The Right Rev Hugh Montefiore

Workaholic Bishop of Birmingham who could arouse alarm as well as admiration
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Hugh William Montefiore, priest: born London 12 May 1920; ordained deacon 1949, priest 1950; Curate, St George's, Jesmond 1949-51; Chaplain and Tutor, Westcott House, Cambridge 1951-53, Vice-Principal 1953-54; Examining Chaplain to the Bishop of Newcastle 1953-70, to the Bishop of Worcester 1957-60, to the Bishop of Coventry 1957-70, to the Bishop of Blackburn 1966-70; Fellow and Dean, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge 1954-63; Lecturer in New Testament, Cambridge University 1959-63; Vicar, Great St Mary's, Cambridge 1963-70; Canon Theologian of Coventry 1959-70; Honorary Canon of Ely 1969-70; Bishop Suffragan of Kingston-upon-Thames 1970-78; Bishop of Birmingham 1978-87; Honorary Assistant Bishop, Diocese of Southwark 1987-2005; married 1945 Eliza Paton (died 1999; three daughters); died London 13 May 2005.

Hugh Montefiore seemed to have all the gifts needed to be a great leader of the Church of England, yet while he worked for it with extraordinary energy and eloquence its active membership halved, and Margaret Thatcher expressed what most of that membership thought about him: "You're always so controversial, bishop." That was to his face, and her honest feeling was reported back to him: he was a "dreadful" man.

His autobiography, published in 1995, when he was 75, remembered that and many other criticisms, and its title, Oh God, What Next?, showed that it was not a record of a smooth ecclesiastical career. It included this self-exposure. "I was sensitive about criticism; I realised that I was not altogether likeable, otherwise my peers would talk to me more and befriend me. I might appear to be brash and self-confident (I was certainly impetuous), but this often hid an inner feeling of unacceptedness."

He supplied the explanation which was sadly true. "I was déraciné; an exile from the Jewish community and, I felt, not really accepted in the Christian community." At one stage, the Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan wrote a three-page letter to the Prime Minister urging that Montefiore should be made Dean of St Paul's. Later, his was one of two names being considered for appointment as the Archbishop. It was not to be, and Montefiore said he was glad: he would have hated either job, for he was not a diplomat.

Hugh Montefiore became a Christian in 1936, when, as a schoolboy at Rugby he had a vision of Jesus, a figure in luminous white saying "Follow me". His study of the New Testament (about which he lectured in Cambridge University, 1959-63, and wrote often, in a learned or popular style) began soon, when he read the gospels for the first time. He came from the wealthy and highly respected Sebag-Montefiore family, which was shattered by his conversion, and some agony lay behind his book in old age, On Being a Jewish Christian (1998).

Previously he had thought of becoming a rabbi but had grown out of the idea, with a revealing reason: he did not want to be under any congregation's thumb. He was reluctant to become a clergyman instead, for during the Second World War in Burma he enjoyed the Army's manly comradeship and tolerated the high danger. But his religious faith was so strong that when he returned to Oxford, he felt that he had no option but to win a brilliant First in theology and became a curate in Newcastle.

After two happy years as that, in 1951 he was summoned to Cambridge, on which he made an impact over almost 20 years. He was the chaplain and tutor in a theological college, Westcott House, and Fellow and Dean of Gonville and Caius College, 1954-63, before throwing away this career to become vicar of Great St Mary's church.

He followed two outstanding pastors and preachers who had filled the church with undergraduates, academic families and townsfolk (for separate services) but had stayed for only three years each before being moved to diocesan bishoprics. Montefiore strengthened this new tradition by even more intense activity. In the 1960s, Cambridge was as restless and as radical as any other student centre, but this church was more vibrant and more popular than any other place in the tumult.

Some of the interest taken was due to the vicar's knack of being controversial. He not only differed from preachers on the theological left or right but also denounced the dons' feasts as extravagant (and this despite his own confessed love of food and drink). But he went too far: in one lecture which received publicity he speculated that Jesus might have had a homosexual nature while remaining celibate.

Fortunately, Mervyn Stockwood, one of his predecessors both as vicar and as controversialist, was now Bishop of Southwark, and Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury but previously a Cambridge professor, admired intelligence, faith and courage. So Montefiore became a suffragan or assistant bishop in south London, beginning 17 years of episcopal activity, from 1978 as Bishop of Birmingham.

Again, he went too far, however: he denounced a technological marvel, Concorde, on the two grounds that it was an extravagant use of taxpayers' money and that it made an intolerable noise. He also became chairman in 1973 of the Independent Commission on Transport, beginning almost 20 years as a provoker of thought about alternatives to the tyranny of the private motor car. Both these initiatives caused counter-protests in Birmingham when he was appointed as its Anglican bishop.

