I am not English, nor Anglican, but the story of the conversion of the former Anglican bishop Michael Nazir-Ali to Catholicism struck me. He is not the first evangelical Anglican to become Roman Catholic, and he probably will not be the last. He stands on a tradition that has important antecedents like the conversion to Rome of John Henry Newman (1801-1890) and many more. However, Nazir-Ali was a well-known evangelical Anglican who belonged to the “evangelical” family and was a respected voice in that world.
Transitions of this kind have personal motivations that ultimately only the Lord knows and the person(s) involved are aware of. This is to say that speculations are out of place. What is instead possible – and indeed necessary – is to reflect on the public and theological issues involved.
Here are a few remarks that can make us think. Commenting on it, the renowned evangelical thinker Os Guinness in a recent interview said: “Institutionally, the switch makes great sense… Rome is a far more prestigious liner to sail in than the battered barque of Lambeth”. However, “in terms of the Gospel itself, the switch makes no sense, and I hate to think that ecclesiastical factors outweighed theological factors at the end of the day”. And again: “the humblest West African church in the land, still faithful to the Gospel, would have been a better destination.”
In the same article, the Rev. Roger Salter added further food for thought: “How can Rome be the Home for any authentic adherent of the Augustinian 16th century Reformation where the doctrine of grace regained its bold and beautiful clarity? … Rome is as deeply divided as Anglicanism between the progressives and the orthodox. And the present pope not only betrays his own persecuted Church (in China, for example) but embraces a range of heresies, including universalism.”
These comments underline important points and indicate at least two main flaws. Let me briefly elaborate on them.
The Danger of an Idealized View of Rome
Bishop Nazir-Ali’s concerns over the trajectory taken by the Anglican Church on some key doctrinal and moral issues made him look at Rome as a much safer place to identify with. Rome’s image was perceived as being a traditional, stable, authoritative institution with an aura of doctrinal and moral integrity.
As often happens in similar stories, given its “Roman” dogmatic and hierarchical structure, Rome is viewed as a safe haven in the turmoil of our day, a bulwark against liberal and secularizing forces, and a better place to find refuge and support. The question is whether Bishop Nazir-Ali is aware of the evolutions of Roman Catholicism under the papacy of Francis, which are the result of trends stemming from Vatican II. They not only relate to the “uncertain teaching” of the present Pope, but belong to well-established trends in contemporary Catholicism.
One example will suffice. In terms of its universalist trends, since John Paul II and even more so under Francis, Rome encourages joint prayer with Muslims given the fact that according to Vatican II they “along with us adore the one and merciful God” (Lumen Gentium 16). We are “all brothers” (to quote the title of the latest papal encyclical) after all, not only with Muslims but with the whole of humanity. Roman Catholicism has re-engineered the language of “brotherhood and sisterhood” replacing its spiritual meaning (i.e. belonging to the same family as believers in Christ) with a biological one (i.e. belonging to the same human species). This replacement has immense theological, soteriological, and missiological overtones. It is another way of saying that we are all children of God, we are all saved in following our different religious journeys, and we Christians no longer need to look for conversions to Christ from among people of other religions.
Pope Francis regularly asks Muslims to pray for him because we are all “children of God” and says that atheists go to heaven because, after all, they are good people. Though biblically untenable, these “politically correct” positions can be heard in the Anglican Church but also at the highest level of Roman Catholic teaching authority.
In many respects, in fact, the doctrinal and moral confusion that made the Church of England no longer bearable for Bishop Nazir-Ali is very similar to the one that Roman Catholicism has been going through since Vatican II. That confusion is even more evident today, given the many moral and financial scandals that have shown the brokenness and failures of the Roman Catholic system.
As it is “Roman,” i.e. centered on a hierarchical structure that gives an idea of stability, Rome is also “catholic,” i.e. a sponge capable of “updating” and developing itself to adapt to the changing situations. Has Bishop Nazir-Ali fallen prey to a shortsighted, selective and, in the end, idealized view of Rome – a sort of wishful thinking in times of personal crisis? Has he really grasped the present-day reality of Roman Catholicism as a whole before embracing it?
The Risk of Going from Bad to Worse
There is a further – and perhaps more important – point to be made. Rome is no better than Lambeth, and not only in terms of its unstable and unreliable doctrinal and moral standards. Rome is no better a place because it has created a theological system that is not committed to Scripture Alone, nor to Christ Alone and Faith Alone. In other words, Rome does not embrace the biblical gospel as it was rediscovered at the Protestant Reformation, although it contains elements of a “conservative” religious culture that is nonetheless rapidly evolving towards a more pluralist and inclusivist position.
As an evangelical, Bishop Nazir-Ali should have had enough spiritual awareness to see what is at stake with Roman Catholicism from a doctrinal viewpoint. How can a Church, like the Roman Catholic Church, that is dogmatically committed to salvation by faith and works, an augmented canon of Scripture, the intercession of the saints and Mary, a host of spurious devotions and practices, Eucharistic adoration, papal infallibility, the dogmas of Mary’s immaculate conception and bodily assumption, and so on be a better place for a Christian who is concerned with biblical truth and the gospel of Jesus Christ?
Despite some areas of apparent and formal agreement (e.g. the Nicene creed), there are even deeper disagreements with Rome. The vocabulary of Nicaea is the same: God the Father, Jesus Christ, salvation, Holy Spirit, virgin Mary, church, a holy apostolic catholic church, baptism, remission of sins, but while the words are shared, the same cannot be said of their theological meaning. When a Roman Catholic refers to the “virgin Mary”, to “salvation”, to “the church”, etc., they mean things that are far from plain biblical teaching. The recent “catholic” moves in Roman Catholic doctrine and practice (e.g. historical-critical readings of Scripture and universalism in salvation) make the difference even sharper.
The 2016 article Is the Reformation Over? A Statement of Evangelical Convictions, signed by dozens of evangelical global leaders, says it well: “The issues that gave birth to the Reformation five hundred years ago are still very much alive in the twenty-first century for the whole church. While we welcome all opportunities to clarify them, Evangelicals affirm, with the Reformers, the foundational convictions that our final authority is the Bible and that we are saved through faith alone.” Rome does not share these convictions.
Ours is not the time to cross the Tiber. On the other side of the river, the reality is different from what it appears to be and, even more importantly, it is flawed in terms of its basic commitments. Ours is the time to continue to uphold the biblical gospel of Jesus Christ. I don’t know if Lambeth is the best place for a believer to find his spiritual home, but certainly, Rome is worse.