reading Christians must either leave the Church of England, or else sanction idol-worship and become idolaters!

[“Idolatry” in Knots Untied p418]

The inconsistency of regarding association in the Church as circumscribed only by its founding formularies irrespective of actual teaching and practice, and association in Christian fellowship necessarily circumscribed by gospel orthodoxy evidenced in practice irrespective of formularies, seems to have escaped him.

No love of false peace should prevent us striving jealously against false doctrine, and seeking to promote true doctrine wherever we possible can. True Gospel in the pulpit, true Gospel in every Religious Society we support, true Gospel in the books we read, true Gospel in the friends we keep company with, – let this be our aim, and never let us be ashamed to let men see that it is so.

[“The Fallibility of Minsters” p383]

Peace and uniformity are beautiful and valuable: but peace without the Gospel, – peace based on a common Episcopacy, and not on a common faith – is a worthless peace, not deserving of the name peace.

[“Idolatry” in Knots Untied p418]

Episcopacy and the Gospel are each inviolate, to be defended by sacrificing the peace if need be, but never by separating from either the Church or the Gospel. Would Ryle still be an Anglican today? In view of the above, undoubtedly! So much of what he feared and what he declared in his paper “Idolatry” in 1877 would require “that all Bible-reading Christians must either leave the Church of England, or else sanction idol-worship and become idolaters” has come to pass. Yet Ryle was an Anglican, and it is of the essence of his Anglicanism that so long as he could preach the Bible freely and find the 39 Articles in the Church (albeit most now deny them), he would not secede. I think this should not be taken as an indication that he too would have become an idolater, but that loyalty to his Church and the residual opportunity to preach faithfully would have seen him shift his boundary markers. What was once too evil to countenance, could be side-lined by the contingencies of the day, and another bold stand against heresy mounted by the faithful.

Without a shadow of doubt he would proclaim loudly and clearly the true Gospel. And, I would venture to say, he would be just as loudly and clearly defending the existing Episcopal Church – but only with the most unpeaceable and outspoken opposition to vestments[3], altars and Romish ritual; only with the most strident rejection of a modified prayer book; and only with the most public boycotting of acts of intercommunion with Rome. Given his loyalty to and love of the Church of England, and given the ferocity and comprehensiveness of the Tractarian invasion that dominated his ecclesiastical and theological compass, it is understandable that secession for evangelical clergy was inconceivable so long as they fought the battle. Were he to be our contemporary, I do not doubt that he would have more readily adapted Churchill’s, “We will fight them on the beaches …” than the Waterloo rhetoric he so effectively used. But remain he would till driven out or abandoned.

If, like many evangelicals in Anglican churches today, Ryle did not see Pauls’ direction in 2 Corinthians 6:14-18 bearing on ecclesiastical association and unity, one can still have a great deal of delight in the heritage of a man who could so clearly enunciate biblical truth, who was so erudite in its proclamation, and so uncompromisingly biblical and pastoral; but who could also come up with such a delightful declaration as:

Whenever we hear teaching which obscures or contradicts justification by faith, we may be sure there is a screw loose somewhere.

[“Idolatry” in Knots Untied p418]

Yet Ryle did see clearly there was a point at which “all Bible-reading Christians must either leave the Church of England, or else sanction” heresy, even though they might still be free to preach the Gospel. What made Catholicism a necessary cause for separation for Ryle, but not the denial of the inspiration and authority of Scripture, or the substitutionary atonement, or the divinity of Christ, can only be explained by two things: 1. His conviction that formalised doctrinal standards trumped actual practice; and 2. A blinkered view of the broader picture brought about by the impact of Tractarianism in his day. His view that membership in a church that tolerated heresy was to sanction that heresy seems soundly based. It is difficult to see failure by Bible-reading Christians to act on that – today as then – as less than mistaken.

[1] These included the Church Association, the Church Missionary Society, the Jews’ Society, the Pastoral Aid Society, the Colonial and Continental Church Society, the Irish Church Missionary Society, the Bible Society, and the London City Mission.

[2] “Where are we?” in the Churchman 001/1 1879

[3] “If any person wants a sacrificial dress to be formally legalized at the communion table of the Church of England, let us resolve firmly that we will never consent.” The Sunday at Home (1876) p104 unverified


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