When Liverpool became a Diocese in 1880 the first bishop was John Charles Ryle, who hadn’t intended to choose religion as a career path.
Born at Henbury near Macclesfield in 1816, Ryle’s great grandfather on his mother’s side was Sir Richard Arkwright, inventor of the spinning jenny. He was the son of a banker and was educated at Eton and Oxford, where he gained a reputation as a cricketer and oarsman. He also joined the Cheshire Yeomanry whilst at Oxford and visited Liverpool for the first time. During his final exams Ryle suffered a chest infection and was seriously ill. He turned to the Bible for salvation and prayed vigorously, having previously only been nominally interested in religion.
Ryle had ambitions to go into politics but this wasn’t possible when his father was made bankrupt, so in 1841 he became a curate at Exbury in Hampshire instead. Two years later he was ordained as a priest and he went on to hold senior church positions in Norwich, Cambridge and Oxford. He developed a reputation for firm and fair preaching, whilst remaining defensive of all things evangelical. As a result of the religious tracts he published, a Reform Church was established in Mexico and had several thousand members. All this was against the backdrop of personal tragedy, as he was widowed twice leaving him with four children by the time of his third marriage at the age of 45 in 1861.
On 19th April 1880 Ryle was appointed the the first bishop of the newly created See of Liverpool, being preferred to Canon Fleming. On being told of his appointment by the Prime Minister Lord Beaconsfield he responded that he was too old to be a bishop, only to be told that he had a good constitution. He was duly consecrated by the Archbishop of York on the 11th June at a ceremony in York Minster.
The diocese procured a house in Abercromby Square which Ryle soon dubbed his ‘palace’. St Peter’s Church in Church Street became the pro-cathedral with the first cathedral service taking place there on New Years Day 1881.
Ryle’s previous positions had been rural but his ability to engage with all classes and speak in simple terms had been a factor in his appointment. Poet John Ruskin was a big exponent of Ryle, describing him as ‘incidentally very pure and clear.’ He soon became popular and encouraged the building of churches and mission in communities so they could be reached out to.
In reaching out to the working class communities Ryle maintained a commanding presence but had a warm disposition. He did not see himself as a father of God, rather a state official charged with supervising social moralities. Ryle was also an exponent of church reform, believing that too many lay churchmen were not consulted over church affairs. As such he felt they were left on the sidings and had become ignorant and apathetic about clergy matters.
Towards the end of 1899 Ryle’s health was failing and he indicated that he would officially retire as of 1st March the following year. He was unable to undertake public engagements and they were carried out instead by his assistant, Bishop Royston.
Ryle retired to Helmingham House at Lowestoft in Suffolk, but within three months of moving there he died following a stroke at the age of 84. His death on 10th June 1900 came one the eve of the twentieth anniversary of his consecration as bishop. He was buried four days later in All Saints Church, Childwall, next to his third wife Henrietta who had died eleven years earlier.