Over the years, our paths crossed on television too. The Karachi-born clergyman was, for a time, a regular on Sky News. On several occasions I asked colleagues, whose job it was to secure interviews, to see if he could come on the airwaves. He was – and remains – not only an insightful communicator, but a brave one too. Islamists, against whom he spoke out strongly in the first decade of this century, didn’t take kindly to being criticised by a Christian whose father had renounced Shia Islam for Catholicism.
Having worked and, once or twice, worshipped in Pakistan, I have a tiny grasp of what it must have been like growing up as part of a beleaguered and persecuted Christian minority (a subject Bishop Michael has often spoken about). Received into the Anglican church as a 20-year-old, he later moved to Cambridge and there began a rise through ecclesiastical ranks.
For a while that rise must have looked unstoppable. Almost 20 years ago he reportedly found himself on a shortlist of two to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Tony Blair gave Rowan Williams the nod.
Counterfactuals are, by their nature unprovable, and — as a Catholic — I’ve got no real right to wonder out loud how different the Church of England might look now, had Bishop Michael been appointed to Anglicanism’s top job.
But he occasionally gives us clues.
As a 71-year-old his output is diminishing a little now. The TV appearances are rarer, but his insights remain powerfully lucid and intellectually coherent. An article last week in The Spectator is typical. Part of his opening paragraph reads: “…there is no question that racism exists within all cultures, but the Judaeo-Christian tradition has always been opposed to it. Christianity emphasises the common origin of all humans, made in God’s image, and contemporary science corroborates this moral and spiritual insight.”
He goes on to catalogue the Church’s opposition to slavery through the ages. Not just the Wilberforce years of recent memory, but the campaign to emancipate slaves in the 7th Century, led by the Englishwoman St Balthild, and the prohibition of slavery in 1102 by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, St Anselm. History seen through a long lens, not through the narrow focus of Critical Race Theory which, says Bishop Michael, “seeks success through conflict, not through peaceful means,” rendering it “…hostile to the reconciliation and fellowship demanded by the Gospel”.
It seems pretty clear that Bishop Michael is worried that his Church is in thrall to a doctrine that is inimical to her teaching. He suggests that the current Anglican leadership is guilty of ignoring the “…clergy and lay people outside the UK who are socially conservative and look with suspicion on anything too ‘woke’.”
If you can’t throw stones as a septuagenarian, then when can you?
Given my interest in the subject, I particularly wonder if the Church of England would have struck a more pro-natal pose if Bishop Michael had become Archbishop of Canterbury. Thomas Malthus, the godfather of modern anti-natalism, let us not forget – was a Church of England curate. An extreme example, perhaps, but there has long been a strand in Anglicanism which holds its nose and crosses its legs when calling to mind the ‘more the merrier’ approach of some Catholics.
Earlier this year the C-of-E’s General Synod set 2030 as a net-zero target. I have met at least one senior Anglican who has personally curbed family size for “the good of the planet”. This attitude of highlighting environmental stewardship before any biblical injunction to go forth and multiply, is more commonly found in Lambeth Palace than in the Vatican. Or the Anglican diocese of Karachi, for that matter.
I cannot imagine Archbishop Justin Welby, for all that he may be a father-of-five, writing — as Michael Nazir Ali did 20 years ago: “It is very important for the Church to continue saying that having children…is a basic good of marriage and not an optional extra. Marriage is not a matter of self-indulgence.”
Bishop Michael posits a philosophy almost entirely at odds with much modern thinking about overpopulation. For him, it is “indulgent” not to have children where it is possible to have them. For a growing number of environmentalists, some of whom belong to the church Bishop Michael almost led, it is the very act of having children at all that is an indulgence.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
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