Hugh William Montefiore (born Hugh William Sebag-Montefiore; London, 12 May 1920 – 13 May 2005) was Bishop of Kingston from 1970 to 1978 and Bishop of Birmingham from 1977 to 1987.
He was educated at Rugby School, where he underwent a sudden conversion to Anglican Christianity. He then served in World War II and gained the rank of Captain in the service of the Royal Artillery, in the Royal Buckinghamshire Yeomanry. Afterwards he graduated from St John’s College, Oxford, with a Master of Arts (MA) in 1947, legally changing his name by Deed Poll on 7 January of that year, and from Westcott House, Cambridge.
He was ordained as a Deacon in 1949 and became the Dean of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he was a University Lecturer in Divinity. He graduated also from St John’s College, Oxford University, in 1963 with a Bachelor of Divinity (BD).
He was Vicar of the Great St Mary’s, Cambridge, from 1963 to 1970, Bishop of Kingston-upon-Thames from 1970 to 1978 — he was consecrated at Southwark Cathedral on Michaelmas day (29 September) 1970 — and Bishop of Birmingham from 1977 to 1987.
Montefiore was the author of more than 20 books, including The Probability of God (1985), Christianity and Politics (1990), Credible Christianity (1993), On Being a Jewish Christian (1998) and The Paranormal: A Bishop Investigates (2002). He was a Friends of the Earth trustee for two decades, but was forced to resign in 2004 after expressing support for nuclear power as a means to achieve climate change mitigation.
Here is my review of On Being a Jewish Christian (Hodder and Stoughton, £7.99, 195 pages, 1998)
Montefiore is an Anglican Bishop from a distinguished Anglo-Jewish family. He wears his heart on his sleeve as he explores some of the blessings and problems of one who claims to be both fully Jewish and fully Christian.
Hugh Montefiore had a powerful religious experience as a young man, seeing a vision of Jesus dressed in white and saying “Follow me.” This led Montefiore into the Anglican ministry, first as a don in Cambridge, and then as a senior if controversial bishop. Thinking that he is “now too old to cause trouble” he has put pen to paper to try to unravel some of the theological and personal issues that arise from his decision. The book is a well-written exploration of two thousand years of Jewish-Christian relations, bringing an insightful and heartfelt plea to Christians to be more understanding of the Jewish people, and to Jewish people to consider afresh the message and person of Jesus.
Montefiore does not duck the difficult issues such as the eternal fate of those who perished in the Holocaust, the dilemma of the modern State of Israel, and the tension many Christians feel between dialogue and evangelism. Nor is he reticent in giving his own views, which, even though you may not agree with them, make an important contribution from an often neglected perspective, that of a Jewish Christian.
Montefiore traces the roots of anti-Semitism to the New Testament itself. He sees the Johannine condemnation of “the Jews” not as an inner-Jewish debate, but as did his cousin, Claude Montefiore, the evidence of bitter hatred between Jews and Christians. Likewise he evaluates Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11 as “dangerously flawed.” In all this he adopts the liberal and critical agenda that discredits the New Testament by misreading its context. Montefiore seems out of touch with more recent scholarship such as Stephen Motyer’s recent “Your Father the Devil?” (Paternoster 1997) which convincingly argues that this is a wrong reading of the material, despite the polemical purposes it was made to serve by later Church Fathers.
Montefiore also reveals his sense of personal identity, and the perceptive reader will find much on which to ponder. He is particularly stimulating on the question of Messianic Congregations, and Messianic Judaism. The Bishop has mixed feelings about this more recent expression of what he himself has tried to live out, seeing both the strengths and weaknesses of the movement, and preferring to identify with it in Israel, but not in the UK. He prefers, as do many of the previous generation of Jewish believers in Jesus, to emphasise that he is a Christian who happens to be Jewish. The newer emphasis of Messianic Judaism, whilst not denying the primacy of faith in Christ and commitment to the universal church, tries to communicate this faith in terms more appropriate to the Jewish community, contextualising belief in Jesus as the Messiah within a Jewish perspective. Hence the term “Messianic Judaism”, which raises the question of an integrated Jewish form of Christianity and Christian form of Judaism.
We live in postmodern times, we are told, yet the struggles each of us face to be loyal to our roles and publics are tellingly illustrated by Montefiore’s feelings as an “outsider” in the Passover celebrations his relatives invite him to, and his ambivalence towards his people in Israel. His task is to recognise the hostilities and tensions between the two faiths, and act as a peace-maker and bridge-builder between the two communities. For him witness must be by deed rather than word, and he approves of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s refusal to accept the patronage of the Church’s Ministry among the Jewish People (CMJ), one of the most unfortunate beginnings to the Decade of Evangelism. His book receives the commendation of the Chairman of the Council of Christians and Jews, but Montefiore himself recognises the unfairness of the exclusion of Jewish Christians like himself from membership of CCJ and the dialogue process.
Montefiore’s book is well worth reading. Whilst he clearly identifies as a “Jewish Christian” rather than a “Messianic Jew”, his profound scholarship, thoughtful and reflective questions on Jewish and Christian identity, and his clear and luminous writing, challenge and delight the attentive reader. Anyone wanting to understand the issues involved in Jewish-Christian relations today will find it, like the Bishop himself, personal, informative and challenging.
Prayer: Thank you Lord for the life, faith and ministry of Hugh Montefiore, a leading figure in the Church of England from a distinguished Jewish family. Help us, like him, to integrate the identity you give us as Jewish followers of the Jewish Messiah in a way that shows the love, character and mind of Yeshua. In his name we pray. Amen.
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