Former Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali Discusses His Decision to Convert to Catholicism

He will be ordained a priest Oct. 30 for the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.

Then-Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali holds a communion service at a conference of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans at Westminster Central Hall on July 6, 2009, in London.
Then-Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali holds a communion service at a conference of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans at Westminster Central Hall on July 6, 2009, in London. (photo: Peter Macdiarmid / Getty)

LONDON — “Because it is the only Church where decisions that affect everyone are made so that they ‘stick’; where there is a body of doctrinal and moral teaching that can guide the faithful; and where there is a magisterium that can teach effectively. There is also a lively sacramental and devotional tradition which appeals.”

These plainly stated words were the reasons why Michael Nazir-Ali, a prominent former Anglican bishop, decided to become Catholic. Nazir-Ali spoke via email to the Register on Oct. 25.  

A week or so before, on Oct. 14, the British political magazine The Spectator had reported that the Rt. Rev. Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Anglican bishop of Rochester, England, had joined the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham. This personal ordinariate, directly subject to the Holy See, was established by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011 to allow Anglicans to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church while preserving elements of their patrimony. 

On Sept. 29, the feast of Sts. Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, Archangels, Nazir-Ali was received into communion with the Church by the group’s ordinary, Msgr. Keith Newton. 

Then, on Oct. 23, it was announced by the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham that Nazir-Ali would be ordained as a Catholic priest for the ordinariate by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, archbishop of Westminster, on Saturday, Oct. 30, at the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St. Gregory, Warwick Street, in London’s Soho quarter. As Nazir-Ali is married, he cannot be ordained a Catholic bishop. 

Asked how he sees his future in the Catholic Church, Nazir-Ali told the Register that he awaits “guidance from the ordinariate and Vatican authorities about the next steps.” In the meantime, he intends to carry on with his “work of supporting and developing leadership among persecuted Christian communities.” 

To that end, Nazir-Ali continues today as president of the Oxford Center for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue (OXTRAD), which he established upon resigning as bishop of Rochester in 2009. OXTRAD’s mission is “to prepare Christians for ministry in situations where the Church is under pressure and in danger of persecution.” It seeks “to enable Christian workers and pastors to engage with these challenges and to bring the Gospel to bear on the important questions they face.” OXTRAD sees that ongoing “tensions between the West and Islamic countries in the Middle East, Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa … have impacted Christians and churches in the region.” Thus, the OXTRAD “vision arises from the growing challenge of international religious extremism, terrorism and ideological secularism faced today by Christian leaders and the churches they lead.” 

In terms of the process that saw him move from being an Anglican bishop to Catholic layman and now on to being ordained a Catholic priest, he replied, “The process has been some years for me but, more formally, [it took] about six months or so.” 

And now that he has been received into the Church, he explained, “I have described [the experience] as ‘bittersweet,’ in that it is, inevitably, ‘a parting of friends’ but [the feeling] is also anticipation of what lies ahead in mission and ministry.” 

Reflecting on the brief period when he was he was no longer “Bishop” or priest, but a Catholic layman, he shares that the title “Dr.” has been “a useful title to fall back on for the coming week or so!” 

Nazir-Ali’s becoming Catholic was unsurprising in some ways: His views on many moral issues such as abortion and marriage were already Catholic. His conversion was surprising, though, in that he comes not from High Church Anglicanism, where many converts come from, but from the evangelical wing of the Church of England. But he says, “I have always described myself as ‘Catholic and evangelical’; evangelical in proclaiming the Gospel and Catholic in the need for communion with the Church down the ages and across the world.”

As news of his reception into the Church broke, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby took to Twitter to wish Nazir-Ali well in his new spiritual home. 

“I am grateful for Michael Nazir-Ali’s decades of devoted service to the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. His expertise in evangelism, interfaith dialogue, ecumenism, and theological education has been a great gift,” he tweeted.  

Nazir-Ali is just one of a growing list of Anglican bishops who have become Catholic. In September, the ordinariate priest Father James Bradley noted on his Twitter account that since 1992 the following Anglican bishops have been received into the Catholic Church: Graham Leonard (London); Conrad Meyer; John Klyberg (Fulham); Richard Rutt (Leicester); John Broadhurst (Fulham); Edwin Barnes (Richborough); Keith Newton (Richborough); Andrew Burnham (Ebbsfleet); David Silk; Paul Richardson; John Goddard (Burnley); and Jonathan Goodall (Ebbsfleet). 

