BBC Radio 3's interview with Dr Nazir-Ali

Introduction: Transcript of the wide-ranging interview with the, some might say, controversial Bishop of Rochester, Dr Nazir-Ali in the Radio 3 Belief series, presented by Joan Bakewell.
'Belief' Transcript: BBC Radio

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali Interview with Joan Bakewell

Q My guest on Belief today is a religious figure, who's featured
prominently in the news throughout 2008. Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali's
comments since the start of the year have startled many with their
outspokenness. He spoke of 'no go' areas, where extremists made
non-Muslims unwelcome. He also spoke out against some of the current
leadership of the Anglican Communion, siding with its traditional
wing, and going as far as to boycott the Lambeth Conference, which
every ten years brings the Anglican bishops to Canterbury. He speaks
out because he sees the liberal leadership of the Church deviating
from its age-old Christian faith and values.

As the youngest ever Anglican bishop, Michael Nazir-Ali was only
thirty-five years old when he was appointed Bishop of Raiwind in his
native Pakistan. In 1987 the then Archbishop of Canterbury Robert
Runcie invited him to set up, ironically enough, the Lambeth
Conference for the following year. Michael Nazir-Ali became Bishop of
Rochester in 1994, the first non-white diocesan bishop in the Church
of England. He's a Fellow of both his Oxford and Cambridge colleges,
and Visiting Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the
University of Greenwich.

From 1997 until 2003, he chaired the Ethics and Law Committee of the
Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority. He is also a lover of
cricket. Let's start with cricket bishop, because I understand your
sons cheer for England and you cheer for Pakistan.

A Well yes, and my wife supports the underdog, so we failed at the
Tebbit test comprehensively in all sorts of ways.

Q (Laughs) Right, well that takes me to your Pakistan background,
because of course you were born there, your parents fled Delhi at the
time of Partition. They were both converts to Christianity - your
father from Islam and your mother from Hinduism - so this is a very
extraordinary background.

A Well my father came from a Muslim family as you say. My mother was
not herself a convert, but she came from a family of converts from
both Islam and Hinduism. Her own family background was from the
Anglican and the Methodist Churches, actually.

Q So was there a tension within the family? Because after all, living
in a Muslim country for your father to have converted from Islam is
apostasy in their eyes.

A I have to say that in my early years I detected some tension but,
but not very much. There was also a great deal of cordiality er, and
friendship and we certainly had close relations with many people in
my father's family.

Q Who remained Muslim?

A Who remained Muslim of course, including my grandfather, my uncles.
I was particularly close to an aunt of mine. Yes, it was a mixture.

Q So did you.grow up believing that there was a place for all
faiths and none need attack the other, or.resent the other?

A Well we certainly lived in a very mixed situation. Most of my
friends in my early years were Muslims, some Christians as well of
course, Hindu, Jews. I mean I was at school when there was still a
Jewish Community in Pakistan and certainly thought that it was
possible for people to live together without violence.

Q And what was the observation of religion like in your home -
prayerful, attending church?

A Well my father had become a Christian and he was baptised in fact,
in what we would call here an Anglo-Catholic church in Delhi. Which
has an interesting history because it was a church that had been
built for Christians by a Muslim noblewoman who had been healed as a
result of seeing a vision of Jesus. And she never became a Christian,
but she built the Christians a church called St James's Kashmiri Gate,
in Delhi. So he was baptised there, but he never really appreciated -
and I admire him for this - the sort of differences between
Christian denominations. And he would worship at whatever church he
fancied. With my mother of course we went both to Anglican and
Methodist churches, which were at that time in Pakistan already
beginning to negotiate towards unity. And in fact later on they did
unite.

Q So was there ever a time in your growing up when you might have
been attracted to Islam?

A Well we had as I say, close relationships with my Muslim relatives,
and I do remember occasions - on Eid for instance if we were staying
with them - that y'know, I would go along to the mosque with my
uncles as I clearly remember such occasions. And with my favourite
aunt at the time, because the family were Shia, they would go to the
Shia centre, which is called the Imam Bargar, and I remember going to
that with her.

