Blessed with ambition: Michael Nazir-ali

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The Independent Online

Michael Nazir-ali is used to making a splash. He was at one stage the youngest bishop in the world. The late Lord Runcie hand-picked him to be his assistant in 1986. And in 1994, as the 106th Bishop of Rochester, he became the first black diocesan bishop in the Church of England.

"Black" is the wrong word, but it is no more wrong than any other in this context because what was shocking to the unchurched world about his appointment was that he was not white, and so represented a very visible break with the tribal assumptions made about the Church of England. Outside the cathedral, as the rite of his ordination proceeded, a local woman told a newspaper reporter: "I do hope the new bishop's a Christian."

The Bishop is, indeed, a Christian – probably the most intellectually respectable evangelical in the Church of England. As the son of a convert from Islam, he could not really escape being treated as an expert on inter-faith relationships. But he is also the bishop who was chosen to represent the Church of England's viewpoint on the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority, which deals with the trickiest new questions of modern ethics.

And he has a curious role within the Anglican Communion as the man who can best act as interpreter between the fairly tolerant Church of England, which is in decline, and the confident, growing, puritanical churches of South East Asia. He has been trusted with the difficult role of chairing the committee that decides how the Church of England can most gracefully split when it gets round to appointing women bishops and the rump of irreconcilables have to leave.

Now he wants to be Archbishop of Canterbury. One firm of bookmakers installed him as 3-1 favourite for the job.

If he were chosen – first by a Church committee, and then by Tony Blair – it would represent a startling break with Church tradition, but a rather different one from what many so far assume. He is believed to be the favourite of the present incumbent, Dr George Carey. He also seems to be the evangelical party candidate, since their only other hope, James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool, looks after three years in the job like a silly lightweight. Dr Nazir-Ali has been close to the heart of the Church of England since he was 36. To a properly colour-blind liberal he is a complete member of the establishment. Yet he is none the less an unusual candidate and not at all as mainstream as he seems.

Michael Nazir-Ali was born in 1949 in Karachi, Pakistan. One sign that he was taken seriously as a candidate came in December last year, when The Sunday Times resuscitated an ancient rumour that he was in fact born some years earlier, and so was not as precocious as he seemed. But he really was born in 1949, and he is outstandingly quick-witted, self-confident, and gifted with a fine memory. His father was a convert to Christianity from Islam and Dr Nazir-Ali has always been sensitive to the difficulties faced by Christians in Islamic regimes.

After a degree at Cambridge, he went back to Pakistan as a tutor in a theological college. In 1984, at the age of 35, he was elected as Bishop of Raiwind, a small, rural diocese in Pakistan. What he says about specific Islamic regimes is always well-informed and thoughtful. He does not see Islam as a monolithic entity, but as a religion that can be expressed in almost as many ways as Christianity. Much of the time he talks as if both religions could use the other to bring out the best in themselves.

His vision of Christianity is profoundly influenced by his knowledge of the third world. "When I was a bishop in Pakistan, one of the most difficult things to do was to build a church," he said. "People would ask me to build a church and to have people worship in it. Here, of course, the situation is the other way round."

The diocese of Rochester, founded in 604AD, has 264 churches, but few of these are full. His views on the global future of Christianity are thought-provoking: in 1998 he told me that the centre of Christianity, which had shifted from the eastern Mediterranean to Western Europe with the rise of Islam, was now shifting again, to eastern Asia, and that the dominant model of the future would be Chinese Christianity – "conservative, pragmatist, evangelical" as he described it. It's not a bad description, either, for his flavour of Anglicanism, except that he does have a fondness for ideas for their own sake.

"If Anita Roddick were Chinese," he said, warming to his theme, "she would be a Christian." He went on to talk at length about how "Asian Christianity gets its leading ideas from business and has management as its model of power. Lee Kwan Yew said once when he was Prime Minister of Singapore that we leave metaphysics to the Indians". This, I thought at the time, was the sort of conversation you ought to be able to have with a bishop. He's not the only one who can make you think, but it is a gift rarer than it ought to be.

Why, then, is there such a startling strength of feeling in the church against his candidature? All of the three leading candidates, Dr Nazir-Ali, Richard Chartres and Rowan Williams, have their detractors. But in the case of Williams and Chartres, the opposition is ideological. People say that they are too liberal or too conservative, or they cite specific attitudes to sexuality or to women priests.

Dr Nazir-Ali splits the difference between the other two candidates: he is strongly pro-women priests, and just as strongly anti-gay ones. He defends both of these positions on Biblical grounds: "Men and women have both been created in God's image and have the same inherent dignity," he wrote in 1998. "Human sinfulness, personal and social, has resulted in the subjugation of women in many societies, but this is not God's will and purpose. There can, therefore, be no discrimination in the Church on the basis of gender."