He owed this appointment to the fact that it was the first recommendation of a new church committee which was allowed to submit two names to the Prime Minister. His had to be the first name because, as a junior bishop, he had aroused widespread admiration as well as alarm, not only because of his more than normal labours as pastor and administrator, but also because of his exceptionally wide interests.

It was in this period that he became known as a pioneer in concern for the polluted, and sometimes nearly exhausted, environment. His religious sense saw this as the spoliation of God's good creation. Any preacher might have seen this, although very few did at the time, but Montefiore added a touch which was unique among the senior clergy: he had the appetite and brain required for research into the scientific facts, an interest developed by many conversations with scientists in Cambridge.

Lectures in Belfast were turned into a widely noticed paperback, Can Man Survive? (1970). An immediate reaction was that this was alarmist, but it persuaded even the General Synod of the Church of England (a body Montefiore disliked because it was inward-looking) to debate the issue on the basis of a careful report about the undeniable problems. Contrary to some precedents, the official Church was not absent at the launch of a campaign about the future of the world.

Hugh Montefiore was primarily a theologian, of course, and another deeply serious book was The Probability of God (1985), on the support which science could give to theistic belief (although not to certainty about the Creator's existence). Some scientists resented this invasion of their territory but again he was a pioneer. He would have been less open to criticism if he had stuck to publications such as his A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews (1964), but he felt it an imperative duty to address the questions of the day, as other titles of publications testify: God, Sex and War (1963), Remarriage and Mixed Marriage (1967), Yes to Women Priests (1978) . . .

In Birmingham he attempted to fit his almost incessant engagements into a pattern: a third of them were leadership of his diocese (he made a point of knowing the names of the clergy and their families), a third were involvement in the life of Britain's second city, a third were speaking up in national affairs (in the media and in the House of Lords when he reached that).

He wanted to continue this activity until the compulsory retiring age of 70 and when he did retire, at 67, the outburst of admiration and affection in Birmingham demonstrated more than the fact that he had been a workaholic: his work in a period of ecclesiastical decline had been as successful as could be hoped for reasonably. And his decision to return to London for retirement meant that he did not really retire: speaking engagements, chairmanships of good causes, television appearances, journalism and publications continued unabated.

His Credible Christianity (1994) brought together reflections which might otherwise have lain scattered. It did not endorse every dogma of orthodoxy but its theme was the one he loved best: God acted in Jesus and especially in the love of Jesus for outcasts. As he grew old, he became fascinated by paranormal phenomena and stories about miracles, but he never lost his interest in this planet, causing further controversy last year when he announced his late conversion to the necessity of nuclear power, although this disappointed the Friends of the Earth, whose trustees he had chaired from 1992 until 1998. Montefiore may have made mistakes, but to the end he tried to speak the truth.

As he looked back, his main regret was that he had not spent more time with his wife and daughters, to all of whom he was devoted, but retirement (early by his standards) was forced by what he saw as his duty to act as nurse, cook and housekeeper to his wife Eliza, who endured a long suffering from Alzheimer's disease. His care for her in their home, not ended by her inability to talk sense, was the finest thing he ever did. When she died, this gregarious and hyperactive man began to look forward to his own death, which came in the night after his 85th birthday.

David Edwards

¿ I worked with Bishop Hugh Montefiore for some years at the Board for Social Responsibility, and was very fond of him, writes the Rev Dr Kenneth Leech [further to the obituary by the Very Rev David Edwards, 16 May]. He was, however, accident-prone in his writings and in his actions. I have two particularly fond memories of him.

One day in Westminster, during a meeting of the Board for Social Responsibility, chaired by Graham Leonard, then Bishop of London, there was a thunderous knock at the door. We were discussing some thorny issue, and Leonard was not pleased to be interrupted. A very flustered security officer appeared, and said, "Her Majesty The Queen has arrived at Westminster Abbey for the Knights of the Garter service, and there is a car numbered ****** blocking the way." Leonard replied, abruptly, "Thank you. I am sure it has nothing to do with the Board for Social Responsibility." We returned to the agenda. A few minutes later, Hugh Montefiore jumped up, said, "What number did he say?" and ran out.

A few years later, in an obituary of the Cambridge scientist Joseph Needham, he said that Needham was a server at Thaxted church in Fr Conrad Noel's day, when the hammer and sickle flew from the church tower. I pointed out that Thaxted church did not have a tower but a spire, that the Red Flag hung inside, not outside, the church, and that it did not bear the hammer and sickle, but the words "He hath made of one blood all nations". I met Hugh a week or so later, and he said, "Oh dear, I made a small error. But it's so nice to see you."