In Memoriam: Michael Bourdeaux

Reverend Canon Dr. Michael Bourdeaux
Keston Founder
March 19, 1934 – March 29, 2021

The Reverend Canon Dr. Michael Bourdeaux passed away peacefully in the early hours of Monday, March 29, during Holy Week. An Anglican priest, he founded Keston College in 1969 and dedicated his life to God’s call to be a “voice for the voiceless” of those enduring religious persecution. For his work, Canon Bourdeaux received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1984, joining such notables as Mother Teresa and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in accepting the award considered to be the Nobel Prize for religion. He completed his memoirs One Word of Truth in time for Keston’s 50th-anniversary commemoration and served on Keston’s Council of Management until his retirement in January 2020 although he remained as Keston President until his death.

Keston Council Chair Xenia Dennen stated, “His calling is part of eternity and will continue to inspire and guide many of us in this world. He has been a very close friend and colleague of mine for over 50 years, and I know that all the members of Keston’s Council will, like me, miss his leadership and inspiration.”

“The legacy of Canon Michael Bourdeaux is enormous,” explained Dr. Wallace Daniel, Distinguished University Professor at Mercer University. “The study of religious faith and practice in the former Soviet Union and in Russia today has witnessed a large number of outstanding specialists, and Canon Bourdeaux is among the most influential. From the late 1950s to the present, he has been a spokesperson for the dispossessed, the persecuted, and a champion of freedom of conscience in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. He was a humble person, a lover of song, as well as the natural world, and a faithful man of the church. A son of England, his contributions to humankind were universal.”

Born in the Cornish village of Praze-an-Beeble and a graduate of St Edmund Hall, University of Oxford, Michael Bourdeaux studied Russian and took part in Great Britain’s first student exchange program with the Soviet Union in 1959. While at Moscow University, he witnessed the beginning of Nikita Khrushchev’s anti-religion campaign and became disheartened when he saw churches closed and learned of Christians being persecuted.

On a later trip to Moscow, Michael learned that the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul had been destroyed overnight in the city's center and went to see the remains. According to Xenia Dennen, "While peering through the fencing which surrounded the pile of rubble, a woman approached him and when she realized he was a foreigner, asked him to follow her. Keeping his distance, Michael followed her to a house on the outskirts of Moscow where a group of Russian Orthodox believers had gathered. They told him about the persecution the church was enduring, and asked him 'to be our voice where we cannot be heard.' That was the moment when Michael felt called to found an organization in the West which could publicise what was really happening to religious believers in the Soviet Union."

Five years later, Michael Bourdeaux joined with Sir John Lawrence and with the help of Professors Leonard Schapiro and Peter Reddaway began the Centre for the Study of Religion and Communism, later renamed Keston College and now called Keston Institute. Keston documented persecution and regularly reported on the fight by believers behind the Iron Curtain. From the onset, Keston ensured the reliability of its reporting, and the Institute’s flagship Keston News Service produced authenticated reports about religious persecution that served as a tool for exerting political pressure—reports used by the BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Associated Press, UPI, and others. And the pressure made a difference.

To ensure accuracy, Keston built an archive of documentation from the countries it studied. That unique archive and library remains the main source for the history of religion in East and Central Europe as well as the former USSR. Since 2007, when the archives were transferred to Baylor, the Keston Center for Religion, Politics, and Society has continued Michael Bourdeaux’s legacy by preserving and organizing materials, encouraging study, promoting research, and disseminating knowledge through lectures, panels, and symposia.

Kathy Hillman, Director of the Keston Center at Baylor, added, “We thank the Heavenly Father for the life, work, and friendship of Rev. Canon Bourdeaux and consider the stewardship of Keston’s archives and library a Divine calling. As instructed in the book of Matthew, Michael let his light shine and through his good works helped dispel the darkness so others could join him. His voice will forever echo and his light long illuminate the path forward. May we, too, be found faithful.”

In addition to his religious life of service, Bourdeaux was a talented musician and athlete. For many years, the former tennis player served as an umpire at Wimbledon and as an invited official at other Grand Slam tournaments.

He was preceded in death by his first wife Gillian in 1978 and by his parents Lillian and Richard Bourdeaux. He is survived by his wife Lorna and his children Karen, Mark, Adrian, and Lara as well as his beloved grandsons Nicholas, Christopher, Oliver, and Sebastian.

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