02 November 2006

MORE THAN 50 years ago, a remarkable lady, small of stature, huge of personality, taught me Russian on the Joint Services School for Linguists course at Cambridge. This was "Mrs Hackel" (we never used her Christian name and patronymic).

Despite the surname, she and her husband were Russian to the core. She had left her homeland after the Revolution, settled in Berlin, where her son Sergei was born in 1931, had had to move to Holland in the Hitler years, and had then become a refugee for the third time when the family moved to London in 1940.

It was soon my privilege to count Fr Sergei Hackel, the son of my inspirational teacher, as a friend, and we worked together in various ecumenical contexts for 40 years. One of his great contributions came when the British Council of Churches decided, after much debate, to commission a report on church-state relations in Eastern Europe. This was a committee project, chaired by Sir John Lawrence, with Trevor Beeson as editor of the text eventually published, after years of work, as Discretion and Valour.

You will not find Fr Hackel's name listed among contributors to the discussions, because, for diplomatic reasons, as a priest of the Moscow Patriarchate, he could not be seen, even passively, disagreeing with any edict of his own Church. His forceful contributions to the sometimes heated debates were a model of moderation and honesty. He would defend the Moscow Patriarchate when he felt the compromises it had to make in its conflict with the state were justified, but he was equally forthright in criticising it when he felt that accommodation to an atheist regime had gone too far.

Fr Sergei Hackel's most lasting contribution to ecumenical debate was not spectacular. He never studied at a theological seminary, but became a disciple of Metropolitan Anthony Bloom. Unlike him, however, he believed in church unity, and worked for reconciliation between the Anglican and Orthodox Churches. For 30 years he was editor of Sobornost, the journal of the Anglican-Orthodox Fellowship of St Sergius. He also defended the rights of religious minorities in Russia, a position rare enough to be notable among Russian Orthodox clergy.

His other literary work was mainly as an author of articles rather than books, but his One, of Great Price (1965), the life of Mother Maria Skobtsova, who died in Hitler's Ravensbrück camp, was a fine work, and led to a landmark BBC radio programme. He became a friend and adviser to many who sought his help, especially in the context of music. Benjamin Britten sought him out when he needed advice on the Orthodox liturgy, and John Tavener commissioned from him a translation of Anna Akhmatova's Requiem to be set to music.

He had fully developed careers in several other directions, however. Educated at Lincoln College, Oxford, after the war, Fr Hackel combined, both in voice and personality, the manners of an English gentleman and a passionate commitment to Russia, expressed in his mellifluous voice, equally compelling in English and Russian. He used his voice in so many contexts. He was a fine lecturer in Russian studies at the University of Sussex. He sang the liturgy for his small congregation at nearby Lewes.

Never did he make a contribution to a conference or a committee without being listened to with the deepest respect - and the affection that he aroused among all with whom he came into contact. He also occasionally presented programmes about icons for television.

As a child, and for many years, he was unable to set foot in the country where his heart was. In the 1960s, he was granted the occasional visa. On one early visit he witnessed a physical assault against the Easter procession that, deep in the night, wends its way round the outside of church, seeking the body of Christ. This upset him deeply, and influenced his attitude to the Soviet regime.

For many years he was the organiser and "voice" of the BBC Russian religious broadcasts. The effect of these can never be fully gauged, but he certainly made a contribution to the survival - and eventually revival - of the Church in Russia.

Fr Sergei Hackel was still working in full vigour up to his death on 9 February, aged 73, and is survived by his widow and four children.

Canon Bourdeaux is Founder and President of Keston Institute, Oxford.

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