Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Anti-Ritualism and the Moderation of Evangelical Opinion in England in the Mid-1870s

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Anti-Ritualism and the Moderation of Evangelical Opinion in England in the Mid-1870s

Article excerpt

In the summer of 1876, J.C. RyIe, like many other middle-class Englishmen of the time, vacationed in the Lake District. RyIe, then the vicar of Stradbroke and honorary canon of Norwich, had by then already established his reputation as a fervent evangelical apologist and a determined anti-ritualist. As an author, he was well-known for numerous popular tracts and pamphlets that sold in the thousands. As a speaker, he was often to be found on the platform at the meetings of numerous voluntary societies, including the Church Association, and was a prominent defender of evangelical views at clerical conferences and church congresses across the country. While on vacation that summer, however, RyIe was invited to preach by the vicar of Crosthwaite, who was himself apparently a high churchman of moderate opinion. Having not packed his black gown, and believing at any rate that he ought to honor the customary usage of the parish, RyIe preached in the surplice offered to him. His dress and sermon provoked a sharp attack from some conservative critics who accused him of betraying fundamental Protestant principles. Their criticism and Ryle's response provide a useful starting point from which to consider the state of the anti-ritualist movement and its effects on the evangelical section of the Church of England in the mid-187Os.

The disputes over ritualism first surfaced about the middle of the century, and some twenty-five years later, the impact of the conflict was evident both in the growth of partisanship within the church and in the widening rift that threatened to divide evangelicals amongst themselves. Much of the research published on the controversy, however, has focused only on the former aspect and considered matters largely from the perspective of the ritualists, while comparatively little work has been devoted to their opponents. The extreme section of the high church party lost numerous legal cases throughout the course of the later nineteenth century, but they were largely victorious in the court of public opinion and became the more appealing subjects of historical study.1 In contrast, evangelicalism in the second half of the century has been considered most often as a movement in decline. At a time when the church faced a society in transition, numerous intellectual challenges, and the evident decline of its influence in an increasingly secular culture, evangelicals offered relatively few positive responses to the issues and concerns of the day. They were, unfortunately, best known for their strident and vocal opposition to the ritualists. And as anti-catholicism became less of a factor in a more secular society, evangelicals who continued their campaign against the ritualists were increasingly seen as narrow-minded bigots. The commonly held generalizations, however, fail to do justice to the complexities of the movement. In fact, the evangelical party was divided, and, as the century progressed, moderates began to express their exasperation with the continuation of the controversy. This essay will consider the growth of those divisions, and several issues which were at the center of the growing dispute. It will be seen that moderates began to question the wisdom of separating themselves from the other parties within the church and the usefulness of continuing a controversy that had obtained little of positive value and done much damage to the reputation of the evangelical movement. In response, the anti-ritualist section expressed their frustrations with the declining support for their campaign and turned their wrath against those such as J.C. RyIe who advocated accommodation or compromise.

Shortly after Ryle's visit to the parish of Crosthwaite, an anonymous letter (signed "Three Protestant Tourists") was published in the Rock, a penny-paper that had become the voice of the most strident and combative section of the anti-ritualist movement. The authors, responding to a handbill advertising Ryle's presence in the pulpit, had eagerly gone to hear the prominent evangelical preacher but were dismayed when he ascended the pulpit in surplice and stole. …

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