A high-profile Anglican bishop has joined the Catholic Church in what has been described as “one of the most politically significant conversions for a very long time”.
The reception of Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Anglican Bishop of Rochester, represents the third English episcopal move to Rome this year and the fourth in the last two years.
Bishop Nazir Ali was received into the Catholic faith on September 29, the feast of St Michael and All Angels by Monsignor Keith Newton, the former Anglican who now leads the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.
He will serve in the Ordinariate, a Catholic organisation set up by Pope Benedict XVI a decade ago for the corporate reception of Anglicans, after he is ordained deacon at Oscott College on October 28 by the Most Rev. Bernard Longley, the Archbishop of Birmingham, and then as priest by Cardinal Vincent Nichols in Westminster Cathedral on October 30.
It is likely that he will be named “Monsignor” by Pope Francis in keeping with titles accorded previously to Anglican bishops who have transferred to Rome.
Dr Nazir-Ali is the first former diocesan – as opposed to suffragan, area or “flying – Anglican bishop to be received into the Catholic Church since Bishop Graham Leonard of London and Bishop Richard Rutt of Leicester in 1994.
He said: “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.
“I am looking forward to receiving from the riches of other parts of the Church, while perhaps making a modest contribution to the maintenance and enhancement of Anglican patrimony within the wider fellowship.
“Ministry in the Church of Pakistan, in the Middle East generally, in the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion remains precious to me and I see this as a further step in the ministry of our common Lord and of his people. At this time, I ask for prayers as I continue to pray for all parts of the Church”.
Monsignor Newton said that the bishop has “always shown great interest in the development of the Ordinariate in the United Kingdom”.
“Those of us who serve the Catholic Church within the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham are delighted at his reception into full communion and forthcoming ordination,” he said.
“He brings a great experience of the Anglican Communion and is in a unique place to articulate that Anglican patrimony, described by Pope Benedict XVI as a treasure to be shared, which now has an honoured place in the Universal Church.”
Dr Nazir-Ali was born in Pakistan in1949 and has both British and Pakistani citizenship. He holds many academic awards including from the Universities of Karachi, Oxford and Cambridge, as well as a Lambeth Doctor of Divinity.
He has taught and researched at a number of institutions and continues to teach and supervise research. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1976 and served in England and Pakistan before being consecrated Bishop of Raiwind in 1984.
He was the General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society (1989-94) before his appointment as Bishop of Rochester in 1994.
As such, he entered the House of Lords in 1999 and was active in the areas of international relations, dialogue among people of different faiths, freedom of expression and speech and defence of human dignity at every stage of life.
Since resigning in 2009, he has been Director of Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue, which prepares Christians for ministry in situations where the Church is under pressure and in danger of persecution.
His reception into the Catholic Church came just weeks after Jonathan Goodall, the former “flying” Bishop of of Ebbsfleet, stepped down from office to become a Catholic following a period of reflection which, he said, was “among the most testing periods of my life”.
In May, John Goddard, the former Bishop of Burnley, was received into the Catholic Church in the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool, while Dr Gavin Ashenden, a former royal chaplain to the Queen and traditionalist Anglican bishop, was received into the faith at Shrewsbury Cathedral at Christmas 2019.
Bishop Nazir-Ali, 72, was born in Karachi, Pakistan, to a Methodist mother and a father who converted to Christianity from Shia Islam. He was sent to a Catholic school and attended Masses there.
He started to call himself a Christian from the age of 15 and was formally received into the Anglican Church at the age of 20.
After ordination in 1976 he served in parishes in Karachi and Lahore and became the youngest bishop in the Anglican Communion when he was appointed Bishop of Raiwind in West Punjab in 1984.
He was brought to the UK by Archbishop Robert Runcie when his life was deemed to be danger and soon became one of the best recognised voices in the Church of England, considering himself both Catholic and Evangelical, staunchly pro-life and a firm believer in marriage and the family. He is married with two children.
Along with Rowan Williams, his was one of two names presented to Tony Blair in 2002 as a possible successor to George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury.
The bishop has served for many year as a member of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission and also of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission.
Dr Ashenden said that Dr Nazir-Ali’s reception through the Ordinariate was “a move of monumental proportion and significance”.
He said: “Many of the former high profile conversions were from people who identified as Anglo Catholics.
“The fact that Nazir Ali’s background is evangelical and more deeply rooted in the assumptions of the Protestant reformation makes the trajectory of his journey more significant and informative.
“It signifies two things in particular. The first is that the schism in the church rooted in the Reformation has run out of steam and has been replaced by a fresh but no less significant cultural and philosophical realignment; the struggle has coalesced into one between the remnants of Christendom and a fresh secular assault by (cultural) Marxism; two utopian visions in direct conflict.
“The second is that in Nazir-Ali’s judgement Anglicanism has succumbed to the forces of progressive secularism and only the Catholic Church can be counted on to defend the faith against this new secularism that has such ambitious totalitarian instincts.”
He added: “The visionary project of Pope Benedict XVI’s Ordinariate will be significantly strengthened and encouraged by his conversion and membership.”
The Reverend Philip Wells, Vicar of Wantage, has also been received into the Catholic Church together with his wife and daughters after stepping down in August.
He said in a statement to his parishioners that “we have become increasingly uncomfortable with the direction of the Church (of England) in matters liturgical, ecclesiological, sacramental and moral”.
(Photo courtesy of Dr Michael Nazir-Ali)
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