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Diplomatic-tightrope walker

17 April 2015

Michael Bourdeaux  considers a tribute to a Russian priest

Sergei Hackel: in a photo from East-West, which is illustrated from the archive of the editor of the monthly magazine Keefa, Alexander Burov

Sergei Hackel: in a photo from East-West, which is illustrated from the archive of the editor of the monthly magazine Keefa, Alexander Burov

East-West: In memory of Sergei Hackel, a Russian priest and English scholar: Commemorative essays

Faina Ianova, editor

Christians Aware £8 & £3 p&p*


ARCHPRIEST Sergei Hackel and I, at the time of his death in 2005, went back more than 50 years, to Cambridge in 1953, when his wonderful mother, Alexandra, a tutor at the Joint Services School for Linguists, taught me most of the Russian grammar I ever learnt. Fr Sergei soon became a friend, and was a valued adviser over many decades. I therefore extend a welcome to this modest book.

I wish, though, that it could have been longer than its 95 pages and contained more analytical essays. A man of many parts, he comes across strongly as a dedicated priest in the tribute by Roger Homan; as a teacher at the University of Sussex in its "glory days", before it abolished Russian studies in 2003, in the essay by his student Teresa Cherfas; and as a broadcaster for the BBC Russian Service in the essay by Peter Udell, formerly head of the BBC's East European services.

A perceptive tribute by Masha Karp, who chairs the Pushkin Club in London, raises a key issue. What was Fr Sergei's relationship to the Moscow Patriarchate and to Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, under which dual authority he exercised his priesthood? Karp says he was fiercely critical of the Russian priests who blessed the guns that would devastate the people of Chechnya.

I know from the many conversations I had with him over the years that he abhorred the Soviet persecution of religion, though he could not always say so in public. He walked a diplomatic tightrope, but never compromised his integrity. This is the point at which the book raises unanswered questions, briefly indicated by Fr Georgii Edelshtein, a priest resident in Russia, who quotes Fr Sergei as saying: "There are many points on which I can't agree with Metropolitan Anthony, and still there is hardly anyone I respect so much."

What were these points? John Reardon, as quoted by the late Canon Colin Davey, claims that Fr Sergei, in discussions at the British Council of Churches, was a consistent voice of moderation, as indeed he was. But Reardon implies that Keston (with not a word of explanation about this research body, which I founded) was a voice in the Cold War which indulged in "sometimes simplistic criticism of the Soviet stance". Such a statement revives attitudes during those fraught years when Keston was often demonised by people who simply did not read its documentation. If you want to know about the religious revival in the Soviet Union of 40 years ago, it is to our sources that you have to turn. Karp's essay, by implication, puts the reader right on this.

There are deficiencies in the editing. Why, for example, are 11 pages devoted to an excursus on Syriac Christianity? I stopped counting the number of times that contributors mentioned that Fr Sergei was editor of the theological journal Sobornost.

It is strange, too, that - other than listing their names - there is no reference to his wife and four children. As the Very Revd Dr John Arnold hints, his married status precluded him, according to the canons of the Orthodox Church, from becoming a bishop, a deprivation that the Church could ill afford. 

Canon Michael Bourdeaux is the President of Keston Institute, Oxford

*Copies can be obtained from www.christiansaware.co.uk 

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