Needless to say, this latest former Anglican bishop’s decision to “swim the Tiber” made headlines in the United Kingdom and beyond. 

British daily newspaper the Daily Mail reported that he did not see this decision as “a ‘conversion’ from one religion to another.” Yet, in the same interview, he is candid about his views in regard to his former spiritual home.

He said, “The [Anglican] 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.” It would have been “easier at the age of 72,” he went on to say, “to have remained [an Anglican]” so as “to work from the inside to change the things that I feel so strongly about.” 

And, he believes, his attempts to improve things from within failed. 

“People want a sense of the presence of God and the teaching of Christ when they go to church,” he told the Daily Mail interviewer, “especially those who don’t go often. They don’t want a happy-clappy chat show or a glorified yoga center, where the Bible, prayer and true worship are sidelined.”

Nazir-Ali was born in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1949. His family background was a mix of both Christian and Muslim; however, he attended Catholic schools. He was ordained an Anglican clergyman in 1976. Thereafter, he worked as an Anglican vicar in the Pakistan cities of Karachi and Lahore. 

After becoming the provost of Lahore’s Anglican cathedral, he was consecrated the first Anglican bishop of Raiwind in West Punjab. Holding both Pakistan and British citizenship, he came to England in 1988, joining the staff of the archbishop of Canterbury to work on preparations for the 1988 Lambeth Conference, a gathering of bishops from across the Anglican Communion. 

In 1994, he became the Anglican bishop of Rochester, an English diocese covering the areas of Southeast London as well as parts of Kent. The Diocese of Rochester was once the seat of St. John Fisher. In June 1535, during the English Reformation, Bishop Fisher was executed by order of Henry VIII for refusing to accept the English king as the supreme head of the Church of England and for upholding the Catholic Church’s doctrine of papal supremacy.

From 1991 to 2010, Nazir-Ali took part in the second phase of the ecumenical Anglican and Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC-II) and served as a member of the International Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity and Mission (IARCCUM). 

During a recent press interview, also with The Spectator, he discussed those ventures.

“For 15 years I was a member of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission and the stated aim given to us by both churches was to restore communion between the two,” he said. “That was an exalted aim and we worked very hard, but each time there was an agreement, it was sabotaged by someone in the Anglican Communion.” 

By way of example of how someone in the Anglican Communion sabotaged agreement during that time, he cited the case of divorce and remarriage: “When I began my ministry, the Anglican church had an even stricter policy on marriage, divorce and further marriage than the Catholic church. Now it’s open house, and you can’t even discuss whether it’s right or wrong, even with those who are in ministry.”

Since his ordination as an Anglican bishop in 1999, Nazir-Ali has been a member of the House of Lords, Britain’s upper house of Parliament, a privilege granted to some senior Anglican bishops. He married Valerie in 1972, and the couple have two adult sons. 

In the most recent Who’s Who, a directory of the notable in British society, Nazir-Ali’s recreations are listed as: “cricket, hockey, table tennis, reading fiction, humor and poetry, writing poetry.”

Given his high profile in the Church of England, Nazir-Ali told the Register the reaction of Anglican clergy “has generally been positive, possibly because they see the situation in Anglicanism as critical.” 

He added that he had given as full answers as he could to clergy who asked him more specific questions on hearing the news of his conversion. 

But how does an Anglican bishop go about leaving the religious body that has been so much part of his life? 

“I have informed the relevant authorities and received gracious replies from them,” he said. What followed was what he described as “a simple ceremony structured around the Eucharist and the Nicene Creed with reception and confirmation.” And, so, he became a Catholic on the archangels’ feast day. 

When asked if there is one Catholic, living or dead, who, more than anyone else, proved instrumental in the process of him becoming Catholic, Nazir-Ali replied: “Pope Benedict XVI,” who is, he said, “someone who can make believing credible in a plural world.”

This article was updated after posting for clarification.