Q Do you think at the time you thought of the Muslim God as being the
same as the Christian God?

A Well I still think and, and I did then, that there is only one God
- the God who's made the world and who's made us - and that human
beings relate to that God in different ways.

Q So you feel comfortable, in a sense, within both contexts?

A Y.yes. I mean I obviously now I see things very much as a
committed Christian, and I would make sense of other people's
religious experience in, in Christian terms, that's obvious.
Certainly to respect people's experience, whatever it may be, and
even if I disagree with them.

Q At university you began to really firm up your ideas and be drawn
towards a Christian vocation. Not simply Christian belief, but to be
drawn towards the Church. How did, how did that happen?

A Yes well when I was first at university, there were really three
options for us. There was radical Islam, which was already present on
the university campus, there was Marxism, which was another kind of
radicalism, and there was Christianity. Now Marxism I've always felt
difficult, because of its determinism, because it did not allow for
the obvious sense of freedom that I felt human beings had, whatever
the constraints. In the end I was drawn to the Christian faith
because of the figure of Jesus. As a young person I wanted someone to
follow, and Jesus as seen by Christians, but also seen by other
people, was a very attractive figure to follow, to sort of order
one's life in the light of His life, and His teaching, and so forth.
So that's what started it really.

Q You came to Britain in the '70s as an Ordinand, and then went back
to Pakistan and ordained a priest in Karachi. After Cambridge where
you came and studied, Karachi was a bit of a shock, wasn't it?
Because you were given a very poor parish.

A I was a student here as you say and er, did research here and
taught here a little and em, I served as a curate in a parish in
Cambridge, and then went back. And the Bishop by then was wanting me
to come back. And he thought that it would be a good antidote, to put
me in this very tough, slum parish, as you say. Yes, it was a
tremendous shock.

Q What was the biggest challenge?

A The first summer that we were there, cholera broke out in the, in
the community. The children, the babies get dehydrated first so they
die first. And so I was burying these babies in fruit crates, because
the parents couldn't afford coffins.

Q What was the impact on you, on your faith?

A It was a great shock - I can't deny that. And I sought relief
with friends and other people in other parts of the city. Em
obviously in terms of culture and conversation and those sorts of
things, that was necessary.

Q It didn't shake your faith?

A Burying children in fruit crates certainly brought me as near to
the edge as it's possible to get. But I think in the end I felt that
these families were being upheld at that time by their faith, and
that caused me, I think, to be upheld as well.

Q You didn't question the cruelty of destiny in a world created by a
loving God?

A Well of course. I mean one.constantly in the face of evil, asks
those sorts of questions. But then the very fact that we are able to
ask those questions and to do something about what was happening, or
what happens, er is itself a kind of an answer.

Q Was there a Muslim community here in this parish?

A Yes, it was a mixed parish.

Q Mmm

A .of Christians and Muslims - and of course cholera is not a
respecter of persons.

Q Er I just wondered if, how it was for you, being in a community
where there are, was a, a Muslim element, and both of you are
proselytising religions. Whether you were kind of rivals for making
converts to your faith.

A Not particularly in that setting. I mean, people had their defined
areas and, and they worked in them. But of course later on I was to
encounter situations where there was, or there could have been
rivalry. Er actually as it turned out, there wasn't, but em.

Q This is at Raiwind when you were made Bishop, is that right?

A Yes that's right, because.

Q Because that was an 80 percent Muslim area, wasn't it?

A Yes, and perhaps even more than that. But the one thing that em, it
was and is known for is that it is the centre of the International
Islamic Missionary Movement. And so we did encounter this kind of
question about mission.

Q But you were up against strong competition (laughs) in that case.

A Well absolutely and we had reasonably good relations with one
another, on the basis that we recognised that they had an obligation
to invite people to Islam, and we wanted them to recognise that we
had an obligation to invite people to follow Jesus Christ. And on
that basis we were able to co-operate in community matters er for
instance. On one occasion I remember arriving to preach at a church,
and the front two rows were taken up by trainee Muslim scholars, who
had come to hear what a Christian sermon sounded like so, so that was
fine.

