By any standards, the news that Michael Nazir-Ali had been received into the Catholic faith is stunning. The former Church of England Bishop of Rochester, an intellectual heavyweight once considered for Canterbury itself, is used to making waves. But his plunge into the Tiber may prove his biggest splash yet.
It was certainly a fillip for English Catholicism after a bruising few years. And Dr Nazir-Ali’s conversion did not happen in isolation, either. Of course, there have been many high-profile crossings over the years, from St John Henry Newman to Tony Blair and the former Bishop of London Graham Leonard. But the latest flurry includes those who have been at the very heart of the Established Church.
Fellow traveller Jonathan Goodall, former “flying” Bishop of Ebbsfleet, was for years the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams’s chaplain and ecumenical secretary at Lambeth Palace. In turning to Catholicism, he was following the path trod by John Goddard, the former Bishop of Burnley, and Dr Gavin Ashenden, a former continuing bishop and an honorary chaplain to the Queen for a decade.
Most converts have had only a short distance to negotiate – as Anglo-Catholic traditionalists they already had one foot in Rome. But Dr Nazir-Ali cannot be so easily pigeonholed. He reflects a strand of classic Protestant evangelicalism that has been at odds with popery since the Reformation, often violently.
The 72-year-old was, nevertheless, quietly welcomed into the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham in a simple ceremony that belied the significance of the occasion.
He assented to the Nicene Creed before a congregation that included Cardinal Vincent Nichols. “Then I was anointed and that was it and we went to lunch,” he told the Catholic Herald matter-of-factly. “But there was a sense of crossing the Rubicon.”
Showing his commitment to the special enclave carved out by Pope Benedict XVI to allow converts to hang on to parts of their Anglican heritage, he eschewed the grandeur of Westminster Cathedral for the Ordinariate’s Warwick Street church. He was ordained as a Catholic priest by Cardinal Nichols in the same church at the end of October.
As with all these things, it has been a long journey, known to a few confidants. It is also one that has confounded many conservative evangelicals for whom Dr Nazir-Ali has been a theological lodestar. In fact, the Pakistani-born cleric has always seen himself as Catholic as well as evangelical. The son of a convert from Islam, he was educated in Catholic schools in Karachi where the majority of pupils were non-Christian. The Christian pupils, of all denominations, chose to take Catechism and to attend services, but even the non-Christian pupils were expected to be present at some prayers.
He later become a member of a particular Anglican congregation in his 20s, though he continued to attend churches of different denominations after he had settled in an Anglican one. He was later ordained an Anglican priest in Pakistan in 1976. He was “headhunted” by Archbishop Runcie about 10 years later. Talent-spotted by the late Lord Runcie, he rose quickly through the ranks.
Blessed with a formidable brain and the courage – or inflexibility, detractors would say – of his convictions, he has proved a thorn in the side of liberal colleagues ever since, on issues ranging from gay priests to radical Islam.
He has never lacked the ability to resonate with Middle England, regularly deploring the “dumbing down” of biblical values and the liturgy. His valedictory broadside in the Daily Mail was vintage stuff, strafing the Church of England’s “faddish” agenda on identity politics, multiculturalism and critical race theory.
He meanwhile made powerful friends in Rome, where he spent much time on the now-stalled unity talks. “I met Pope John Paul II through ARCIC and Pope Benedict over theology,” he reveals. “Pope Francis and I have met and discussed many issues about human development and about his effective approach to communicate the faith”. The Vatican was fully on board with his conversion plans.
Although the unity talks were torpedoed by Anglican indiscipline – liberals repeatedly broke ranks on issues such as actively gay bishops in the US – the liberal American branch, the Episcopal Church – he feels ecumenical dialogue has paid off by resolving many of the bitter theological issues that divided Christendom at the Reformation, notably Justification “by faith alone” (remember all the fuss over the sale of indulgences?)
This doctrine is now a “cornerstone“ of the Catholic Church, says Dr Nazir-Ali, and Pope Benedict XVI even acknowledged that Luther might have had a point.
So his own evangelical misgivings about Catholic dogma have faded away– surely a potent sign that England’s Reformation can no longer be seen as the stumbling block it once undoubtedly was.
Meanwhile, his disillusionment with the Church of England has only increased. Though he feels there is much good in Anglicanism, its trajectory away from scriptural orthodoxy and towards liberal Protestantism now seems inexorable, he says. “And that is what has pushed me.”
Its lack of a central authority to enforce agreements – even within the global evangelical wing he has championed – has exasperated him, and he has lost the will to keep swimming against tide. In contrast, he now feels he can “stand within the wide stream of apostolic teaching throughout the ages and all over the world.”
Jonathan Goodall, an old friend of his from Oxford who is now waiting to become a priest in the diocese of Westminster, was also a regular visitor to Rome as he struggled to keep the Anglican show on the road while working at Lambeth Palace.
But when he was freed from that role to minister as a bishop to fellow traditionalists, he realised he could no longer resist the pull of Rome as a permanent spiritual home and fulfilment of his life as an Anglican – something he had first discussed with Cardinal Basil Hume back in the Nineties.
For him, the Catholic Church is the only place where salvation can be truly and lastingly secured, though he feels wretched for leaving his former priests and other friends behind. “I regret very much that the Church of England is becoming less and less recognisable to the ancient apostolic churches because that is where it has its roots,” he told the Herald. “But it is changing, and people have to respond to that.”
Former university lecturer Gavin Ashenden, himself something of a media star, likens becoming a Catholic to a high wire trapeze act – “you have to leave one trapeze, fly through the air and hope the other will bear your weight. But you know the trapeze you are on is going to break so you have to leave it.”
These recent realignments are unlikely to prompt a huge new exodus – the Church of England may anyway delay the massively divisive step of permitting gay marriage in church and actively gay clergy for some time yet. But there has been a palpable shift in the tectonic plates.
A bullish Dr Ashenden says the English Catholic Church is fast becoming a beacon for disillusioned Middle England conservatives, who see the Church of England as drifting dangerously from its moorings. He compares the Establishment trappings of the Church of England to icing on a cake, but a cake that is hollow inside.
All the mainstream Christian denominations are haemorrhaging members, but those who fill the Church of England’s pews and collection plates are exhibiting the fastest decline, accelerating church closures. The Catholic Church is pulling ahead of the Church of England in average church attendance.
The British people’s perception of English Catholicism is also changing. Whereas Newman’s conversion in 1845 challenged the view that Catholicism constituted a threat to the country, mistrust of foreign influence has continued to fuel a wariness of Rome.
“What is different now,” says Dr Ashenden, “is that because a few people in the public eye are moving, we are beginning to provide a cultural ballast that shows you can be an English Catholic without being Irish or Italian.
“The Catholic Church believes there are moral absolutes, and it is the Church’s duty to teach them. In times of moral turbulence, that is very appealing to a lot of people. Only Catholicism in this country is holding this line.”
Dr Nazir-Ali agrees the challenge is “to produce an English way of being the Church and to engage with all the opportunities and problems that there are with this”. But he skirts hubristic suggestions that many others will follow his path. “I would urge them to continue to seek the truth and follow the truth,” he says. “I can’t prescribe where that might lead them, but I have trust in God that it will lead them in the right direction.”
Jonathan Petre is a freelance journalist who began reporting for the Catholic Herald in 1982 on Pope John Paul II’s visit to the UK
This article is from the December 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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