On the death of Adrian Hastings
by Noel Malcolm
Adrian Christopher Hastings, theologian, church historian and priest: born Kuala Lumpur 23 June 1929; ordained priest 1955; Diocesan Priest, Masaka, Uganda 1958-66; Editor, Post-Vatican II, Tanzania 1966-68; staff, Mindolo Ecumenical Foundation, Zambia 1968-70; Leverhulme Fellow, School of Oriental and African Studies, London University 1973-76; Fellow, St Edmund's House, Cambridge 1974-76; Lecturer and Reader in Religious Studies, Aberdeen University 1976-82; Professor of Religious Studies, University of Zimbabwe 1982-85; Professor of Theology, Leeds University 1985-94 (Emeritus); Editor, Journal of Religion in Africa 1985-99; married 1979 Ann Spence; died Leeds 30 May 2001.
(addressing the Bosnian Institute’s regular monthly forum in June 2001)
Adrian Hastings died on 30 May. He had been ill for only a few weeks, and the death has come as a great shock to all of us.
Many of you knew him personally, and I think most of you will have heard him speak at some of our monthly meetings in the past. He was a founder and a Trustee of the Bosnian Institute; before that, he was a committee member of the Alliance to Defend Bosnia-Herzegovina; before that, even, he was active in two other groups, Action for Bosnia and UK Friends of Bosnia. I can think of few intellectuals in this country who gave so much of their time and energy to Bosnia during the last nine years.
I got to know Adrian through his Bosnian activities – which means that I knew him only in these last years of his life. So I am not competent to tell you about all his life’s work and his many other achievements. I can’t talk to you, for example, about his years in Africa, though I know his experience there meant a great deal to him and to all the people who came into contact with him. (When he revisited Uganda and other countries last year, he was feted wherever he went by grateful former pupils.) Nor can I say much about his distinguished academic career and his major publications on the history of Catholicism, the history of Christianity in Africa and so on.
Let me just talk about the two things I do know about: his recent publications, some of which I reviewed, and his work for Bosnia. Adrian was a gifted writer, and he had a remarkable mind. Some people are good at handling big ideas and sketching bold new theories; other people are good at nitty-gritty research and the careful dissection of evidence. Very few people are equally good at both - but Adrian was one of them. His book The Construction of Nationhood is an extraordinary piece of work, ranging with equal assurance over early English history, African politics and the realities and ideologies of the Balkans. It’s a major work, which will stand alongside classics by Hobsbawm, Gellner and others, and I can’t think of anyone else in the world who could have written it. The last book Adrian produced before his death (though I think another one is with the publishers) was the massive Oxford Companion to Christian Thought which he edited. He not only edited the whole work – he also wrote all the articles on subjects so difficult that nobody else could be persuaded to take them on, such as ‘God’ and ‘the Devil’. Some of those articles are little masterpieces: the one on ‘Shakespeare’, for example, discussing the nature of Christian elements in his plays, is an essay of real brilliance, deft, perceptive and adventurous, which any literary scholar would be proud to have written.
Passion for justice
Adrian’s work for Bosnia showed the same intellectual qualities: attention to detail, and insistence on the ‘big picture’, the overall argument. But above all it displayed another of his personal qualities: his passion for justice. He was ashamed that the government of his country was pursuing a policy of arm-twisting the victims, a policy which depended on an unjust arms embargo, a policy defended by resort to a systematic misrepresentation of the real nature of the war, a policy which led directly to complicity in ethnic cleansing. Adrian campaigned against this from the first moment. Many of you will know, perhaps, his booklet SOS Bosnia, in which he collected his various short articles and letters on this topic. (The second edition makes particularly good reading, as he included in it some of the abusive letters he received in reply, from mad Chetniks in the Home Counties.) But Adrian was not just an armchair commentator. He travelled to Sarajevo during the war, to attend the founding meeting of the Serb Civic Council (so much for those abusive letter-writers who called him ‘anti-Serb’). He had to leave the city through the tunnel, and then take a steep climb up the side of Mount Igman, in deep snow, to reach safety. Not a light task, for someone who was already in his mid-sixties.
Adrian was a very active supporter and Trustee of the Bosnian Institute, supplying wise advice, creative ideas and penetrating questions at all our Trustees’ meetings. He could, at times, be rather exasperating – I think any friend of Adrian’s will tell you that. But the qualities that made him exasperating – his doggedness and tenacity, his refusal to be fobbed off with inadequate explanations – were part and parcel of what made him such a strong moral character.
I remember our trip to Sarajevo after the war, in 1996, with Marshall Freeman Harris (of the Balkan Action Council in Washington). Marshall was an old friend of Robert Frowick, the US diplomat – now representing the OSCE in Macedonia – who was then in charge of setting up the elections in Bosnia. We had a meeting with Frowick, and Adrian began to question him about the electoral law he had set up, which privileged the so-called ‘nationalist’ parties on the electoral commission. ‘Why did you do that?’ asked Adrian. ‘Well,’ said Frowick, the professional diplomat, ‘we felt it would be more appropriate …’ and so on, using the standard waffly diplomatic phrases. ‘More appropriate to what?’ said Adrian, sharply. ‘I don’t see the appropriateness at all. Explain yourself.’ And so it went on, with Frowick looking more and more like a student whose inadequately prepared essay was being taken apart by his tutor. After we had left, Marshall stayed behind to chat with Frowick. ‘Who is that man?’ he spluttered. ‘I’ve never been spoken to before like that.’
Well, that was Adrian. Passionate, incisive, tenacious – but also, in my experience, kind, humorous, and with great generosity of spirit. I shall miss him more than I can say.