Of the 111 diocesan and suffragan (assistant) bishops in the Church of England, all are men and 109 are white. Two are not: Wilfred Wood, Bishop of Croydon, and Michael Nazir-Ali, appointed Bishop of Rochester earlier this month.

Dr Nazir-Ali is the first person from the ethnic minorities to be appointed as a diocesan bishop in the Church of England, an institution not renowned for keeping pace with the changing complexion of the society it seeks to serve. Nothing shows this up so much as the flourishing Afro-Caribbean churches in this country, founded in the Fifties in direct response to the hostile reception given to immigrants by the Church of England.

This compact, composed man was born 45 years ago in Pakistan into a large and comfortably-off family. He studied at Karachi University and at Cambridge, before returning to Pakistan, where he worked briefly as a parish priest and lecturer before being made the youngest Anglican bishop in the world.

Dr Robert Runcie, then Archbishop of Canterbury, who had an excellent record of spotting ability in unlikely places, invited him back to Britain in 1988. He worked first at Lambeth Palace, and for the last five years has been general secretary of the Church Missionary Society.

It is impossible not to wonder whether Dr Nazir-Ali's good fortune has been atypical. Have a comfortable background and a more-than-decent education made the establishment rather more predisposed towards his protection and promotion than it might have been, say, to Dr Nazir-Ali's British inner-city counterparts, working against a backdrop of poverty and racism?

On the other hand, few Church of England bishops have first-hand experience of appalling violence; nor have they been harassed for defending the rights of others. While he may have benefited from a very good start, his life has not always been easy.

Dr Nazir-Ali's father was an accountant, and, rather astonishingly in a family composed largely of Shia Muslims, a Christian. He had been influenced by Christian colleagues, and, according to his son, 'was very, very devout, although he never forced his views on anyone'.

Even so, didn't his family mind one of their number crossing the religious divide?

'At first there was a lot of hostility. My father was due to marry a Muslim girl and that all fell apart. My grandfather was quite tolerant. Some of the others were not. There was always the hope that they would win my father back, but on the whole I was never aware of any ostracism.'

None at all?

There is a shrug in his voice; not a lack of concern, but a refusal to be overcome by it. 'Well, gradually over the years they started to visit us again.'

Dr Nazir-Ali became aware of a vocation to the Christian ministry while reading economics and sociology at Karachi University, He was impressed by the Christian liturgy, and by religious leaders such as Chandu Ray, the then Bishop of Karachi, who was responsible for smuggling the Bible into Chinese-occupied Tibet.

At the same time, he was flirting seriously with Marxism. He finally rejected it on the basis that 'class conflict was not the only way to understanding society'. Nevertheless, he felt that Marxism had posed a challenge about social justice that Christians could not ignore. 'And if one is to reject Marxism as a way of securing social justice, then as a Christian one has to produce an alternative.'

That alternative was something Michael Nazir-Ali felt compelled to explore. He left Pakistan to read theology at Cambridge (where he met his wife, Valerie). They spent some time in England before returning to Pakistan together once he was ordained.

It was while he was working as a parish priest that his beliefs about social justice found expression. He found himself defending the rights of the poorly paid brick kiln workers in his parish, encouraging them to demand better pay and conditions. At the same time, he took part in a series of demonstrations against new laws being introduced by the Pakistani dictator General Zia, which substantially reduced the rights of Muslim women. This did not endear him to the authorities. 'They did,' he says, 'some quite unfriendly things.'

Such as what?

'Oh harassment, anonymous letters, stopping the car in a country road and roughing people up.'

That sounds seriously unfriendly to me.

Again the verbal shrug: 'Yes. But it was nothing like as nasty as what they were doing to the Muslim women.' After all, he adds, sometimes defending the rights of others can result in injury or death.

However, once the couple's two young sons began to be threatened, the Nazir-Alis felt it might be time to leave Pakistan for a while. Dr Runcie came to the rescue, offering not only a job but finding the family somewhere to live and paying Valerie by the hour to work as Michael's secretary.

Will he not, after his direct experience of conflict and danger, find the diocese of Rochester (which encompasses the western half of Kent and two London boroughs) a little quiet? Does he not find the Church of England a trifle petty?

'Of course the Church of England can be petty, but the very poor can be petty also] In the end the Church is about the spiritual nature of people, whether those people are brick kiln workers in Lahore or rich bankers in Kent. You can't have a kind of reverse snobbery about which people it is better to serve.

'That is perhaps why my appointment is significant. The Church is acknowledging that someone from my background has something to offer to a whole situation, to a diocese, and not just on issues concerned with Asia or Islam.

'I haven't experienced very dramatic racism myself, but then perhaps the worst kind of racism is the most subtle; the not being heard, the stereotyping 'Oh, he's a Pakistani, so he must know about Islamic fundamentalism and nothing else.' That sort of pigeon-holing can be disabling.'

What does he think about the work of the Committee for Black Anglican Concerns, which has done a great deal to improve practical opportunites for non-whites and is a leading force behind the Black Anglican Celebration for the Decade of Evangelism, which takes place at York this weekend?

He is hesitant, but polite.

'I understand why many people want all non-white Christians to express solidarity with each other. It raises awareness and that is important. But many white people lump all non-white people together in any case, and for us to agree to be lumped together is pandering to a kind of prejudice.'

I wonder if this a view that only very few Asians and Africans can afford to hold in a society still dominated by the white, male middle-class. Dr Nazir-Ali thinks not.

'English society is very complex. What is lacking is community, and, in terms of faith, any social expression of the relationship between believing and belonging. We in the Church can change that, but only if we accept that secularisation and diversity are the context of mission. We are not going to be able to recreate the communities we have lost, but we can play a significant part in creating new ones, with all the richness that diversity has to offer.'

This sounds laudable, but is it not a little romantic?

'No. You have to believe in the power of the Gospel if you are to bring it to bear, and I do. And as for the Church: if the Church is the church of the nation, then it has to recognise and welcome diversity, not be afraid of it, for it's nothing to be afraid of.'

I wish him luck, the fearless new Bishop of Rochester.

'Thank you,' he says. And then, just as I am turning to go: 'Please pray for me, won't you?'

Mary Loudon is the author of 'Revelations, the Clergy Questioned' (Hamish Hamilton, pounds 9.99)

(Photograph omitted)

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