Former Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali was received into the Catholic Church in 2021 and ordained as a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.
The move was notable not only because Nazir-Ali was once a front-runner for the post of Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the world’s Anglicans. It was also significant because he came from the evangelical wing of Anglicanism, rather than the part that strongly identifies with Catholicism.
Nazir-Ali was born in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, on Aug. 19, 1949. He was ordained as an Anglican cleric in 1976 and became the Anglican Communion’s youngest bishop in 1984.
After being forced to leave Pakistan, he settled in England and was named the 106th Bishop of Rochester, a see occupied by St. John Fisher before the Reformation. From 1999, he sat in the House of Lords, the upper house of the U.K. parliament.
He retired as bishop of Rochester in 2009 and is now president of OXTRAD, which prepares Christians for ministry in areas where the Church faces persecution. He was given the title ‘monsignor’ this April.
Nazir-Ali’s fellow Catholic priests have spoken highly of him. One told The Pillar that he was “one of the greatest gifts to the Church since Newman.” Another described him as having “an amazing brain.”
So why did he decide to cross the Tiber? Why are other evangelical Anglicans making the same journey? And what can the Catholic Church do to welcome them?
Nazir-Ali discussed these questions, and spoke about his unusual life story, one evening with The Pillar via Zoom.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Monsignor, what is Christianity?
For me, the Christian faith is of course intensely personal. It involves a personal commitment to God revealing himself in Christ — my response to that in faith but also in life.
But Christianity also has wider implications than that, in being a worldview about the nature of the universe and our place in it. That dimension of it rivals other worldviews, of course, including other religions, but not only those. I distinguish between the faith that is believed and the faith by which we believe. One is subjective and the other has an objective content.
Anglicanism is a complex phenomenon and there are different subgroups. One is evangelical Anglicanism. What is it?
It’s very diverse. There are some very conservative evangelicals who are really Calvinist Reformed and interpret the Anglican tradition with those lenses. Then there are charismatic evangelical Anglicans who see things differently, who are much more soft-focused on doctrine and even perhaps moral life issues, but who put great stress on experience of the Spirit and spiritual experience generally. And then there is a whole number of people — perhaps the majority — who call themselves “open evangelical,” who are committed to evangelism. So, there are different elements among evangelical Anglicans.
Where would you have placed yourself within that spectrum?
When I was asked in the past, I called myself a “Catholic evangelical,” which I still would, I think. My grounds for doing so were: “Catholic,” because I always believed in the Church and its necessity, in the importance of the sacraments and of the ministry of the Church; but “evangelical” in the sense of a clear understanding of the Gospel of creation, reconciliation, redemption, as Michael Banner calls it, and our responsibility not only to believe it, but to share it with people and bring people to faith and new life in Christ.
Could you describe your journey from evangelical Anglicanism to Catholicism?
I went to a Catholic school, so I had some understanding of what Catholicism meant. But I’ve been in Anglican ministry a very long time and an Anglican bishop a very long time. So my contact with Roman Catholics, apart from the usual ecumenical things, was a longstanding membership of ARCIC, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, which was established explicitly by Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Michael Ramsey to overcome the obstacles that there were in the way of restoring full sacramental unity between the two traditions. ARCIC worked on many of these issues and produced agreements on things like the Eucharist, authority, the Petrine office, ordained ministry, and moral issues.
I was also a member of a commission that was appointed by Cardinal Cassidy and Archbishop George Carey called the International Anglican–Roman Catholic Commission for Unity and Mission (IARCCUM). The reason that commission was established was there was a discernment, even then in the late 1990s, that the ARCIC agreements had produced enough to take the next steps in unity. That was very quickly after that to be sabotaged.
The issues that were raised there, and how we resolve them, I think the Catholic Church in all its diversity and all its unity reflects those beliefs that we came to together better than the Anglican Church and many of its provinces do. That’s food for thought for me.
You felt the Catholic Church was embodying the ecumenical texts better than the Anglican side?
Yes, I think that’s right. For example, on how to reach decisions on moral issues, we agreed that we stood in a common tradition, that there was a common way of thinking about moral issues, and so on. And then one after another, the Anglican provinces simply abandoned what they had agreed was a common moral position.