Q (Laughs). You've been labelled over the years a conservative
Evangelical - I don't know whether you approve of that or not. But
your belief is in living a 'biblical' life.

A Yes, I call myself a Catholic Evangelical, because Evangelical
means someone who's loyal to the Gospel. That is what it means, and I
hope I am - at least I try to be. And Catholic means someone who
believes in the Church, and I try to.

Q So that we have a, a core of your belief - the core beliefs of
the creed. I mean the Virgin Birth, the divinity of Christ, er the
resurrection of the body, life after death, life everlasting - an
interventionist God, is that right?

A I think the Bible gives us a framework for believing and knowing.
That is not this text or that, but it gives us what I call er, a
comprehensive anthropology, a way of understanding the human
condition and the world in which we find ourselves. Now of course,
that understanding and that framework has to be brought into relation
to the world in which we live, to knowledge, and indeed to new
knowledge. And if you believe in the biblical world view that doesn't
excuse you from relating to change in the world.

Q How does the biblical tradition interpret homosexuality then?
Because there's certainly a great deal of evidence recently of the
nature of sexuality and er homosexual bonds and many theories about
it of course. But you are rather rigorously disapproving - am I
right?

A Mm, I'm not disapproving of anything. I g.I, again, I would go
back to the anthropology of the Bible, which is that human beings
have been made in God's image. But being in God's image also has
implications for how we behave. And er, we have all sorts of
inclinations for all sorts of reasons. Nevertheless, practising
giving as it were, in to our inclinations er is not always according
to God's purpose or for human flourishing, or indeed for social
flourishing.

Q And in that sense in biblical terms, homosexuals are not eligible
for revocation to the priesthood?

A It's not to do with who people think they are, or their
inclinations, but what their behaviour should be. And that is also
true of heterosexual people of course, that the Church demands the
highest standards of belief, but of behaviour, from people and yes
there are certain requirements for ordination for example.

Q Let's talk about GAFCON, which is the Global Anglican Futures
Conference. You took part in it. Is this an insurrection within the
Anglican communion?

A No not at all - I mean I, I wasn't there for the whole of it - I
could only go for three days. I did discover a tremendous spiritual
atmosphere. That was partly because it was in Jerusalem, of course,
and that creates its own sort of evocativeness. But I found people
who were from an Anglican Catholic background, charismatics em,
Evangelicals, from all over the world - Africa, America, Asia,
Australia and from this country - all with a sort of singleness of
purpose, which I wish sometimes we could say about the whole of the
Church.

Q And what was that single purpose?

A To reaffirm traditional, Christian belief as the Anglican Church
had received it.

Q This was prompted of course, because the Episcopal Church in
America had ordained a gay bishop - that was the kick off to this
particular movement, wasn't it?

A I think the, er the gay bishop is just a, a presenting symptom. I
think it's much more than that. It's a, a wide discarding, in many
western churches, of traditional Christian believing.

Q Such as?

A Well for instance, in traditional language about the Trinity, or in
requirements of baptism for instance, for full membership of the
church, er on the grounds of inclusiveness. Widespread er breakdown
of marital discipline among the clergy for instance.

Q Themselves?

A Yes. And what happened with the ordination of er, this particular
bishop was only a symptom of a, a lot else that, that was going on.
But that nearly every kind of authority in the Anglican Communion
that there is had begged the Episcopal Church not to do this. And
they still went ahead and did it, and it was not the first time er,
that they had ignored the rest of the Anglican Communion.

Q So wait a minute - how are the churches that belonged to GAFCON,
because it is a belonging set up - how are they going to be
different? Are they going to be hard-line towards their
congregations? How will they treat homosexuals among the
congregation?

A Well, homosexuals like anyone else are welcome - that is not the
issue. I think what they want is the freedom to practise and to
preach traditional Christian belief em.

Q Don't they have that freedom?

A No. They, they don't because...

Q Who's stopping them?

A Their bishop sometimes, em, this is the problem. I mean er these
people are being driven out of churches in which they have grown up,
they have seen their own denomination as it were, change out of all
recognition with all sorts of er, new-fangled beliefs about.

