Why I left the Church of England: an interview with Michael Nazir-Ali

Michael Nazir-Ali on his decision to join the Catholic church

23 October 2021

9:00 AM

23 October 2021

9:00 AM

By now, almost everyone who’s remotely interested will know that Michael Nazir-Ali, former Bishop of Rochester, a man once tipped to become Archbishop of Canterbury, has converted to Catholicism. Dr Nazir-Ali is the second senior Anglican cleric to jump ship this year, which makes church gossip sound pleasingly Shakespearean: ‘Ebbsfleet has fallen… what and Rochester too?’ But it’s also sad. It’s as if the Church of England is exploding in slow motion, all its constituent pieces — bishops, buildings, parishioners — drifting off for want of a centre to hold them.

When I went to meet Dr Nazir-Ali this week, I expected to find him full of vim. As Bishop of Rochester, he was a striking and confident figure, often pictured in the papers in his bishop’s purple, with an impressive set of sideburns clinging to his jaw like a pair of ecclesiastical ferrets. He’s written punchy pieces for all manner of publications, including this one. In February he wrote that the C of E had taken to ‘jumping on every faddish bandwagon about identity politics, and mea culpas about Britain’s imperial past’.

I’m expecting a firebrand, but when we meet Nazir-Ali seems subdued and anxious. We bump into each other at the crossroads outside his office, walk quietly down the street, and it’s only when we’re sitting opposite each other and begin to talk about how he joined the church he’s left that his spirits rally.

‘As a young man at university [in Karachi] I came under the influence of this brilliant Anglican chaplain,’ he says. ‘He kindled faith in us and also showed us how to serve and I thought: I want to be doing these sorts of things, taking the Gospel to areas where it is difficult.’

And so he did. Just after Nazir-Ali was ordained as an Anglican priest, General Zia-ul-Haq took over and began to enforce shariah law across Pakistan. This gave Nazir-Ali his chance to take the Gospel into the fray. ‘There was one day when women, led by Benazir Bhutto, were demonstrating against shariah law outside the cathedral,’ he says. ‘The police charged them with steel-tipped batons so we opened the cathedral gates, let the women in and then shut them. The police were left fuming outside.’ Wasn’t he scared of making an enemy like Zia? ‘In a way, in those circumstances, the Gospel suddenly comes alive,’ he says. ‘Zia was imposing shariah law, including penal law, and so the Gospel of forgiveness, of dealing kindly with people suddenly became relevant.’

Nazir-Ali has a lifetime’s experience debating with both Islam and Islamism. He has dual Pakistani/British citizenship, his extended family in Pakistan are Shia Muslims, and he’s been the church’s authority on Islam for decades. You’d have thought that these days he’d be just the sort of cleric the C of E would cling to. Yet word has it that none of the top-dog Anglican bishops tried to persuade him to stay, which is perhaps because he actually believes in the truth of the Gospels. Believing that there is such a thing as truth, and that one faith might have more access to it than another, makes a modern Anglican most uncomfortable.

Do Christians and Muslims pray to the same God? I ask him. ‘This is a very thorny question,’ he says. ‘Let’s put it like this: Muslims do have a sense of the divine through creation, through their own conscience. But in the end, it’s a legalistic religion and it fails because we all need grace. We need grace even to live up to the demands of any faith. And if we fail, what happens then? We need a way back…’

So it’s not all just different ways to approach the same God? ‘I think the main difference has to do with what happens inside you. Whatever else Christianity may be, it is a religion of the inside, of the interior life, of a change of mind and heart. Then there’s the person of Christ. People often ask me, why are you a Christian? With your Muslim inheritance and so on. And in the end the only answer is Jesus Christ. I say to them, find me someone to follow like Jesus, and no one ever does of course.’

And why does he think following Jesus has led him to leave the Church of England? In the days since Damian Thompson broke the news of the conversion on The Spectator’s website, Nazir-Ali must have spoken and written thousands of words about it. So I’m surprised that there’s no pre-prepared reply. He looks into the middle distance, pauses, and then says: ‘At the 1998 Lambeth conference, I had a debate with Bishop Spong about the person of Christ, who he is; about marriage, children and how to live as a Christian. After the debate the president of the Humanist Society, who was there, got up and offered Bishop Spong honorary membership of the Humanists. I thought: my case has been proved! Now I don’t want to be judgmental about particular people but the church from time to time has to set out clearly what it believes about the human condition, about the nature of men and women, how they relate to one another. But the fact is, it is never able to hold a line on anything.’

