The Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester and an evangelical Christian, has delivered a remarkable message to a group of Catholics:
‘Bishop Nazir-Ali said that, with the growth of Islamic militancy and the persecution of Christians worldwide, many people were now looking to Rome as the voice that could stem the tide. He said these people included many Evangelicals who never, in the past, would have thought about Rome. ‘So the Catholic Church has both a great opportunity and also a great responsibility.’
He is right on two counts. First, that the persecution of Christians worldwide is overwhelmingly the work of Muslim militants – as the Archbishop of Canterbury has acknowledged, though only the Pakistani-born Bishop Nazir-Ali has spoken with true clarity on this matter.
Second, that many evangelical Protestants now look to Rome as the world’s chief defender of Christian values – values that Dr Nazir-Ali felt that his fellow C of E bishops were failing to uphold, which is why he resigned his see to run Oxtrad, a charity that trains missionaries.
What fascinates me is context in which the bishop made his remarks. He was speaking to members of the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, a group of ex-Anglicans who converted to Rome. Actually, they are more than a group: they are a formal structure set up by Pope Benedict, who gave them their own Mass incorporating sublime passages from the Book of Common Prayer.
I love the Ordinariate, though I despair at the lack of support it has been given by the English Catholic bishops and the sneers directed at them by Anglo-Catholics who have decided to stay put. Fair play to Cardinal Nichols, though: he has lent them one of London’s most beautiful little churches, Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory, Warwick Street.
A few weeks ago I went to their main Sunday Mass. It was a disorientating experience, but in a good way. Although technically a ‘usage’ of the Roman rite, it’s effectively a rite in itself and the most uplifting English liturgy I’ve ever encountered. As a cradle Catholic I’m shamefully ignorant of the Prayer Book and so was unfamiliar with its jewel, the Prayer of Humble Access:
‘We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen.’
The Ordinariate usage is quite startlingly different from the everyday English Catholic Missal, still dreary despite its new translation; I urge cradle Catholics to visit Warwick Street to hear it for themselves.
How does this relate to Dr Nazir-Ali’s vision of Rome as the bulwark of Christianity? The answer is that, uniquely among Anglican bishops, he welcomes the foundation of the Ordinariate as a step towards the unity that Christ commanded. To quote from the Ordinariate’s account of his talk (with my emphasis in bold):
‘He said that he had watched the establishment and development of the Ordinariates with great and close interest. ‘I applaud their emergence and I hope that the Anglican patrimony which Rome has recognised for the first time will manifest itself more and more. Allowing Anglican patrimony to flourish should not just be taken as an exception, but it could be a charter for the future.’ Bishop Nazir-Ali said that there was now such a variety and diversity of cultures that it was not enough to say that the need to recognise culture was fulfilled by recognising the culture of the eastern churches. ‘The Church must change the approach. It must not capitulate to culture nor must it destroy any culture. Instead it must take heed of Pope Benedict’s point: that the role of the Church is to enable culture to find its true centre.’
This is visionary thinking; and it will not be undermined by Pope Francis who, now that he knows about the Ordinariate and has met its English head, Mgr Keith Newton, a former Church of England bishop, has extended its remit to incorporate a mission towards non-Christians and ex-Catholics.
At some stage I’d like to write a detailed article about the Ordinariate. But let me leave you with an intriguing detail. The Mass I attended was concelebrated by two ex-vicars, neither of whom had been faux-papist Anglo-Catholics. They were traditional High Churchmen who did not want to leave behind the loveliest of Cranmer’s prayers, Evensong or lusty Anglican hymn-singing. Thanks to the inspiration of the Pope Emeritus, they don’t have to. Which makes we wonder… could Bishop Nazir-Ali be tempted by the Ordinariate? He would certainly put a rocket under an English Catholic Church that, as the miserable cover-up of the Conry affair demonstrates, desperately lacks a sense of purpose and fire in its belly.