DR Michael Nazir-Ali was apparently Lord Carey’s preference to succeed him at Canterbury, and I sometimes suspect that he is his own favourite to succeed Archbishop Akinola as head of the global conservative Evangelical realignment.
He has certainly become the apostle to the saloon bar this week with his article in The Sunday Telegraph, making him probably the most discussed churchman since David Jenkins was Bishop of Durham. Both men, of course, are rather more complex than their public images. But that is because their public images are so very simple and powerful. Dr Jenkins was The Bishop Who Doesn’t Believe. Dr Nazir-Ali is The Bishop Who Stands Up For Britain, or something like that.
His article itself is sufficiently confused to repay close attention. The part that drew all the controversy seems — as one might expect — factually quite uncontroversial. “In fewer than 50 years, Britain has changed from being a society with an acknowledged Christian basis to one which is increasingly described by politicians and the media as ‘multifaith’.
“One reason for this is the arrival of large numbers of people of other faiths to these shores. Their arrival has coincided with the end of the Empire which brought about a widespread questioning of Britain’s role.”
In his view, multiculturalism “required that people should be facilitated in living as separate communities, continuing to communicate in their own languages and having minimum need for building healthy relationships with the majority”.
The effect of this, together with an upsurge in Islamic extremism, has been “to turn already separate communities into ‘no-go’ areas where adherence to this ideology has become a mark of acceptability”.
I have omitted various bits for later consideration, but I don’t think what I have quoted here is factually untrue, at least until the last sentence. But, even then, it is entirely clear from the enormous difficulties that officials faced when making enquiries into the background of the Tube bombers, that there are some communities that are pretty much no-go to non-Islamic outsiders, even if this, as the Bishop also says, is in many ways the other side of the coin to far-Right intimidation.
The distortion comes in what he did not say: that most Muslims live outside such communities, and want to do so. The elision of “Muslim” with “extremist” was predictably carried furthest in Monday’s Daily Express, under the headline “Fury at ‘no-go’ areas ruled by the fanatics”. “A senior churchman provoked a backlash last night after suggesting Islamic extremists had turned parts of Britain into no-go areas. He warned that Christians and other non-Muslims faced hostility in areas of towns and cities dominated by fanatics.”
This provoked its “Letter of the Day” the next morning: “At last we have a senior member of the Church totally in touch with reality. . . We’re ruled by the self-loathing liberal Left, whose members are ashamed of their own culture on heritage. Multiculturalism is being used to change Britain’s demography, while political correctness stifles debate.”
But there were less obvious messages in the Bishop’s article. For a start, there was the providential view of history: the Greatness of Britain, depends, in his view, on its Christianity, so that, although the Government is moving away from multiculturalism, “none of this will be of any avail if Britain does not recover that vision of its destiny which made it great. That has to do with the Bible’s teaching that we have equal dignity and freedom because we are all made in God’s image.
“It has to do with a prophetic passion for justice and compassion, and it has to do with the teaching and example of Jesus Christ regarding humility, service and sacrifice.”
I have to say that, if there was in fact “a vision of Britain’s destiny” that made the country great — rather than a navy, an army, and a strong economy — that vision was a lot more like “Rule, Britannia!” than like the Sermon on the Mount.
Dr Nazir-Ali’s vision would seem to demand establishment; nothing else could deliver the kind of public message about Britain’s Christian nature that he thinks essential. Certainly, if his views were followed, the Church of England would once more have a purpose in the national life: it would be the expression of our alienation from Muslims — just as it once was, at least to his wing of the Church, the guarantee of England’s Protestant character.
But here comes the last odd point. He is prepared to discard the establishment if it doesn’t perform this function: “I have to ask if it is only the forms that are left and the substance rapidly disappearing. If such is the case, is it worth persevering with the trappings of establishment?”
Well, at least this has provided a novel argument for establishment: what would a disestablished Church be like, run by Dr Nazir-Ali, in communion with Dr Jensen and Archbishop Akinola?