It goes back on its decisions? ‘For 15 years I was a member of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission and the stated aim given to us by both churches was to restore communion between the two,’ he says. ‘That was an exalted aim and we worked very hard, but each time there was an agreement, it was sabotaged by someone in the Anglican communion. It’s the same with divorce and remarriage. When I began my ministry, the Anglican church had an even stricter policy on marriage, divorce and further marriage than the Catholic church. Now it’s open house, and you can’t even discuss whether it’s right or wrong, even with those who are in ministry.’

So what has happened to the Church of England? How has it come to this? ‘I think what has happened is what you might call entryism,’ he says. ‘A lot of people have come into the church or are active in the church who have specific agendas. It may be a strongly feminist agenda or it may be about gender identity and things like that, and the church has become captive to them, thinking we mustn’t offend them — but sometimes it simply has to. It has to say for instance that Marxism and its teaching of historical determinism is contrary to the teaching of the Bible and the Christian church.’

Like Dr Nazir-Ali, I’m a convert to Catholicism from Anglicanism, and like him I still love the C of E and care about what’s happening to it. So in the spirit of a sort of ex-Anglicans Anonymous, sharing the pain, I read out to Nazir-Ali something said this summer by Bishop Bayes of Liverpool: ‘Let the world set the agenda,’ said Bayes. ‘The world beyond the church finds the community of faith wanting and offensive.’

Let the world set the agenda? But if you did, of what use is the church? ‘I think that sums it up,’ says Nazir-Ali. ‘How can you preach if you allow the world to set the agenda, rather than the Bible or the church’s teaching? That is what preaching is all about. You take a passage from the Bible and you say what does that mean to us today?’

Bishop Bayes also said: ‘I want to see an abolition of the foolishness that sees the call to ordained ministry as a call to a state morally higher than that of the baptised. I want to see all this before I die. These things must be done and I believe that LLF will awaken the church and open the door to them.’

LLF is ‘Living in Love and Faith’, the C of E’s book-length exploration of gender, identity and sexuality. I’ve read it and if it awakens most ordinary believers to anything other than a strong desire to follow Nazir-Ali out of the church, I’ll be amazed.

On LLF, and the C of E’s creep towards critical gender theory, Nazir-Ali says: ‘One of the troubles is that the research cited is often all very one-sided, and it’s not accurate. So for instance the massive Johns Hopkins study about gender identity is quite clear about the whole phenomenon. It says that dysphoria is of course a very distressing condition and of course we should support people who have it, but that there is no such thing as a man in a woman’s body or a woman in a man’s body, scientifically. So, to force us down that road, when there are massive studies to the contrary, is mad. Then of course there’s this business of constantly telling sob stories, hard cases, as if that justified abandoning the long tradition of apostolic teaching.’

But doesn’t he worry that the Catholic church is inevitably going to follow in the same direction as the C of E, I ask — that it lags just a decade or so behind? Nazir-Ali considers this, then says: ‘After “Living in Love and Faith”, the Vatican issued a response. Pope Francis with his authority issued a one-and-a-half-page document saying, we can’t do these things, because the Bible forbids us to do it. Look, you have to allow some exploration, I’m not against that in any way. But then you have to take a position.’

At the moment, Nazir-Ali exists in a sort of religious limbo. He’s been received into the Catholic church, into the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, the structure set up within the Catholic church by Benedict XVI to receive Anglicans, but he has yet to be ordained a priest. If he seems a little bewildered now, it’s perhaps because he’s so used to office, to the purple shirt, he’s unsure what authority he has without it.

But nothing gives you more moral authority, among all the rat-like scrabbling for church power, than to voluntarily give it up, I’d like to say. And anyway, as our conversation ends, I sense the beginning of a new missionary zeal in him, a new glint in his eye.

Has he converted to Catholicism, I ask, or does he simply see the Ordinariate as a sort of safe house for Anglicanism? Nazir-Ali replies: ‘With my background, I don’t think of myself as a convert. Conversion is from one religion to another. I see this more as a fulfilment, that what Anglicanism in its classical form has held most dear is being fulfilled in the progression of the Ordinariate.’

It’s often said that the Ordinariate is doomed because the Catholic bishops loathe it; that it will inevitably fade away. But listening to Nazir-Ali, soon to be Father Michael, I’m not so sure.

‘The Ordinariate has a vocation, I think, in this country of producing an English way of being Catholic,’ he says. ‘Now, that is an opportunity but also a challenge. Some people within the wider Catholic church may feel uncomfortable with it but I think that has to be worked out. It is a huge mission opportunity.’

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