The Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, retires this week after 15 years in post. He will now devote his time to supporting Christians facing persecution in some tough parts of the world. I have no idea what this will actually mean from day to day – or how this will be funded and Michael and his family supported – but he has made a brave decision to move on at this point and enter an unknown world for the last five or ten years of his ‘paid’ ministry.
As I have said before, I heard Michael speak when I was a curate in Kendal in the late 1980s and was astonished at his fluency, intelligence and memory. He didn’t once appear to refer to a note or script, he quoted theologians and thinkers I have trouble even remembering, and dealt with questions with a gracious eloquence that didn’t expose how silly some of them were. Michael has never lost that amazing ability and has used it to great effect for the sake of the Gospel and the Church. Being on the receiving end of his eloquence and forensic analysis is not always comfortable (which is an understatement), but his passion and integrity are unquestionable.
In yesterday’s Daily Telegraph he gave his final interview before moving on. Predictably, the thrust of the reported interview highlights the perceived concerns of the Telegraph itself, focusing on the need for the Church of England to “do more to counter twin threats of secularism and radical Islam”. Apparently, he warned us that “traditional British society is under threat from the rise of aggressive secularism and radical Islam”. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find the interview itself – only the report of it. So, it isn’t clear what else Michael might have talked about in the interview. (Update 3 September: Martin Beckford has very helpfully written up the interview.)
I agree with Michael that “the Church of England, which is used to working with society, should speak up … to defend the country’s customs and institutions, most of which are based on Christian teaching”. But I do not agree with the bit I excluded from that quotation: “more often”.
The first question this begs is: who is the Church of England? Is it the bishops or the Archbishops’ Council or the clergy or…? The fact is that the Church of England – in its parochial clergy, its chaplaincies, its bishops, its synods, its reports, its bloggers, its representatives in the House of Lords, etc – is always ‘speaking up’ and questioning the drifts of society when they need to be questioned. But not everybody gets listened to as Michael does. I am constantly surprised to hear that the Archbishops of Canterbury or York have been silent on something when a cursory look at their speeches, sermons and writings tell a different story.
I regularly get asked why I have not ‘spoken out’ on something or other when I have preached, blogged and debated the matter openly. What is really meant is: ‘you weren’t reported as saying what I want to hear you say in my newspaper.’
The same can be said of : “I think it will need to be more visible and take more of a stand on moral and spiritual issues”. What would such a ‘stand’ look like? And which ‘moral and spiritual issues’ will be regarded as those most important for the Church to be heard on? We are accused of not ‘speaking out on moral issues’ when it has to do with sex or relationships, but not often when it is to do with climate change, banking/finance or media misrepresentation.
I think there’s a double jeopardy – on the one hand an aggressive secularism that seeks to undermine the traditional principles because it has its own project to foster. On the other is the extremist ideology of radical Islam, which moderate Muslims are also concerned about. This is why there must be a clear recognition of where Britain has come from, what the basis is for our society and how that can contribute to the common good.
Michael has been well-heard on these matters, but he is not and has not been alone in speaking on them – either at parochial, local, national or international level. (I raised questions about persecuted Christian – and other religious – minorities during the Congress of Leaders of World and Tradional Religions in Kazkahstan in July this year…) I hope he will continue to bring his unique perceptions and perspectives to bear on these and other issues, but I also hope that others will get heard when they do what he is asking for, but don’t have the same facility as he does for getting reported.