Bishops crossing the Tiber: What is the church?

Mar 18, 2022 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

When Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali announced that he was leaving Anglicanism to join the Roman Catholic Church in September last year, it was a bombshell that even those who thought they were close to him on the Anglican and wider Protestant side were not expecting. Many felt it was a betrayal. Some took to social media to express strong criticism of the move, reopening hostilities about Roman Catholic theology; others, for example Gafcon leaders, communicated their profound disappointment privately.

I felt that the approach taken by Gafcon Great Britain and Europe was the right one at the time. Michael had made the decision and already “crossed the Tiber” without any hint of discussion with anyone apart from those in his new fellowship. He was not going to be persuaded to change his mind; attacking him personally was not going to achieve anything. The best thing to do was to express appreciation for what he had done for the cause of biblically faithful Anglicanism, affirm that his analysis of Western secularism and revisionist Anglicanism is largely correct, but re-commit to the ideals and vision of a renewed Anglicanism through Gafcon.

But Michael’s recently published, substantial essay, published in First Things, setting out his reasons for going to Rome, perhaps calls for a fresh response. It’s a bit of a risk to do this, as I don’t claim to be Michael’s peer in experience, breadth of knowledge, or theological and cultural understanding, and I don’t want to jeopardise the relationship we have. However, I think it is worth asking some questions “from below”, as someone who has great sympathy with his decision to leave institutional Anglicanism but like many people on the ground, does not agree with his ecclesial destination.

Michael recounts a growing frustration during his years on official Anglican and Catholic dialogue initiatives. There was, he believed, increasing convergence on some doctrinal issues in the dialogues, but moves towards unity were shattered many times by “unilateral and unprincipled action” by Anglicans. He mentions the ordination of women, and then of ordination of those in active homosexual relationships. Where is the authority holding churches to a standard? Where is the “apostolic continuity”? What has happened to the commitment to greater unity between the denominations? These are fair questions about process (leaving aside the theology behind his opposition to women’s ordination, which many orthodox believers would say is of a different order to that of sexual morality).

There is also an accusation of “saying different things to different partners”, with Anglican negotiators coming up with different language and content for working with Catholics and other European protestants; a failure to balance local autonomy and subsidiarity within the Anglican Communion with any kind of discipline over innovations in doctrine and ethics, a “tendency…to capitulate to the culture rather than sound a prophetic voice within it”. While the gospel needs to be communicated afresh in different cultures, and while new insights can come from this process, Anglicans have gone too far in permitting “syncretism” – allowing culture to change the gospel message as to make it unrecognisable.  By contrast, Michael says, Roman Catholics have an “authentic teaching authority”, made up ultimately of the Pope and the bishops, which acts as a bulwark protecting faithfulness to Scripture, and which avoids doubt over what the church teaches.

Protestants have an inadequate view of the sacraments, Michael goes on to say. He asks repeatedly “why not” give the designation of ‘sacrament’ to other important aspects of the church’s life (he mentions ordination and marriage as examples, but does not talk about penance…) He uses most the rest of his article to address other key theological issues such as Scripture, justification by faith, “real presence of Christ” in the Eucharist, the saints, the Virgin Mary, and prayers for the dead. In each case with customary careful and concise language he explains why he thinks former Protestant understandings are compatible with, and enhanced by his acceptance of Catholic teaching. He ends by commending the Ordinariate as a kind of “best of both worlds”, where he retains some Anglican tradition while being under the authority of Rome.

It’s probably not fair to accuse Michael of glossing over some centuries-old divisions in an article with such broad scope and a tight word count, although the foundational theological problems in institutional Roman Catholicism highlighted by the Reformation have not gone away. I hope that others more qualified than me will address some of these areas in detail. But I would like to express some broader questions, by pointing out some gaps in his account.

First, given that Michael clearly has had doubts about Anglicanism and sympathies with the Roman Catholic expression and its institution for many years, why did he not make the move earlier? Such a major shift of allegiance cannot be just intellectual or even spiritual. It would be interesting to know more about relational factors – who was he talking to? Was there a group which drew him in? Might this point to a failure – not theological but relational – in the orthodox Anglican world, particularly in England?

