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Once considered for top post in Anglican Church, former bishop becomes Catholic

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Wilberforce Academy, Exeter College, Oxford

John Burger - published on 10/20/21 - updated on 10/20/21

Michael Nazir-Ali had been a critic of what he saw as political correctness and identity politics within the Anglican Church.

A prominent Anglican bishop who was once considered a possible Archbishop of Canterbury has become a Catholic.

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, former bishop of Rochester, England, was received into the Church September 29 and will be ordained a Catholic priest by the end of this month.

Nazir-Ali’s move follows last month’s resignation of Bishop Jonathan Goodall of Ebbsfleet, England, to become a Catholic. Nazir-Ali, 72, joined the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, a community of former Anglicans who have professed their loyalty to Rome. The Ordinariate said it is “pleased to announce” that Nazir-Ali “was received into the full communion of the Catholic Church” by Msgr. Keith Newton, the head of the Ordinariate. “With the permission of the Holy See, he will be ordained to the Catholic priesthood for the Ordinariate in due course.”

The Ordinariate was set up by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011 to allow Anglicans to enter the Catholic Church as groups rather than on an individual basis, and to do so without abandoning their Anglican traditions and heritage. Nazir-Ali  told the BBC that the Ordinariate “brings together this relation with the wider Catholic Church but also allows us to continue our Anglican way of worship, of preaching, of study.” 

Many former Anglicans who join the Ordinariate are married clergymen, and Nazir-Ali is no exception. He and his wife, Valerie, have been married for 49 years and have two sons.

Apostolic tradition

He told the BBC that he sees his move to the Catholic Church as a “fulfillment of the Anglican desire…to be faithful to the Apostles’ teaching, the Fathers of the Church, what the ancient Councils taught.” While there are “many virtues” in Anglicanism, such as beauty in worship, study of the Bible, and “a pastoral commitment to the whole community rather than just the congregation,” the Church of England also is plagued by “a lack of a sense of belonging to a worldwide, universal body, where decisions that affect everyone are taken by everyone and not unilaterally by one part of the Church or another,” he said. 

In an op-ed in the Daily Mail this week, he rued the fact that the Anglican Church has become “splintered, a loose collection of churches, many of whom have conflicting interpretations of Christianity. Even when the Church manages to agree on things, these decisions don’t seem to carry much weight – people go off and do it their own way.”

Church councils and synods are “permeated by activists who each have a single-issue, often faddish agenda, whether it is about cultural correctness, ‘climate change’, identity politics, multiculturalism (which actually encourages communities to live separately) or critical theory on race, religion and gender – a neo-Marxist theory developed to create conflict by dividing people into victims and villains,” Nazir-Ali complained.

“Too often I have felt alone, at odds with the Church,” he lamented. “Sometimes it is better to have the wind at your back rather than constantly battle against it.”

He argued that the Church needs to do more to defend Christians around the world. “I have worked with persecuted Christians in countries including Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Syria and was closely involved in the case of Asia Bibi, the Christian woman accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death in Pakistan,” he claimed. While the Church of England “wasn’t very vocal” in Bibi’s case, the Catholic Church “played a major role in securing her release.” 

“Hopefully, becoming an Ordinariate Catholic will enable me to support Christians closer to home who are marginalized and hounded by a liberal totalitarianism that demands total consensus,” he said. “I am constantly becoming involved in situations where people have lost their jobs because of their Christian beliefs – registrars who don’t want to register marriages contrary to their conscience, midwives who don’t want to take part in abortions or nurses sacked for wearing a crucifix.”

From a far country

Born in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1949, to a family that had both Muslim and Christian members, Michael James Nazir-Ali attended Catholic schools and Catholic Masses as a youth. He began identifying as a Christian at age 15 and was formally received into the Anglican Church five years later.

Ordained to the Anglican priesthood in 1976, after studies at Cambridge and Oxford, he served at first in Karachi and Lahore. In 1984, he was made bishop of Raiwind in West Punjab. When his life was in danger in Pakistan, then-Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie arranged for his refuge in England. The young bishop became an assistant to the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth and was general secretary of the Church Mission Society 1989–1994. In 1994, he was appointed Bishop of Rochester, England, and in 1999 entered the House of Lords as one of the “Lords Spiritual” because of his seniority in episcopal office.

From 1997 to 2003, Nazir-Ali was chairman of the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority’s ethics and law committee. He was a leader of the Network for Inter-faith Concerns of the Anglican Communion and led the Anglican dialogue with the Islamic Al-Azhar University in Egypt. For many years, he served as a member of the Anglican–Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) and, later, of the International Anglican–Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM). 

When he stepped down as bishop of Rochester after 15 years, a spokesman said that he was doing so in the hope of working “with a number of Church leaders from areas where the Church is under pressure, particularly in minority situations, who have asked him to assist them with education and training for their particular situation.” 

Nazir-Ali is president of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue (OXTRAD), which trains missionaries for situations where the Church is in danger around the world.

He also has served as the visiting bishop of the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina in the United States. The diocese is part of the Anglican Church in North America, which is not a church within the Anglican Communion. 

The Ordinariate

In 2014, Aleteia’s Greg Daly reported Nazir-Ali saying that the Catholic Church has “both a great opportunity and also a great responsibility” to speak out against the tide of Islamic militancy and the global persecution of Christians. Many people, he claimed, including Evangelicals with no historic affection towards the Catholic Church, are looking to Rome for leadership. 

Nazir-Ali made those comments in London when speaking on “A Global Christianity in the Making” to the plenary session of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham — the diocese to which he now belongs as a Catholic.

Explaining at the 2014 conference how he hoped the Anglican patrimony Rome had recognized would continue to flourish, Nazir-Ali said such recognitions should not be an exception, but could instead be “a charter for the future.”  He argued that the diversity of cultures of the world meant that a truly Catholic Church would need to be open to varied expressions of faith from different cultural and ethnic situations, and that the Church must do more than recognize the distinct cultures of Eastern Christianity. 

“The Church must change the approach,” he said. “It must not capitulate to culture nor must it destroy any culture. Instead it must take heed of Pope Benedict’s point: that the role of the Church is to enable culture to find its true center.”

In this week’s Daily Mail op-ed, Nazir-Ali said he is “excited about the opportunities that joining the Ordinariate will bring: to uphold human rights and help millions of suffering Christians and others round the world. The Catholic Church is a truly united global organization, which gives it strength.”

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