It is a cause of genuine rejoicing that Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Anglican bishop of Rochester, has been received into the Catholic Church on the feast of St Michael and All Angels. He was received by Mgr Keith Newton, the Ordinary of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, the body that allows Anglicans seeking full communion with the Church to preserve their characteristic forms of worship. The Ordinariate was established by Pope Benedict and it allows former Anglicans to maintain something of their identity within the Catholic Church. It is a sign of real diversity in unity. It is hoped that Cardinal Vincent Nichols will ordain Dr Nazir-Ali as a Catholic priest at the Ordinariate’s church in Warwick Street. Because he has two sons it may be difficult to ordain him as a bishop, but surely this is not an insuperable obstacle; in the early Church, married men and fathers were ordained bishops. Indeed, one of the most formidable leaders of the English Church, Cardinal Manning, was a childless widower.
This decision has been a long time in the making; Dr Nazir-Ali has been talking to members of the Ordinariate for years. His own explanation of his move includes the following:
“I believe that the Anglican desire to adhere to apostolic, patristic and conciliar teaching can now best be maintained in the Ordinariate. Provisions there to safeguard legitimate Anglican patrimony are very encouraging and, I believe, that such patrimony in its Liturgy, approaches to biblical study, pastoral commitment to the community, methods of moral theology and much else besides has a great deal to offer the wider Church.”
This is a movement that has already enriched the Catholic Church in England and Wales. But it is not simply to do with former Anglicans being able to celebrate Evensong in the familiar way. His conversion is also, by all accounts, to do with the question of authority, with the magisterium of the Church. And the sorry reality is that within the Church of England, the authority of the Church on fundamental questions – most recently, women bishops – is difficult to discern.
Nonetheless, we should acknowledge the generosity and simplicity with which the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has recognised Dr Nazir-Ali’s conversion. He greeted the news with charity, and has thanked Dr Nazir-Ali for his work within the Anglican communion. Dr Nazir-Ali himself has made clear that he will not be severing his ties with the evangelical movement within the Church of England and will certainly not be abandoning his work with the interfaith movement and in particular advancing greater understanding of Islam.
Brave conversions run in Dr Nazir-Ali’s family. His father made what was an even more decisive step when he converted from Islam to Christianity; it is worth remembering, as Dr Nazir-Ali certainly does, that people who attempt to do so now in Pakistan face discrimination and violence. Indeed, the situation of Pakistani Christians of all denominations is terrible, particularly on account of the oppressive blasphemy laws. We hope that Dr Nazir-Ali, who has joint British and Pakistani citizenship, will continue to argue for the British government to be far more robust in its defence of religious minorities in Pakistan.
It says a good deal about the quiet effectiveness of the work of the Ordinariate that few people seem troubled by Dr Nazir-Ali’s wife and children. There are a number of married men ordained as priests within the Ordinariate, and they offer the witness of married life to their parishioners. This is not to say that the rest of the Church should abandon compulsory celibacy for priests, but it is a useful reminder that ordaining married men (rather than allowing ordained priests to marry) is a matter of discipline rather than doctrine.
The Catholic Church has much to learn from the Ordinariate. Dr Nazir-Ali referred to biblical scholarship in identifying what the Ordinariate is about. It is a hoary trope that Protestants set more store by the Bible than Catholics, but certainly Anglicans have a more easy familiarity with the books of the Bible than Catholics; the rest of the Church would do well to follow its lead when it comes to inculcating in the faithful knowledge of, and love of scripture, especially in young children.
This is a happy time for Dr Nazir-Ali and his family. He has come home in joining the Catholic Church. And we are blessed to have him.
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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