By now, almost everyone who’s remotely interested will know that Michael Nazir-Ali, former Bishop of Rochester, a man once tipped to become Archbishop of Canterbury, has converted to Catholicism. Dr Nazir-Ali is the second senior Anglican cleric to jump ship this year, which makes church gossip sound pleasingly Shakespearean: ‘Ebbsfleet has fallen… what and Rochester too?’ But it’s also sad. It’s as if the Church of England is exploding in slow motion, all its constituent pieces — bishops, buildings, parishioners — drifting off for want of a centre to hold them.
When I went to meet Dr Nazir-Ali this week, I expected to find him full of vim. As Bishop of Rochester, he was a striking and confident figure, often pictured in the papers in his bishop’s purple, with an impressive set of sideburns clinging to his jaw like a pair of ecclesiastical ferrets. He’s written punchy pieces for all manner of publications, including this one. In February he wrote that the C of E had taken to ‘jumping on every faddish bandwagon about identity politics, and mea culpas about Britain’s imperial past’.
I’m expecting a firebrand, but when we meet Nazir-Ali seems subdued and anxious. We bump into each other at the crossroads outside his office, walk quietly down the street, and it’s only when we’re sitting opposite each other and begin to talk about how he joined the church he’s left that his spirits rally.
‘As a young man at university [in Karachi] I came under the influence of this brilliant Anglican chaplain,’ he says. ‘He kindled faith in us and also showed us how to serve and I thought: I want to be doing these sorts of things, taking the Gospel to areas where it is difficult.’
And so he did. Just after Nazir-Ali was ordained as an Anglican priest, General Zia-ul-Haq took over and began to enforce shariah law across Pakistan.