Then, within orthodox Anglicanism globally, important voices have for some time been calling for something similar to what Michael says is needed: a new ‘conciliar’ approach to the development of an authentically Anglican global body committed to orthodoxy; more than just a movement of like-minded people and churches committed to mission, but an authoritative ‘centre’ made up of representatives from the whole church, guaranteeing alignment with the apostolic faith.

Michael was in a unique position, given the high esteem with which he was held in England and globally with Gafcon and wider, to provide exactly the kind of leadership for a global orthodox Anglican conciliarism he felt was lacking. But when people looked to him for this, he was curiously diffident. Was this because he felt unfit for the task, or  – perhaps because of the inner conviction about his ultimate destination with Rome which he was holding for some time?

The answer to the problems with liberal Anglicanism which he outlines surely lie in a new reformation and renewal of Anglicanism, rather than its abandonment. Michael doesn’t mention attempts to do this, for example the John Stott-inspired heritage of diverse but united evangelicalism standing firm for biblical truth within the Church of England. Nor does the global Gafcon project feature, part of a wider ‘Global South’ movement in which he had played a leading role for many years, including being the President of the Great Britain and Europe Gafcon branch, and overseeing the establishment of the Anglican Network in Europe as a new Anglican jurisdiction committed to orthodoxy. Clearly Michael was disappointed in what he felt was elements of compromise, and lack of institutional ecclesial strength in these movements, but it is a pity when discussing Anglicanism as he does in his article, only to reference the official, Canterbury-aligned structures, and not to see any hope in the vibrant orthodox grass roots of Anglicanism globally.

And it is ultimately at the grassroots where authentic Christianity stands or falls, not in the eminence of its leaders and the impressiveness or weaknesses of its institutions.

In Isaiah 8, the context is the Kingdom of Judah, trembling with fear as it is threatened with attack from its northern neighbours, Israel and Syria. Yahweh, through the prophet, says that these small nations will soon themselves be swallowed up by a much bigger threat, Assyria. The tendency of God’s people is to panic at the latest disruption, and to put trust in political alliances, and worse, returning secretly to the worship of the old gods to bring security. Instead,

“Do not fear what they fear… The Lord almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, He is the one you are to fear…

He will be a holy place; for both Israel and Judah he will be a stone that causes people to stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.”

Isaiah 8:12-14

Rather than urging a rallying to the visible political and religious institutions of Judah, the prophet says:

“I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the descendants of Jacob. I will put my trust in him.

Here am I, and the children the LORD has given me. We are the signs and symbols in Israel from the LORD Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion.” (v17-18).

Certainly Michael Nazir-Ali has seen more clearly than most the way that Christianity is threatened, historically by overt persecution in the East and South, and more recently and insidiously, by the ideological takeover of secularism in the West. Not to mention the recent additional challenges of pandemic, war and economic squeeze. Of course I am not saying that he is not personally looking to the Lord for salvation, or that he believes returning to the “true church” is somehow a substitute for deep individual repentance and cleaving to the Lord which we all need to do. But it does seem from his apologia in First Things that he thinks the Roman Catholic church is an ark which will guarantee protection from the error, compromise and apostasy seen in Anglicanism and other established Protestant denominations.

But can any institution provide this? The message from Isaiah, reinforced in the gospels and the rest of the New Testament, seems to be that the main ‘unit’ of believing, living out and witnessing to authentic faith in Christ is not something visible and apparently strong, like a nation or a religious institution, but a local community, often unremarkable and unprestigious. It is the ‘children’ who are the signs and symbols of Yahweh, just as Jesus spoke of the meek  “little ones” who see the Father’s face (Matt 18:10), and Paul spoke of the church in Ephesus, probably just a few small groups of families, as the household  of God, the new temple, the spiritual beacon of God’s wisdom. (Ephesians 2:19-21; 3:10). Good structures are important, but it is the cross, the Holy Spirit, the Word, and ordinary people of faith in Christ which makes the church and defines and protects orthodoxy.

I hope that as Michael embarks on his new journey in the Roman Catholic church, he will experience the joy of being part of a small, faithful community, and see that it is in networks of these gospel cells that the apostolic faith is preserved, not necessarily in the high offices, pronouncements and religious rituals of Popes, bishops and Synods in their gilded buildings.



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