Q In.? What sort of beliefs?

A About marriage for instance, er about a doctrine of God, for
instance, about em, membership of the Church, for example, the nature
of the sacraments, sexuality er, as well. Syncretism - which is an
unprincipled combining of different streams of religious tradition
- all sorts of things like that.

Q What it seems to me has happened, just in political terms -
political with a small 'p' - is that you have taken a har.er
GAFCON have taken a hard line, which has put you at odds with the
Anglican bishops of the Church of England, who you have called, I
think, 'wishy-washy', and 'too liberal, too vague, too abstract.' Is
that right?

A Well em, er 'wishy-washy' - I mean I think there is a danger of
Anglicans becoming 'wishy-washy' wherever that may be - in this
country or America or, or Australia indeed. What I have said is that
we have to be on our guard against being 'wishy-washy', and that's to
myself as much as to anyone else.

Q Well you went further - you boycotted the Lambeth Conference -
well that's pretty.not wishy-washy, saying 'No' to a Lambeth
Conference is a very absolute statement of where you stand. You are
not going to stand with your fellow bishops of the Anglican Communion
at this ten year event. Was that a difficult decision for you to make?

A Very difficult. It would have been my third Lambeth Conference and
as you say, for my first I had the particular responsibility for it.
I felt that because of the things that had happened, that we couldn't
just have another Lambeth Conference without resolving those issues,
that I couldn't stand with some of the bishops involved and teach the
common faith, and stand with them around the Lord's table at the
Eucharist. And what I would've preferred was smaller gatherings,
smaller meetings, where these issues were discussed and resolved so
that we could stand together.

Q Isn't there a situation in which some of these things can't be
resolved because they are not compatible? That your reading of the
'biblical life' come, derived from the Bible, is simply not
compatible with the liberal, more tolerant wishing to embrace gay
bishops and so on? There's going, there's no middle ground here, it's
going to be one or the other.

A Well that may be so, but I think we have to discover whether it is
so and I'm quite happy to, to explore that. But of course it is not
just Bible versus the twenty-first century, as it were. It is also
the common teaching of the Church down the ages - that is where
the, the Catholic and the Catholic Evangelical bit comes in. It is
also the teaching of our ecumenical partners. Anglicans have always
claimed some kind of special affinity with the Roman Catholic Church
and the Orthodox churches in terms of their ministry, for instance.
I've been a member of the Anglican Roman Catholic International
Commission for seventeen years. When er the ordination of this bishop
happened, coincidentally it was also the occasion for a meeting of
this commission. And I remember that the Roman Catholic co-Chair
simply refused to sit in the same room with the Anglican co-Chair,
who was then also the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church.

Q Oh, it doesn't sound very Christian does it?

A No it doesn't does it? But that is what happened, and what we can't
have is to jeopardise the very valuable work towards Christian unity
that has been done in the last thirty or forty years. But again, that
is a distinct possibility.

Q Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury did make a statement
that startled er many people, which was to suggest that the Shariah
Law, part of it might be included within English Law. And you spoke
out very strongly about that. Are you still as adamant that it is not
possible?

A I don't believe it is possible. I think that Shariah Law and
English public law proceed on entirely different assumptions. Now
what I do think is that every religious community should be free to
live according to its own law, if that is what they want. And at the
same time, I also believe that in legislation for instance,
governments should recognise conscience more and more. It is doing so
less and less, but I think it should do so more and more. Having said
that, I believe there should be a common public law for, for
everyone. Introducing something like Shariah Law would introduce
contradiction in the system of public law, if that is what is being
suggested. For instance, if you take matrimonial and family law,
would bigamy remain a crime only for some and not for others - what
about divorce and custody of children, laws of inheritance, laws of
evidence? All of these are different

Q But within this country, there are communities which already
acknowledge the Shariah Law, and indeed have councils and advisors to
deal with their community in such matters. D'you not want to see those
operate?

A No, no. What, what religious communities do within themselves,
that's up to them. But every citizen must have the right of access to
common law, and to public law, and to the courts to right any
injustices that they feel they have been subject to.

