Anglican Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali recently stepped down from the Diocese of Rochester (Bishop St John Fisher’s diocese). His Wikipedia page is here. He has been described as a “controversial figure” in England. That’s “controversial” in the same sense that the Holy Father is controversial. In many ways, the two men – Bishop Michael and Pope Benedict – are chalk and cheese – or perhaps salt and pepper might be a better analogy. But I like both salt and pepper on my food.
Today I spent a number of hours listening to Bishop Nazir-Ali speaking in Melbourne as the guest of Family Voice Australia (the-artist-previously-known-as “Festival of Light”). While his audience was a few kilometres “right of centre”, I was pleasantly surprised by the Bishop himself. I had gone along largely because the sessions had been advertised with the titles “Courage in a hostile world: promoting the kingdom of God in an increasingly hostile world / the challenge of radical islam and agressive atheism”. I was concerned that this might become just another anti-Muslim session.
There was no question that that was the expectation from a number of people who attended, but that isn’t what Bishop Michael gave them. Instead, he spoke about things like
– uniqueness of Jesus Christ
– Dialogue and evangelisation
– Economic justice
– answering agressive atheism
– the omission of Christianity from the preamble to the European Constitution
– laws on marriage and homosexuality
– formation of conscience
– defence of the dignity of the human person
– opposition to slavery a constant in Christianity
– language of natural rights
etc. etc. Sound familiar? I am very interested to get a hold of some of his books (someone stuffed up at the FAVA office – they had the whole collected works of Rev. Mark Durie for sale, but none of Bishop Michael’s own books) to see how much evidence there is of direct influence of the Catholic Church’s teaching on these issues on his own thinking. He was, by the way, a member of ARCIC for many years, and in response to a question I asked about cooperation between evangelical and Catholic christians, he said that he was embarrassed and disappointed that the ARCIC dialogues came to an end because of the actions of some members of his Communion. He said this afternoon that he remains an Anglican because that is the form of Christianity in which he came to know Christ (not a sufficient reason for remaining one, in my experience, but there you are). Also answering my question, he commented that he believes it is time for the Catholic and Orthodox Churches to enter into a “differentiated” dialogue, recognising that the dialogue with the mainstream Anglican Communion can no longer have anything other than mutual friendship as its goal (“and that’s okay”, he said, “nothing wrong with that in itself”) but that we should be pursuing serious dialogue with “orthodox bible believing Anglicans” to seek agreement on the Gospel. He said it, not me.
In the end, he said very little about Islam. He did mention that there are difficulties with the Muslim’s committment to the Umma rather than to the nation of which he is a citizen (sound familiar? That’s what they said about Catholics in the past too – loyalty to the Church meant we were a fifth column in the society), and warning against the evils of Sharia law (of course, the only aspect of Sharia that has any foothold in Australia is Sharia finance, which is basically a system of finance to avoid charging interest – I pointed out to some others there that of course both Jews and Catholics have separate legal systems in operation in this country, but that didn’t seem to help much).
In the end, though, Bishop Michael said that Islam wasn’t really the problem. The problem was the gaping hole, the huge vacuum, that secularism has created in our society – and people are seeking a simple answer to fill that hole. That means that we have only ourselves to blame if Islam, rather than Christianity, is filling that hole.
Another point he raised – which I have been meaning to raise for some time now – is how so much of the violence that westerners are accustomed to attributing to the religion of those committing this violence can in fact be attributed to the “honour/shame” culture in which they live. We think it is about their religion, but rather it is about the “shame” they feel when their religion (or race or whatever) is felt to be denigrated, and the “honour” they seek to regain for themselves and their faith by means of violence. This isn’t therefore a “muslim” thing – it is the same thing you could expect from anyone brought up in a strict honour/shame society. I am expanding a little on what Bishop Michael said, but I think it is an idea worth exploring a little more deeply.
Anyway, I appreciated the opportunity to listen to Bishop Michael. I am still very uncomfortable with the prevailing “anti-Muslim” sentiments among many in our society, but I can’t say that Bishop Michael did anything to fan those flames. As for the “anti-muslim” sentiments themselves, I fear that they are largely irrantional. Yes, there are dangerous people in the world, and some of these are Muslims – but that hardly translates into a rational fear of Islam. And the idea that Australia is somehow going to become a Muslim state with Sharia law is, I think, just laughable. Australians are too bloody apathetic to practice Christianity, let alone Islam, which is a far more demanding religion.