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



Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
wimbledonScot will face Ivo Karlovic next
Sport
football
News
Hillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test