ENGLAND: Pakistan-born bishop's decision to step down stirs global debate

April 2, 2009

The decision by the Church of England's bishop of Rochester, Michael Nazir-Ali, to step down 10 years before he could have retired to begin a career ministering to "persecuted Christians" has stirred vigorous global debate.

Karachi-born Nazir-Ali, who has headed the south-east England Rochester diocese for almost 15 years, surprised many church members in announcing his decision at the age of 59 to resign on September 1.

Coming from a background where his father converted from Islam and he attended a Roman Catholic school, Nazir-Ali was received into the Church of Pakistan at the age of 20. He had been increasingly outspoken on the dangers posed by the rise of radical Islam. He received death threats in 2008 after suggesting in a Sunday newspaper article that Islamic extremists were creating "no-go areas" for non-Muslims in Britain.

Nazir-Ali was seen as a leading contender to succeed George Carey as Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002, but he has become increasingly outspoken at the direction of the church since Rowan Williams was appointed as the spiritual head of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion.

A statement from Nazir-Ali's office on March 29 said, "Bishop Michael is hoping to work with a number of church leaders from areas where the church is under pressure, particularly in minority situations, who have asked him to assist them with education and training for their particular situation."

Nazir-Ali was the only diocesan bishop in the Church of England to boycott the 2008 Lambeth Conference of the world's Anglican bishops. At the same time, he allied himself with the alternative Global Anglican Future Conference movement known as GAFCON which is strongly opposed to allowing homosexual clergy.

The Washington Times newspaper said in an editorial on April 3, "In what is being called a victory for Islamism, the Anglican Church's only ethnically Asian bishop is stepping down."

George Pitcher writing in Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper on March 30 had speculated that the bishop mistakenly gambled on GAFCON becoming predominant and his departure signifies its demise as an effective movement in the worldwide Anglican Communion. The traditionalist schism has fizzled out," wrote Pitcher.

Writing on the blog www.virtueonline.org, which describes itself as the "Voice for Global Orthodox Anglicanism," Charles Raven stated, "Dr. Nazir-Ali's resignation is highly significant, not because it indicates that the GAFCON movement is a spent force, but because it seems to show that one of the most courageous and insightful bishops of the Church of England has come to the conclusion that 'enough is enough,' that he can no longer work with the grain of a church so compromised by its attachment to an increasingly secularized establishment."

Asked if Nazir-Ali would work with existing organizations or set up a separate body, the Rochester bishop's spokesperson told Ecumenical New International: "I expect that it will be a separate organization, but it is early days. It is somewhat an act of faith and he is working on it. He is going to work with persecuted Christians in all parts of the world, including Muslim converts to Christianity in Britain who are persecuted."

When he steps down, Nazir-Ali, who holds British and Pakistani citizenship, will lose his seat in the House of Lords, the upper chamber of Britain's parliament.