But of course, when God created men and women, he didn't, according to the Bishop, create gays and lesbians: "The teaching that pervades the Bible is that men and women have been created for each other. It is both their difference and their complementarity which makes for the stable union which is so important for the nurture of children. There are many patterns of family life throughout the world and, in every authentic expression of it, the permanent union of a man and a woman is always at the heart. As far as I know, such a Biblical norm has not been affected by advances in scientific or social thought. If anything, these have tended to confirm this basic insight of the Bible."

Such views on gays may not go down well with New Labour – Dr Nazir-Ali has consistently voted against equalising the age of consent. But they do him no harm with a large evangelical constituency. With Dr Nazir-Ali, however, some of the most violent objections come from people who agree with him on these divisive questions but who think that he is just not up to the job because, for all his great gifts, he is too vain and too ambitious.

The ambition was clear enough this week, and it is a flaw that the modern Church of England finds hard to forgive. It's always difficult to balance the hubris of the belief that you can do the job of being Archbishop with the humility that is supposed to be a qualification for the position.

But the Bishop's performance on the Today program on Wednesday seemed to most observers to have got the balance badly wrong. It is perfectly acceptable to praise your predecessor for having exactly the qualities for which you hope people will choose you as his successor – Dr Nazir-Ali's statement on the departure of George Carey singled out "his appreciation of the importance of Islam [which] must be, in the light of recent events, seen as prophetic". He also commented approvingly that "his wife Eileen has been constantly at his side and they have established a tradition of hospitality which will be hard to match", a slightly mysterious quality unless you remember that the Bishop has himself been criticised for having one of the highest entertainment budgets in the Church of England. That's how the game should be played. But what you do not do is to praise your own qualities as a future-oriented feminist, which he went on to do.

In the interview, the Bishop, who is married with two children, said it was "pure invention" to claim that he believed it was self-indulgent of couples to marry without the intention of having children. This was curious, since the origin of the story was an article that he had written in his own diocesan newspaper in March 2000, and that is still on his website. He wrote: "It is very important for the Church to continue saying that having children and their nurture is a basic good of marriage and not an optional extra. Just as a marriage is not complete without mutual support, companionship and love, so there is a real lack if the intention is never to have children, regardless of circumstances. This signals that marriage is not a matter of self-indulgence. In our age, such teaching is crucial."

Such proclamations about marriage show a rather startling lack of the common touch, which also comes out in his thinking about divorce. Divorcees are remarried in the diocese of Rochester, but only when he is satisfied that they are the innocent party in the marriage breakdown and that no one will suffer from the new marriage. This logic would prevent him, as Archbishop, from sanctioning the relationship between Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. It is surely to his credit to have thought himself into this corner, but as an archbishop of the established church would need to think himself out of it again, and Dr Nazir-Ali gives the impression that he, like the Pope, should be listened to with unquestioning reverence when he pronounces on matters of Faith and Morals.

The vanity comes out in other ways. I once wrote, in a very obscure magazine, that his chief flaw was that he was not quite as clever as he supposed himself to be. Shortly thereafter I got a letter from the man himself congratulating me sarcastically on knowing how clever he thinks he is. Quod rather erat demonstrandum.

Biography

Born: Michael James Nazir-Ali, in Karachi, Pakistan, 19 August 1949.

Parents: son of James and Patience Nazir-Ali.

Family: Married Valerie Cree in 1972; they have two sons.

Education: St Paul's School and St Patrick's College, Karachi, Pakistan; University of Karachi (BA in economics and sociology); Fitzwilliam College and Ridley Hall, Cambridge; St Edmund Hall, Oxford; PhD Australian College of Theology, (University of New South Wales) and Centre for World Religion, Harvard.

Ecclesiastical career: assistant, Christ Church, Cambridge 1970-72; St Ebbe's, Oxford 1972-4; Burney Lecturer in Islam, Cambridge 1973-74; Supervisor in Theology at Cambridge 1974-76; Karachi Theological College 1976-81; Provost of Lahore Cathedral 1981-84; Bishop of Raiwind, Pakistan 1984-86; co-ordinator of Lambeth Conference 1986-89; Canon Theologian, Leicester Cathedral 1992-4; general secretary of the Church Missionary Society 1989-94; Bishop of Rochester since 1994

Publications: Islam; a Christian perspective (1983); Frontiers in Muslim-Christian Encounter (1987); The Mystery of Faith (1995).

Hobbies: Cricket, hockey, table tennis; detective fiction and poetry (in English and Persian)

He says: "The original Spice Girls are in the Gospels. They are the women who took spices to the tomb of Christ and found it empty: the two Marys, Salome and Joanna."

They say: "I can think of few other bishops who are distinguished by such persistent and aggresive homophobic attitudes. God help the Church of England" – The Rev Richard Kirker, head of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement.

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