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02 November 2006

HUGH MONTEFIORE, who died last Friday, aged 85, was Bishop of Kingston-upon-Thames in the diocese of Southwark 1970-78, and Bishop of Birmingham 1978-87. He made a very unusual bishop.

With the enthusiastic energy that was one of his chief characteristics, he did what a good bishop is nowadays expected to do: he befriended and encouraged the parish clergy and their families (taking photographs of them as an aid to the memory); he went out of his way to meet the laity; he counselled people in difficulties with kindness and shrewdness; he inspired diocesan organisations to be active and efficient; he officiated or preached at innumerable services; and he took his part seriously in the General Synod and in the Church’s national life (he was, for example, chairman of the Board for Social Responsibility). But all this he regarded as a part-time job.

He confessed to being a workaholic, but the fact that he had spare energy is not enough to explain how extraordinary he was. He had a rare self-confidence: the son of a very rich stockbroker, a soldier who learned how to command himself and other men in the war in Burma, a scholar who won theological distinction in Oxford, and became an expert on the New Testament while a Cambridge university lecturer, he was no one’s inferior.

But rarer still was his zest for fields in which new studies were demanded: he chaired an inquiry into transport problems; he was one of the first to become a prophet and also an expert about the environment; and he wrote in detail about the “probability” of God in relation to current scientific knowledge; he was not afraid to enter controversies about moral issues such as homosexuality or divorce. He had a Rolls-Royce of a mind, and rightly trusted it in many expeditions.

In his so-called retirement in his 70s, he did not slow down noticeably. He wrote a systematic theology, Credible Christianity, which brought together teaching previously given in many smaller books, and a breathless autobiography, Oh God, What Next?

Living in London, he was often asked to speak for the Church on television. He was a columnist in the Church Times from March 1990 until October 1995, producing each week a piece of research and fresh reflection. Thereafter, he continued to appear regularly in the paper as a book reviewer. His last review was published on 1 April this year.

It seems probable that historians will judge him to have been the cleverest man in a movement that set the agenda for the Church of England in the 1960s, and during a number of later years. Its members’ intellectual centre was Cambridge, where Montefiore was Chaplain or Vice-Principal of Westcott House 1951-54, Dean of Gonville and Caius College 1954-63, and Vicar of Great St Mary’s 1963-70.

They expressed themselves in two very influential books, Soundings, edited by Alec Vidler, and Honest to God by John Robinson; but it was Montefiore who more than anyone else combined the scholarship of the former with the radicalism of the latter, and showed in action how the combination could be applied to the renewal of the Church. It was a time of excitement and hope.

Some Catholic-minded Anglicans could hesitate about his forceful personality, and regret his strong advocacy of women priests. But they could not deny that he was a man of prayer, of the sacraments, and of a rather traditional faith in Christ: he wanted the heart of the Christology of the fourth and fifth centuries to be re-expressed in dynamic, modern terms, but he believed that “the womb” was filled by the Holy Spirit, and that “the tomb” was empty.

Some Evangelicals could ask whether any good thing could come out of Cambridge theology, but if they got to know him, they knew that they had met a man who had been converted.

In fact, he became a Christian because, when a schoolboy in Rugby, aged 16, happy to belong to a leading Jewish family (the Sebag-Montefiores), he had a vision of Jesus, who said “Follow me.” He became a priest because in Burma it struck him that following Jesus must, for him, mean being ordained, although then he had had almost no experience of life in a parish. He became a vicar because he became convinced that being a don, very busily engaged with his college, his lectures, and his own academic development, was not hard enough.

He almost did not become a suffragan bishop, for, having rather enjoyed stirring up minor controversies in Cambridge during years when he and the preachers he invited packed the university church, he gave an unguarded lecture to the Modern Churchmen’s Union. He speculated that Jesus, although chaste, might have had a homosexual orientation. In the early 1960s, that was still a shocking thing to say. But Mervyn Stockwood had the courage to see what might be.

Although his was the first appointment recommended by the new Crown Appointments Commission, he almost did not become a diocesan bishop. Margaret Thatcher thought him “controversial” (partly because he had attacked Concorde as being too gas-guzzling, too expensive, and too noisy); and he did not become Archbishop of Canterbury, although his name was taken very seriously by the Commission before his close friend Robert Runcie was reluctantly elevated to St Augustine’s chair.

But, looking back, there can be few who think that his appointment to England’s second city was bad for Church or state or diocese. People could find it hard to keep up with him, and could call him a showman or a dictator; but if they kept up, they were stimulated. In his vicinity, a complacent sleep was impossible. He sat on no fence: he made the fence electric.

And those who had the privilege of seeing his home life saw the best side of him. His marriage to Elisabeth Paton, herself the daughter and sister of distinguished churchmen, was very happy. She put up with his frequent absences from the family circle, which she described in her own book Half Angels, because she knew that, apart from holidays (which he believed in), almost incessant work was his vocation. She helped him through the times when even he was exhausted.

And then in their old age he helped her. For many years, she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease: he had to comfort and nurse her for as long as she was allowed to remain at home, he had to acquire and practise domestic skills — he, who had never done any washing-up until he did it in order to flirt with her as a girl.

That hidden example of a Christian marriage, which ended with Elisabeth’s death in 1999, can now be reckoned the best thing he ever did for the true life of the Christian Church, despite public achievements second to none in the Church of England’s recent history.

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