J. C. Ryle was not a Liverpudlian by birth, but he spent the last twenty years of his life as the Bishop of the newly created Diocese of Liverpool. This diocese consisted of the busy port city of Liverpool and the nearby towns of Warrington, Wigan, and Southport. In case you think it was a wholly urban diocese, there were rural areas around Ormskirk and Crosby, but for the most part, Ryle's problems were those of the city and the slum.
Ryle was born 10th May 1816 in Macclesfield, Cheshire, then a smallish town. J. C. Ryle had gained a first at Oxford and had also been a cricket blue. He passed up the opportunity for an acadmeic career, and instead studied law and business in his father's office. Also while he was at Oxford he found his faith, having been converted in 1838 at the age of 21 when he found the words of Ephesians 2 striking home into his heart. He had been going through a period of what I suppose we would today call "Student Angst" and his new found faith gave him a purpose and direction he had lacked before. A second crisis was provoked by the failure of his father's bank in 1841, and the 25 year old Ryle took Holy Orders, not as an escape from financial failure, but as the result of a sense of vocation that had been nagging away at him for some time. He was ordained by the Right Rev. C. R. Sumner, the evangelical Bishop of Winchester.
Ryle served his curacy in the diocese of Winchester and showed himself to be an energetic and competant curate. His talent was rewarded, rather strangely, not with a busy London parish church or proprietary chapel, but with an obscure parish in Suffolk. It was here that Ryle's children were born, and here that he employed his ample spare time as a writer and controversialist. He had the popular touch, and his name became known to those who were not naturally much interested in Church affairs. As a result of this he received two appointments in the course of 1880. The first was as Dean of Salisbury, but that was replaced by the offer of the new diocese of Liverpool by out-going Disraeli government. Disraeli saw Ryle as a safe Evangelical choice, but the plan also appealled on the grounds that it thwarted incoming Gladstone's desire to appoint a High Churchman to Liverpool.
For Ryle, this piece of party political infighting was not an auspicious start, but he was so obviously fitted for the task that no-one held it against him. As a rural dean and one of the leaders of the Evangelical Party he had already demonstrated his administrative ability, and he turned all his gifts as a teacher, preacher, pastor and administrator to the work of a bishop. Ryle was not a bricks and mortar man, and his first decision was to defer the building of a cathedral until there was adequate church provision for the 400,000 souls in his diocese. He secured mission rooms and divided parishes into more manageable districts, appointing a clergyman and a scripture reader to each to build up a new congregation. He also ensured that the clergy received a living wage and make provision for clergy retirement - he was one of the first bishops to do this. His ability to get things done is reflected in the numbers. When he was appointed bishop there were 170 parishes; this was increased to 204. At the start of his episcopate there were 120 assistant clergy, by 1900, there were 240. He also encouraged the use of Scripture Readers and other lay workers to build up the diocese's network of spiritual support for the laity, and as a result Liverpool became one of the best run and most forward looking of English dioceses.
Ryle was able to work alike with Evangelicals, Central Churchmen, and High Churchmen. His displeasure was confined to the small Anglo-Papalist faction within the diocese of Liverpool, who he occasional embargoed, and more often ignored. Unlike some other bishops whose Episcopates were mired by controversy because of their opposition to Ritualism, Ryle, whilst expressing his displeasure, did not allow it to overshadow more important and worthwhile tasks. Unlike many bishops who feel that they have to face both ways to be effective, Ryle remained loyal to his Evangelical beliefs, but managed to be the bishop of the whole diocese.
He finally retired in January 1900, and died a few months later. He was spoken of as "a man of granite with the heart of a little child" which neatly describes both the essential simplicity of his faith, and the ruggedness and determination he showed in fulfilling his ministry.
Am I alone in thinking that the Church needs more Ryle-like people to counter this era of spiritual "anythingarianism" in which we live? As the line goes in a country song "if you don't stand for something; you'll fall for anything." That, unfortunately, has been all too true of western Anglicanism for the last forty years.