Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali of Rochester, who earlier this year caused anger by suggesting that some Muslim communities were ‘no go areas’, has created a fresh argument by claiming that the collapse of a ‘Christian nation’ has left Britain in a moral vacuum.
The comments come in an article for the debut issue of the new political magazine Standpoint – which has a small circulation at present, but has been projected into the headlines by front-page stories in the right-of-centre Telegraph and Daily Mail newspapers, and coverage on the BBC.
The bishop says that the marginalisation of Christianity as the recognised rudder for British life has created a loss of sustainable moral values, and that a that radical form of Islam is threatening to fill the gap.
Last week he said that respect for Islam in Britain “may have gone too far” and backed a hard-line evangelical resolution for the Church of England’s General Synod (its ruling assembly of bishops, clergy and lay people) calling for more overt attempts to promote the Christian message among Muslims.
His article criticises “multiculturalism” and says that historic Christianity knitted together a "rabble of mutually hostile tribes" to generate a British identity which was able to create a global empire.
But now, he believes, the trajectory produced by the "social and sexual" revolution of the 1960s has led to a steep decline in the influence of Christianity over society which church leaders have failed to resist.
The nation is now gripped by the doctrine of "endless self-indulgence" which has led to rising crime and the decline of the traditional family, he says.
The bishop argues that the government has been able to come up only with “thin” values - such as tolerance, decency and fairness – which are not “freestanding” but rely on a particular belief system rooted in Judaeo-Christian thought. More substantial resources are needed, he suggests, for an “ideological battle” against radical Islam, which he likens to the Western struggle against Marxism.
Dr Nazir Ali’s comments have produced sharply diverging responses, with strong endorsement from internet readers of the newspapers that have publicised them, and disagreement or dismay from others.
Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation said that it was wrong and misleading to characterise Islam in terms of its wilder fringes, and that together people in Britain could build a common future.
The National Secular Society suggested that he was trying to “save Christianity” by raising the spectre of Islam – though secularists have also attacked what they see as the growing influence of the Muslim religion in British public life.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think tank Ekklesia, said that the bishop’s comments were “misguidedly trying to defend the myth of a ‘Christian nation’ rather than looking at how Christianity has often historically lost its way by becoming a cosy part of a withering social, political and cultural order.”
He added: “There are indeed serious issues about moral cohesion in modern, plural societies. But diversity and disagreement cannot be wished away, and a vision of social justice and responsibility will not be created by lecturing people, seeking to restore Christian privilege, portraying Islam as the new threat, or bemoaning the loss of a monoculture.
"The churches need to be seen as small-scale communities of positive hope, not wounded dinosaurs complaining that people do not take them seriously any more and that the country is going to the dogs,” he concluded.
Dr Nazir-Ali is the only Church of England diocesan bishop from an Asian background. Born in Pakistan, he became an Anglican via Catholicism, and was Bishop of Raiwind and general secretary of the Church Mission Society (CMS) before moving to Rochester.
Passed over as Archbishop of Canterbury when Dr Rowan Williams was elected, Dr Nazir Ali is regarded as a senior Church of England bishop and sits as a member of the unelected House of Lords, by virtue of a privilege given to the Established Church.
Standpoint is a new monthly political comment magazine aimed at a “thinking public” and backed by shipping millionaire Alan Bekhor. It is supported by the right-of-centre Social Market Unit, a think-tank which aims at “driving its coach and horses through the liberal consensus” and which Bekhor helped establish, according to The Observer newspaper. But it promises to have contributors from across the political spectrum.
Other corporate backers include the John Templeton Foundation, which hands out the world's largest annual cash prize for improving the understanding between science and religion.