Canterbury favourite was once a Catholic

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The Independent Online

The man widely tipped to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury was a Roman Catholic in his youth, the Church of England confirmed yesterday.

The Bishop of Rochester, the Right Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, had been a member of the Catholic church before becoming an Anglican at the age of 20 – a fact leaked to the media as part of an alleged smear campaign against the front runner. Bishop Nazir-Ali remains a leading contender to take over from Dr George Carey when the Archbishop steps down later this year.

The odds lengthened from 5/2 to 3/1, making him the joint favourite with the Bishop of Liverpool, the Right Rev James Jones.

The Church of England has dismissed the significance of the bishop's earlier switch. "It is wholly unremarkable that someone has started on their path as a Roman Catholic and later moved to the Anglican church," it said. "Many people in the church have moved from one to the other. It is just that the bishop happens to be a prominent member of the Anglican Church."

But the information follows a series of "revelations" about the bishop which proved false. Just before Christmas, it was alleged that he had misrepresented his age – a claim that was quickly disproved by a church inquiry.

He has also faced suggestions that he fabricated academic qualifications; that he has been previously married; and that he bought his first bishopric. The bishop also came in for some criticism after a forthright performance on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, in which he appeared to some to be promoting himself for the appointment.

There is intense jockeying between the conservative and liberal wings of the church to install their favoured candidates, with Bishop Nazir-Ali favoured by evangelicals.

The Bishop of Truro, the Right Rev William Ind, joined the criticism of the process by which the new Archbishop is chosen, describing it as "unnecessarily secretive for today's church". The candidates are chosen by a committee of church representatives and a civil service adviser who meet in a country house. The Prime Minister eventually picks one of two names.

The leader of the House of Lords, Lord Williams of Mostyn, said that an attempt to remove Downing Street from the process would not necessarily be opposed. "If the Church of England wished for it to be different, then obviously the Prime Minister would approach it with an open mind," he said.

But the Right Rev Michael Scott-Joynt, the Bishop of Winchester, defended the appointment system. "This is a thoroughly responsible and godly process. The only thing that might be questioned about it in this case is that it has a rather low representation within it of the Anglican communion," he said.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor is due to be the first Catholic Archbishop of Westminster to preach at a Sunday morning service on the royal estate in Sandringham, Norfolk, today.

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