In April 2021, my wife Margot and I held on online book launch for the 2nd edition of our book “A Christian Guide to Environmental Issues.” We asked several friends and colleagues to give short talks. One of these was Richard Fisher, the CEO of our publisher, Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF). His was a very positive message, and he could see that environmental issues had become an important strand in the work of BRF. This led him to reminisce about BRF publishing “Time to Change” by Bishop Hugh Montefiore back in 1997. He commented that back then Christian environmental books never sold. At the end of Richard’s presentation one of our friends, Karl Wallendszus, suddenly appeared on screen holding a copy!! So at least one book sold. This all intrigued me, so I decided to see if I could find a copy. It is out of print, but there was one on AbeBooks, and I bought it (there are still a few copies available there).
Bishop Hugh Montefiore (1920-2005) was a Church of England cleric who rose to become Bishop of Birmingham (1978-1987). He had a longstanding interest in environmental issues. For 20 years he was a trustee of Friends of the Earth and chaired the trustees for some years. He resigned as trustee in 2004 after he became convinced that nuclear power had a role to play in combatting climate change.
And so to the book, looking at it now, 25 years after publication. Strangely, it is very much a forerunner of “A Christian Guide to Environmental Issues.” So it has chapters looking at different environmental issues, each of which has a biblical reflection. But while we had 10 longer chapters, Montefiore had 20 shorter ones. It is interesting to see the range of topics that he covered. They include a number that we include in our own book: extinction of species, water, human population, climate change. Some topics we hear little of now loomed large then, including acid rain and the ozone hole. In both of those cases there were international agreements which have reduced the problems. The book was written at the time of Mad Cow Disease or BSE, and the possible link with CJD even made it to the back cover. That looked really big at the time, but has vanished from our news now.
Reading the book one is struck by just how knowledgeable Montefiore was. He had all kinds of data and facts at his fingertips, and there is no doubting his passion for the subject. He was well ahead of his time. I found it sad to read this from his preface: “It is hard to realize that humanity is probably facing the greatest crisis in its history, and unless we take more resolute action that crisis will turn into a catastrophe.” It could easily have been written today, not 25 years ago, and the truth is we are no further forward in most respects than we were then. Many of the issues Montefiore highlights, such as global warming and biodiversity loss, have got a lot worse in the last quarter of a century.
One topic he covers that has improved is “The Church’s role”. It is hard to believe now, but at the time Montefiore was more or less the only bishop in the Church of England who spoke out on environmental issues. Only Christian Ecology Link (now Green Christian), of the present UK Christian environmental organisations, was operating then, and had a pretty small membership. A Rocha is not mentioned, but only had a field centre in Portugal in 1997, and A Rocha UK was not founded until 2001. JRI was formed in 1998, the year after this book was published. I think the comment, “and a group of evangelicals is presently attempting to rally concern in the Church”, probably refers to the activities of Sir John Houghton and Professor Sam Berry, our founding fathers. Montefiore would be pleased at how far the Church in the UK has moved on the environment, but would almost certainly be disappointed how long it has taken. And he would want much more from us!
A really good little book. Hugh Montefiore was certainly a pioneer. We can add his name to the list of those who worked on the environment in the church well before it was popular to do so. I think Keith Innes and William Temple also feature in that list. Who else?
Dr Martin J Hodson
JRI Operations Director
Cover photo: Montefiore’s Windmill in Jerusalem, Israel. Hugh Montefiore was a member of a famous Jewish family and a great-great-great-nephew of Moses Montefiore a financier, banker, and philanthropist. Moses supported the Jewish community in Jerusalem, and was behind the bulding of the windmill in 1857. (photo: Martin Hodson)