Q You use the phrase 'no go areas' concerning parts of cities where
non Islamic believers, or non believers at all, felt, were made to
feel uncomfortable in an Islamic community. D'you regret using the
phrase 'no go areas'?

A Well, the first thing that I was talking about was the result of
multiculturalism. That multiculturalism perhaps em, without knowing
that this would happen, had actually brought about isolated,
separated and segregated communities. And that cannot be the basis
for a good society. We need social capital by which we can live
together. Secondly, extremists have used this isolation and this
segregation to foster their own agenda with the young, for instance,
but also in putting pressure for example on Christian workers, on
people who have changed their beliefs either to another faith or to
no faith at all. In a society that is committed to integration, which
is different from assimilation - I'm not arguing for assimilation - we
can't have this kind of thing, because it will in the end be very
socially divisive, and people will suffer because of it.

Q D'you think faith schools also perpetuate a separation of different
cultures?

A They can do - it depends on what sort of faith schools they are.
I mean Church of England er schools for instance, are not faith
schools in that sense at all, because they are open to the wider
community, and their make up reflects the make up of the community in
which they are set. So we have em Church of England schools in my
diocese, which are 60, 70 percent people of other faiths er, where
parents choose to send their children er to a church school. And
that's fine, and what we say is 'Look, we're a Christian school -
that is to say we proceed on Christian assumptions, but of course
everyone is welcome, as long as they, they recognise that.'

Q But d'you fear that the legislation that promotes faith schools
across the board will be divisive?

A I think such legislation has to be quite carefully drafted to make
sure that faith schools are open to the wider community. That schools
co-operate with one another, that there is exchange er, er um between
them, among them, and that children have wide exposure to issues that
they will face as they grow up. There are faith schools, as I say, not
only Church of England ones that, that do this very effectively.

Q Bishop Michael, you've always spoken out. You always make the
headlines, you're always very clear when you oppose things, and what
you support. I wonder whether that suits your temperament as a, as a
sort of missionary Christian. Do you feel that in yourself, fulfilled
by this role?

A I think the role is the important point, that if I had not been a
bishop in the Church, I may have spoken differently, or not spoken at
all perhaps. Or done other things, like er reading and writing poetry,
or playing cricket. But because I have this responsibility, I feel
that I need to guide people in their personal, and their family, and
their social lives, to the best of my ability, taking account of the
teaching of the Bible and of the Church, and that is what I do.

Q And you feel fulfilled by that?

A I feel tested by it quite often, challenged by it. I feel that I'm
doing what I've been asked to do, if that's what you mean.

Q Sometimes I know in the past, and indeed currently, you have had
death threats because of what you said, being spo.so outspoken. And
that perhaps puts at risk those around you and those you love. Is
there an anxiety attached to the stand that you take?

A Yes, I mean one of the reasons why we had to leave Pakistan when we
did was because the children who were then very young, were being
threatened. I mean I'd been threatened and the car stopped on country
roads and that kind of thing but I could take that to some extent. But
I couldn't at that time risk the lives of children who'd not done
anything to, to deserve it. I find now that it is happening here, and
I think that is a matter of concern for us in this country, that it
should happen here, and we should make sure that it doesn't.

Q But you are not going to soften your stand and yield to such
threats?

A I don't want to speak promiscuously - I don't. I mean, for the
one time that I speak, nine times I have said no, and I try and
choose the moment to speak. But some things have to be said, and they
have to be said clearly so that people can understand what it is that
is being said.

Q So you think of it as speaking prophetically within the Church?

A That sounds very sort of grand. I mean I certainly don't think of
it in that kind of grand way. I just think that for the sake of er
people's faith, for the sake of their safety, for the sake of this
nation sometimes, er a nation that has given me a place when I didn't
have one, I have to speak the truth.

Q Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, thank you for choosing to speak to me.
Thank you.

A Thank you.

(End of interview)

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali Interview 'Belief' - BBC Radio PAGE 1

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Office posted the article on Wednesday, 31st December 2008 at 4:10pm
Article updated on thursday, 8th january 2009 at 3:10pm


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