Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, has left the Anglican confession to become a Roman Catholic.
I can only hope that’ll be Bishop Michael’s gain – but I know for sure it’ll be the Church’s loss. For seldom in God knows how many decades has the Church of England had a bishop of such intellect and integrity.
His conversion is so much more unexpected, considering that he tended towards the evangelical, Calvinist end of Anglicanism, although he once described himself, somewhat oxymoronically, as “Catholic and evangelical”.
That was a reflection of his soul that seeks reconciliation before confrontation. In the same spirit, he pursues an ecumenical dialogue not only with other Christian confessions, but also with other faiths.
In 2009 Bishop Michael left his diocese to devote himself to pastoral work in places like his native Pakistan, where even professing, never mind proselytising, Christianity is all one’s life is worth. But Bishop Michael has that rare combination of gentleness and courage one seldom finds in people in general and, these days, clergymen in particular.
In 2014 he found some time in his inhumanly busy schedule to write the preface to my book Democracy as a Neocon Trick, in which he generously described me as “a master of language”. “If there is to be a genuinely free society,” he wrote, “we need critics like Boot to be ruthless in their analyses of conventional wisdom and its seers.”
I can repay the compliment by saying that if the Church of England is to survive as a genuine Christian institution, rather than a promulgator of the subversive woke rubbish preached by The Guardian, it can’t afford to lose prelates like Michael Nazir-Ali.
That a man always seeking an accommodation could no longer reconcile his conscience with a Church he had served faithfully all his life is a denunciation ringing louder than the bells of St Paul’s.
I suppose he could have lived with our two archbishops spouting leftie nonsense on every conceivable secular subject. But he couldn’t abide with a Church taking giant strides away from Christian doctrine and tradition.
Even there he allowed the Church a fair amount of latitude, for example by not objecting to the ordination of women or by not leaving when women began to be consecrated as bishops (five other bishops did). But even Bishop Michael’s tolerance has found its limits.
He has accused the C of E of “jumping on to every faddish bandwagon about identity politics, cultural correctness and mea culpa about Britain’s imperial past”. Guilty as charged, as any honest Anglicans will admit.
But it’s not just that. Bishop Michael also said that his conversion was “about belonging to a church where there is clear teaching for the faithful”. By implication, the C of E doesn’t offer such clarity, and this is a much more serious charge than simple wokiness. It’s just as fair though.
Some C of E hierarchs refer to the Virgin Birth and the Holy Trinity as figures of speech. Some others don’t seem to believe in the divinity of Jesus. Its second-ranking prelate teaches that Jesus was a black man, though not yet a black woman. It welcomes openly homosexual priests, as long as they promise to stay celibate (who’s checking?). It blesses homosexual marriages and will soon start to officiate them. Its stand on abortion is permissive.
Bishop Michael, for all his moderation, couldn’t stay in such a Church. Neither could I, in my own small and insignificant way. But being neither a priest nor an especially moderate man, I go further than Bishop Michael will ever do, at least in public.
For I believe that every failing of the C of E is systemic, springing not from the failings of some of its clergy but from the very essence of the institution.
Some Anglicans, especially those at the High end, describe themselves as Anglo-Catholics. It’s true that, in its liturgical pomp and circumstance, High Anglicanism is so similar to post-Vatican-II Catholicism as to be practically indistinguishable.
But its doctrine is Calvinist through and through, as even a cursory reader of its 39 Articles of Religion will confirm. This serves as a reminder of the Anglican Church’s Protestant genesis. It was a child of the Reformation, a revolution I regard as similar to the Enlightenment in its destructive effect.
That parentage brought with it certain genetic defects, such as a tendency to sectarianism. After all, if to Luther every man was his own priest, soon enough he’ll become his own God.
There currently exist about 200 Protestant sects in the world, but I haven’t checked for a month or so. For all I know, by now there could be more.
The C of E suffers from this disease in its mild form, but even it boasts three main strains. That’s why Bishop Michael used to claim being both Catholic and evangelical: it was an honest attempt at settling the differences among the High, Low and Broad churches.
Yet the differences are purely formal, for all three strains of Anglicanism share the same Protestant dogma. And all three together are a state church, which brings with it a baggage of gags, chains and other tethers.
Here I detect a parallel with another state church, Russian Orthodox. In both churches, it’s the state that appoints the bishops. That’s like Pontius Pilate, acting on the authority of Emperor Tiberius, appointing the original twelve apostles.
Jesus unequivocally separated the domain of God from that of Caesar, but a state church can’t imitate Christ in that respect. A prelate who is effectively a government employee can hardly avoid being painted with the government’s brush, and HMG is painting a rather ugly picture.
There have been great archbishops who steered their own course, but they went against the institutional grain. Ultimately, the hierarchs of the C of E have to stay downwind of the government. They are thus in danger of contracting all the government’s diseases.
The common, and largely justified, objection is that the Catholic Church, the only other possible destination for a Western Christian, isn’t free of its own defects. Indeed, if we compare the current pope with the current Archbishop of Canterbury, it’s six of one, half a dozen of the other.
But it’s a mistake to judge an institution solely on the basis of its current leaders. It’s equally wrong to say that Catholicism is no better than Anglicanism because Francis is as bad as Welby as it is to insist that Catholicism is better because the previous Pope was a great theologian, and the previous Archbishop wasn’t.
Both churches are suffering, but the problems of Catholicism aren’t inherent to its very nature. The problems of Anglicanism, in my view, are.
Another such problem is its parochialism. Anglicans like to claim that theirs is an international communion, but it really isn’t. It’s mostly practised in Britain and her former colonies, which is a far cry from Catholic universalism.
My favourite Anglican, who himself is a great theologian, once said he was Anglican because he was English. That, to me, is part of the problem.
A universal religion must transcend ethnicity, nationality or imperial vassalage. This thought isn’t mine but St Paul’s: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
I pray that Michael Nazir-Ali may find in Catholicism what he is seeking. He may not: the current state of his new Church isn’t a picture of health. However, there flickers a hope of recovery – something that I think has been extinguished in Anglicanism.
Still, I’ll continue to quote from the KJV and the Book of Common Prayer. The gravitational pull of these sublime English texts is irresistible even for those who have made the same journey as the one on which Bishop Michael is embarking. You know, those texts that the Church of England is busily ignoring.