A prominent and retired Church of England bishop once tipped to become a future Archbishop of Canterbury has been received into the Catholic Church, becoming one of the most high-profile Anglican clergymen to make the journey to Rome possibly since Father Ronald Knox in 1917.
Michael Nazir-Ali was received into the Church on Sept. 29, the feast of St. Michael the Archangel and All Angels and will be ordained a Catholic priest “in due course,” according to a statement issued by the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and the bishops’ conference of England and Wales.
The former Anglican bishop said he believed the “Anglican desire to adhere to apostolic, patristic and conciliar teaching can now best be maintained in the Ordinariate,” and that he was “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,” Nazir-Ali said. “At this time, I ask for prayers as I continue to pray for all parts of the Church.”
Msgr. Keith Newton, the Ordinary of the Ordinariate, said he and others belonging to the canonical structure “are delighted at his reception into full communion and forthcoming ordination.”
He added that the former Anglican bishop “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.”
Authority on Islam
Married with two sons and of dual Pakistani and British nationality, for 15 years Nazir-Ali led St. John Fisher’s former diocese as the Anglican Bishop of Rochester in England, during which time he built up a reputation for being a leading defender of the Christian faith and culture and a defender of persecuted Christians.
His sometimes outspoken comments, backed by what former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams once called his “enormous theological skill,” would occasionally cause him to clash with secular powers, particularly over Islam on which he was leading authority in the Anglican Communion.
In 2008, a year before he left Rochester, he received death threats for telling a Sunday newspaper that Islamic extremists were creating “no-go areas” for non-Muslims in Britain. He also said the church was not doing enough to convert Muslims to Christianity and led dialogue initiatives between the Anglican Communion and Islamic academic institutions such as Al-Azhar University in Cairo and its Shia equivalent in Iran.
“Michael Nazir-Ali’s abandonment of the Anglican project in favour of seeking full Communion with Rome through the Ordinariate is a move of monumental proportion and significance,” said Gavin Ashenden, a former Anglican vicar and honorary chaplain to the Queen who was himself received into the Catholic Church in 2019.
Ashenden also observed that Nazir-Ali’s conversion is different from most high-profile Anglican converts in that they have tended to be people who identify 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,” Ashenden told the Register.
Born in Karachi, Pakistan in 1949, Nazir-Ali has an Anglican, Catholic, and Muslim background. His father converted from Shia Islam and he was educated in Catholic schools in Karachi. He was received into the Anglican Church of Pakistan at the age of 20, ordained an Anglican vicar in 1976, and consecrated Bishop of Raiwind, Pakistan, in 1984.
He went on to excel as a scholar, receiving many academic awards including from the Universities of Karachi, Oxford, and Cambridge, as well as a Lambeth Doctor of Divinity.
Before his appointment to Rochester in 1999, he was the General Secretary of the Church Missionary Society. Once appointed Bishop of Rochester, he became a member of the House of Lords during which time he focused on international relations, dialogue among people of different faiths, freedom of expression and speech, and defense of human dignity from conception to death.
He has also written many books, his most recent being Faith, Freedom and the Future: Challenges for the 21st Century, published in 2016, in which he analyses current challenges facing today’s Christians while offering a hopeful vision of how living the Christian faith can help society today.
Since leaving Rochester in 2009, he has served as director of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy & Dialogue (OXTRAD), whose mission is to prepare Christians for ministry in situations where the Church is under pressure and in danger of persecution.
Ordinariate Father Benedict Kiely, the founder of Nasarean.org which advocates for persecuted Christians in the Middle East, said that on hearing the news a few days ago he was “overjoyed at the news that this distinguished churchman will be ordained a Catholic priest in the Ordinariate.
“I’ve come to know the former bishop, soon to be Father Michael Nazir Ali, over many years because of his untiring work for the persecuted Church,” Father Kiely told the Register. “This will be one of the great gifts he brings to the Church: both his extensive knowledge of Islam, and his profound faith in Jesus Christ, the only mediator between God and man.”
“Run Out of Steam”
Ashenden said that Lord Nazir-Ali’s background in the Anglican Communion as an evangelical rather than Anglo-Catholic is significant in two ways: “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, Ashenden said, “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.
“The visionary project of Pope Benedict XVI’s Ordinariate will be significantly strengthened and encouraged by his conversion and membership,” he predicted.
Responding to the news, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said he was “grateful” for Nazir-Ali’s “decades of devoted service to the Church of England and the Anglican Communion,” adding that he will “continue to be a blessing to the global church as he joins the ordinariate.” His expertise in “evangelism, interfaith dialogue, ecumenism, and theological education has been a great gift,” he said.
Lord Nazir-Ali’s reception into the Church comes on the heels of other prominent Anglicans. As well as Ashenden’s reception in 2019, last month the Anglican bishop of Ebbsfleet, Jonathan Goodall, entered the Catholic Church.
According to sources, Nazir-Ali will be ordained a deacon in the Ordinariate on Oct. 28 and ordained priest by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, on Oct. 30 at the Ordinariate’s main church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Gregory in London.