That can be said about other things. On the question of the ordination of women, for instance, I chaired the Church of England commission on whether women should be ordained bishop. And Cardinal Kasper, when he was prefect of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, came to address the House of Bishops [one of three branches of the Church of England’s General Synod]. He quoted the Cyprianic motto “Episcopatus unus est” and said you can’t claim at the same time to have a common ministry with us and then take a unilateral step of this order.
We received many submissions in the commission, one of which was from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, which said more or less the same thing. And that got home to me: Regardless of whether women should be ordained or whether they should be ordained bishops and so on, that the Anglican Communion was too small, in ecclesial terms, to make a decision like this and then retain a claim to continuity with apostolic ministry.
Why did you decide to become a Catholic?
I’ve often said to people that my decision didn’t so much have to do with this issue or that, but how decisions are made, on what basis, and by what authority.
I think that the Lambeth Conference [an international gathering of Anglican bishops every 10 years], although it had no legal authority over the provinces, had moral authority. Repeatedly on questions of church order, on questions about marriage, the Lambeth Conference would make one decision and then the provinces would go and do something quite different.
I understand the Archbishop of Canterbury said recently in Egypt that “we make decisions by consensus, and even then people are free to do what they like.” Well, this doesn’t work. We need a way of making decisions that have universal importance that stick universally. Otherwise, chaos results.
My second reason was that you need a body of teaching to which the faithful can refer when they need to do so, and indeed clergy as well in their office of preaching and teaching on a whole host of issues that face the faithful.
Third, is that, though I’m not in favor of magisterial authority intervening in every step, from time to time questions arise in the life of the Church where properly appropriate authority has to say, “This is the way and not that,” after having taken account of lots of opinions and expertise. Anglicanism has no way of doing that. After [the most recent] Lambeth Conference, the Archbishop of Canterbury said: “I neither have nor claim any authority to discipline anyone,” certainly in terms of Anglican provinces.
Were there theological obstacles to becoming a Catholic?
I’ve not encountered the kind of extreme anti-papist feeling which you sometimes get in Northern Ireland, for instance. In my own circle, it was not so much that as people just didn’t think about these things.
But what became clear to me was that, on the one hand, Scripture is unique. It is once for all. All the Church’s life should be ordered by it. But on the other hand, the question that keeps arising, both within evangelicalism and wider Anglicanism, is how to interpret Scripture.
I think [Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation] Dei verbum had a big role in developing my thinking. Yes, of course people have to think about Scripture and the opinion of scholars has to be taken into account. But in the end, when something is controverted about some teaching of Scripture, someone has to say: “This is what it means for the universal Church.”
On the papal office, there are a lot of misunderstandings in Anglicanism, and other non-Catholic churches generally, that what the pope says anywhere, whether in the aircraft or wherever it may be, is de fide. I’ve been saying to people on every side something that was said to me by a senior Vatican official who — almost apropos of nothing, perhaps reading my mind — said: “The pope cannot change the faith of the Church.” And I agree with that. I think the task of the Petrine office is to define, to clarify the faith but not to change it.
So how did you discern, finally, that your home was in the Catholic Church?
I can’t actually remember what the trigger was. There must have been several. I think it must have been the inability to make common decisions and the kind of wider splits that were occurring in the Anglican Communion, where I could see that what we would get in the end is a sort of classic Protestant fragmentation.
I’ve always believed, rightly or wrongly, that Anglicanism had, on the one hand, an impetus towards greater catholicity, which it had inherited, and, on the other, an impetus towards greater fragmentation. The decision I came to was that it had now irreversibly taken the path of greater fragmentation. It had decided to be a liberal Protestant church. I think I would still say that.
But I value [the Anglican patrimony] very much. That’s why I joined the Ordinariate. I think the wider Church has a great deal to learn from it.
Ordinariate members seem to come more from evangelical Anglican backgrounds, rather than, say, the Anglo-Papalist movement. Why do you think that is?
The Anglo-Papalist movement is quite visible. It works on visibility. But yes, some very influential clergy in the Ordinariate, very considerable people, are from that [evangelical] background. They have thought all of this through sometimes very sacrificially. And I have great respect for them.
