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The Archbishop on Sergei Hackel

Sunday 1st May 2005

A short text written in 2005 in appreciation of Father Sergei Hackel, of the Russian Orthodox Church, who passed away in February of that year.

My first recollection of Fr Sergei is of a visit he paid to Cambridge during my undergraduate years to celebrate the Liturgy in Little St Mary's Church (I was singing in the conspicuously amateur choir). And what was memorable was not so much the economy and dignity of his liturgical presence as the brief sermon he preached on that occasion; a sermon I can still recall after some thirty-five years. It was, as I later realised, a very typical utterance, unsentimental, pointed, simple, a plain but powerful exegesis of the gospel for the day, the Gadarene swine story. He concentrated on the end of the narrative, the plea from the local people after Jesus' miracle that he would go away. However much we might be impressed by Jesus' miracles, said Fr Sergei, the bottom line is that his presence is dangerous and disruptive; we're afraid he's going to change things still further and that it's going to cost us, just as it did the unfortunate owners of the Gadarene swine.

The underlying austerity and the very Dostoevskian irony about miracle reflected a theology clearly formed by the experience of the twentieth century Russian diaspora, particularly by its most radical and (in the widest sense) evangelical manifestation in the Parisian community of the inter-war years. Fr Sergei's book about Mother Maria Skobtsova remains, even when there is ample further research and documentation now available, the best introduction in English not only to Mother Maria, but to her whole remarkable circle. It feels appropriate that my last visual memory of him is a photograph of him at the ceremonies for the canonisation of Mother Maria and her companions, wearing a chasuble embroidered by the saint.

In the intervening years, our paths had crossed several times, always to my great delight and profit even when he took me to task in a TLS review (quite rightly) for a rather superficial judgement about a mediaeval Russian religious text. We examined together, corresponded occasionally about material in Sobornost,and watched with interest and enthusiasm the gradual and belated emergence into the light of day of modern Russian religious thinking as a respectable academic subject. What I saw little of at first, but gradually became aware of more and more, was his role as interpreter between the Russian Church and the cultural and religious world outside Russia. He stood for an Orthodox presence and witness that had no archaism or folklorique quaintness about it, and no truck with historic prejudices and suspicions. Some day, there will be a book to be written on those in the diaspora who kept the conversation with the Russian Church and the new Russian intelligentsia alive in the disintegrating years of the old Soviet system; and in that book, Fr Sergei's name will stand prominently along with that of Metropolitan Anthony and Fr Alexander Schmemann (and how different those three were!).

It was not an easy or popular territory to inhabit in the Soviet period; nor was it any more congenial in post-perestroika days. But to see how Fr Sergei worked in that territory was to see a depth of integrity and moral toughness that was never aggressive and self-righteous but still set a clear, demanding standard.

I admired him unreservedly, and was warmed by his humanity, his wit and his lack of pomposity. He stands for me firmly in the tradition to which his book on St Maria witnesses - an Orthodoxy unafraid of the modern age, sacrificially disciplined, but with a gleam of the anarchy of divine love never far away. May his memory be eternal.

+Rowan Cantuar:

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