Fr Sergei Hackel

Polymathic Orthodox priest

Father Sergei Hackel, the senior priest in Britain of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sourozh, was that rarest of creatures in the modern world - a genuine polymath, one that effortlessly crossed cultural and religious boundaries and broke the mould of what we expect an Orthodox priest to be.

Sergei Alekseyevich Hackel, priest: born Berlin 24 August 1931; ordained deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church 1958, priest 1965; Lecturer in Russian, then Reader, Sussex University 1964-88; editor and broadcaster, BBC Russian Service 1984-2005; Chairman, St Gregory's Foundation 1995-2005; married 1953 Christina Mosse (two sons, two daughters); died Haywards Heath, West Sussex 9 February 2005.

Father Sergei Hackel, the senior priest in Britain of the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sourozh, was that rarest of creatures in the modern world - a genuine polymath, one that effortlessly crossed cultural and religious boundaries and broke the mould of what we expect an Orthodox priest to be.

He was multilingual - notably in Russian and English but also in Dutch, German and French. More significantly, he was intra-cultural. Born to Russian parents in Berlin in 1931, and after a brief sojourn in Holland to escape Nazi oppression, he arrived in Britain with his mother in 1940. He went to Bloxham School, in Oxfordshire, before reading Modern Languages at Lincoln College, Oxford. In 1953 his cultural grasp extended to Ireland in a personal and lasting way for he married Christina Mosse, an Irish Quaker from Kilkenny. Together they led a full and rewarding family life in deepest Sussex, raising four children with international names and independent minds.

Fr Sergei's life was as multifaceted as it was multitalented. He was, amidst his religious and cultural pursuits, a serious academic with a DPhil from Oxford, and several monographs to his name - the most notable on the poet Alexander Blok ( The Poet and the Revolution: Aleksandr Blok's 'The Twelve', 1975). He taught Russian at Sussex University for nearly 25 years, retiring in 1988 as Reader in Russian, in the School of European Studies.

But a completely different side of him was already in evidence on joining the university in 1964, when it was the newest and "hottest" college of the swinging Sixties. The young Sergei, already a deacon of the Russian Orthodox Church and soon to be priested in 1965, was thoroughly at home in this milieu, for he was an aficionado of jazz, blues and American gospel. (One of his most vivid recollections from the 1950s was hearing Mahalia Jackson and Bigg Bill Broonzy in concert.) His interest in jazz extended to other modern musical forms, particularly the music of Benjamin Britten, who became a friend. His own contribution was to collaborate with the composer John Taverner by providing a translation of Anna Akhmatova's Requiem.

He was an expert on the Russian painters Larionov, Tatlin and Kandinsky. This unexpected interest in Modernism, for an Orthodox priest, dates back to his parents in Berlin, where their apartment, in its furnishings and decoration, was a model of Bauhaus living. The theatre was another artistic delight of his. At Oxford he had acted with Tony Richardson, and Robert Bolt was later to commission him to translate Russian plays for the National Theatre.

However, while he did not exude piety, nor wear his spirituality on his sleeve, this urbane and cultured man was first and foremost a priest. He was an empathetic but exacting one for many years in a small parish in Lewes, Sussex. Within the Russian diocese, he was the right hand of his bishop Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, to whom he was extremely loyal but not uncritical. But he was best known in the Christian world as a tireless and eirenic ambassador for the spiritual and liturgical life of the Orthodox tradition. From 1984 right up until his death he worked in the BBC World Service, where, as the weekly editor of Russian religious broadcasts, he reached an audience of millions.

Three achievements of Fr Sergei's distinguished life as a priest stand out. Beginning with his work in the Orthodox-Anglican organisation the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius in the 1960s, he became a committed ecumenist and an effective voice for toleration and mutual respect between Christian denominations. He not only represented the Russian Diocese in the British Council of Churches but he was active in Continental Europe and the World Council of Churches, visiting among other places Ethiopia and Thailand. For the last 30 years of his life he was editor of the authoritative ecumenical Orthodox journal Sobornost.

His work in inter-church relations was, if anything, outdone by his ministry of reconciliation in inter-faith relations - especially between Russian Orthodox Christians and Jews.

Perhaps his greatest achievement was his successful championing of Mother Maria Skobtsova as a saint for our time. She was a Russian nun who, in 1930s Paris, despite deep personal failure, devoted her life to the social outcast and the morally derelict and died a martyr in a Nazi concentration camp.

Sergei Hackel brilliantly captured her story in his vivid biography, first published as One, of Great Price in 1965. This book, along with translations of her work, propelled Mother Maria into the public spotlight and caught the attention of Russian Church leaders. This set her on a course for canonisation in 2004, which was duly celebrated in Paris. Fr Sergei was proudly in attendance, appropriately clothed in vestments Mother Maria had embroidered.

Andrew Walker



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