We need to think because more and more evangelicals are now asking questions about where their home is to be, where their ministry is to be if they are ordained. Some will look to the Catholic Church, and we need to have an answer for them.
People have different reasons [for becoming Catholic]. I think one reason is the need for doctrinal clarity, that people really need to know what to believe. Another reason is the clarity about moral teaching, about how to live. And people are very confused these days about how they are to order their lives in the light of the Gospel — even if they don’t always obey what is said, they still want the direction.
There is much greater awareness of the importance of the sacraments now. That is a feature. Also, belonging to a universal Church that claims continuity down the ages.
What does the Anglican Church teach about the sacraments?
It’s ambiguous, like so many other things. It says there are two sacraments of the Gospel: baptism and the Eucharist. But the others that are commonly called sacraments are either permitted forms of life or corruptions of them.
The basis on which it exalts baptism and Eucharist is that its understanding of a sacrament is what has been directly ordained by Christ. I came to the conclusion some time ago that Anglicanism, and Protestantism generally, is wrong about this.
Just take, for instance, the business of anointing the sick. In St. Mark’s Gospel, one of the very first things that Jesus does is to give the Apostles authority to preach and to anoint the sick with oil.
Then ordination: “He breathed on them and said to them: ‘Receive the Holy Spirit, whose sins you forgive are forgiven’” [John 20:22]. Well, if that’s not dominical, what is?
There’s clear dominical teaching about marriage, reinforced by St. Paul. The only thing actually called a “sacrament” in the New Testament — “mysterion” in Ephesians 5:32 — is marriage.
People need the sort of warmth and visibility that the sacraments bring of the grace of God, which simply preaching, for instance, or even evangelism, as in verbal evangelism, don’t do.
Is Catholic teaching about the Eucharist something that might attract Anglican evangelicals?
It should do. But what has happened in Anglican evangelicalism, but also in wider Anglicanism, is that somehow the realist teaching of Luther — who of course had a very strong sense of the real presence with his doctrine of consubstantiation — and even of Calvin, of a real spiritual communion in Christ’s body and blood, that almost doesn't exist. It’s been replaced by a kind of Zwinglian memorialist view. But once you teach people what the Eucharist really means — for example, in John 6 — then they do sit up and take note.
Is the Catholic Church’s teaching about Mary an obstacle to conversion?
Well, it depends what you mean: whether one means the formal doctrines about Mary or whether one means popular devotion. Now, with popular devotion, I remember Benedict saying about the Orthodox that nothing would be required of them beyond what was believed in the first millennia. I think that, mutatis mutandis, that’s also true of Anglicans.
There are popular devotions that have emerged in the Roman Catholic Church down the ages — apparitions, healings, and so forth, not only of the Virgin Mary, but also of others — which are fine as a devotion if that helps people, but they are not required of everyone to believe.
However, the danger with the evangelical of all kinds is that they don’t believe about Mary what is clearly said in the Gospels and the New Testament, and in the unbroken teaching of the Church down the ages. They simply haven’t taken all that seriously. And when they are allowed to do so, they do come to a new appreciation. But that doesn't mean that they should follow every devotion that takes place in Central America, for instance.
Marian icons are frequently seen in Anglican churches these days. Is there a rediscovery of Mary within Anglicanism?
I think there’s a rediscovery of icons going on, which is a good thing to help people to worship. The problem with Anglicanism sometimes has been that it appropriates things from other traditions — like the Orthodox, for instance — without realizing where those things stand in a continuous tradition of worship and belief. It’s not a bad thing to have icons. But to understand what they mean in terms of a proper doctrine of Incarnation: that isn’t always the case.
I think within some Anglican evangelicals there is an awareness of Mary. There was a book, to which I contributed, on Mary, on different points of view. I think the evangelical contribution was quite substantial.
You’re helping to prepare some material for evangelical Anglicans considering becoming Catholics. What can you say about that?
Well, I wrote that article in First Things. Basically, it was an answer to evangelical objections to Catholicism in terms of a personal testimony, where I did respond to many of the objections.
There are quite good numbers of evangelical clergy and lay people expressing interest in the Ordinariate, and in the Catholic Church generally, and some thinking has begun about how to respond to them. But the harder question is how to meet the objections of people who may not already be thinking about it. That hasn’t yet been asked. It should be asked, I think.
But the first step must be of course to respond to those who are thinking about it. I’m in almost daily contact with such people and others are as well. Some of them will come through. Some hesitate for all sorts of reasons — styles of worship, ritual, devotional practices — which are not really core matters of belief, but which people see and are put off by.
I think it will increase. But the Catholic Church took a long time to make provision in the Ordinariate. People were approaching it for a long time before provision was made. The Ordinariate is not perfect. It has been acknowledged from the very beginning that it needs to develop and be revisited as the situation changes.
The Catholic Church has to be open to not just individuals but corporate ways of the reunion, because people will be open to it. But the Catholic Church has to be welcoming as well and adaptable.
So the Ordinariate could be a model for other types of corporate reception?
The Ordinariate is quite small beer. But suppose a whole province, or nearly a whole diocese, decided, what would the Catholic Church do then? This is not totally unlikely.
In the wider world, at the moment. It was at one time very likely in England, but there was no response…
You come from a large Shia Muslim family in Pakistan. Your father became a Christian and married your mother, who was from the Methodist tradition. Do you see parallels between Catholicism and Shia Islam?
[Yes,] the idea of an infallible authority, for instance. The problem in Shia Islam at the moment is how that infallible authority is expressed, because the bearer of that authority is in occultation, so is not visible. It is his representatives who claim authority on his behalf. And there’s been a long debate in Shia Islam about the nature and extent of that authority which they claim on his behalf.
The present regime in Iran, for instance, originally established by Ayatollah Khomeini, was claiming that it had near absolute authority to act on behalf of the Mahdi. But this is not a unanimous position. It’s a dominant one in Iran at the moment, but it is challenged in other parts of Shiism.
As Sunni Islam is more a religion of the book, Shia Islam is more a religion of personal authority.
You are perceived as a scholar, but you’ve also had intense pastoral experiences.
Can you tell me about the summer you spent “burying babies in fruit crates, because the parents couldn’t afford coffins.”
This was almost the first kind of pastoral charge that I had. The Anglican bishop I was working with at the time thought I had been at Oxford and Cambridge too long. And he put me to work in this slum parish. As it happened, that summer cholera broke out. Fortunately, I had with me at the time an English Anglican priest and his wife, who was a doctor. I learnt that with cholera it is the children who die first because they get dehydrated more quickly. The parents were too poor to buy coffins. So we were burying them in fruit crates.
You were a young man at this point.
Very young, yes. Later on, I had to work with brick kiln workers who were in bonded labor. I saw the level of devastation that bonded labor causes. My attempts to deal with it were met with great opposition.
Was that the reason you had to leave Pakistan?
One of them, yes.
Which languages are you conversant in?
I am interested in languages and do learn them, but I can only keep in my head two or three at the same time. So if I’m speaking in Arabic and a Persian speaker arrives, I find it very difficult to switch. And similarly, if I’m speaking Farsi and an Arabic speaker arrives, I find it difficult to switch.
English, Arabic, Farsi, Punjabi, Urdu, and Hindi: These are the languages I can speak fluently. I can read and understand Greek and Hebrew, and Aramaic, or Syriac, and I can read Latin and understand it. I could say Mass in Latin.
Do you have a favorite language for prayer?
Often I pray in English, but in times of real need I slip into Urdu. It just happens. It’s something quite deep, it’s almost without knowing. It’s my mother tongue.
Have you had any regrets since becoming a Catholic?
No, not really. I’ve continued to do more or less what I was doing before in terms of teaching in Oxford, supervising students, and helping persecuted churches and their leaders, which I set out to do when I resigned from Rochester.
Apart from Pope Francis making me a prelate to Him, I’ve not really been given too much responsibility, which in a way frees me to do things. I wonder about that sometimes: whether I should have something quite specific to do. That would of course limit me in other ways.
But it will come in God’s time. I don’t know what that might be. God will no doubt provide something. He always has. I trust in him.