The sad news of Jill Saward’s death has reverberated widely, more than most of us could have anticipated. It was headlined by the BBC, featured in newspapers and spread through the social media. Something of Jill’s story has touched a chord with people across the country, so that even many who were not yet born when she first made headline news, have been reporting on her life and mourning her passing.
The anchor point for the media has been, inevitably, the much publicized incident of 30 years ago, when the lives of a vicar’s family in a London vicarage were turned upside down. Burglars, affected by drugs and drink, came for goods to steal, but took what was far more precious: peace and sanctity of body and mind. They violently attacked Michael Saward and his daughter’s boyfriend, and Jill was subjected to torture and repeated rape. When the men were brought to trial, the distorted lenient sentences re rape and burglary, and the dismissive comment of the judge about what he believed the rape victim had suffered, caused a public outcry. Judge John Leonard later regretted his handling of the case, referring to it in his valedictory speech in 1993 as a ‘blemish’ which would be found written on his heart.
Those dreadful incidents have certainly provided the backcloth for the national interest this week, but something much deeper accounted for the enormous coverage: a collective recognition of the power of Jill’s response to her ordeal. The strength with which she overcame the effects of her violation – post-traumatic stress problems, suicidal feelings, loss of self-worth – have all been documented in her obituaries. Jill’s forgiveness towards her violators, her ongoing commitment to challenging rape culture, her advocacy for changes in law have been cemented in a lifetime’s work for rape victims. There is no doubt that this has stirred the public heart. The experts – who became Jill’s colleagues in many campaigns – have testified that because of her tireless work, it is harder now for women to be raped with impunity.
I have known Jill for many years and have had enormous admiration for her. Even in the early days – in the 1980s – she was willing to go beyond her comfort zone to speak to young people at Greenbelt about the reality of God’s love in the most appalling circumstances. I was worried at first about this exposure. All too often the church is happy to make capital from the faith of Christian victims, without ensuring that those same people are cocooned in the unconditional love and support of fellow believers. Thankfully, Greenbelt was not like this. I was asked by them to monitor how Jill was coping and what she wanted to do, staying close by, in case there needed to be any change to the programme. She coped well. For me, it was a learning time. For Jill, it was a time for confronting the pain along with uncertainty about the future. But of one thing she was quite clear. The evil that had been done her was not a sign that God had abandoned her. It was a sign that sin was rampant in the world. Later, she was to have a wry laugh at the concerns of some therapists. ‘They tell me the problem now is that I can’t discuss openly with my family all the emotions I went through. I tell them - that’s not the problem – that’s how we are. The problem is that I have been raped by two men!’ This throw-away but wise comment taught me, in an instant, that there are many routes through therapy, and no orthodoxies are sacrosanct!
Jill was in every way a family person - a wife, a mother, a sister and a daughter -and her close ties to them all was never in doubt. Along with her sisters and brother, she faced the anguish of her mother’s long battle with cancer, and her father’s sudden death in his hotel room, on holiday in Switzerland. Her own, more premature, death will have come as an equally big blow to Rachel, Joe and Sue, her twin. And for Gavin Drake, her husband and soul-mate for 23 years, the loss must be devastating beyond words. In parallel Christian callings, the two of them have exhibited such mutual care, encouragement and love, that their marriage has deepened the strong foundations needed for Jill to fulfill her own life’s work before God. I hope readers to this tribute will remember Gavin in their prayers – along with their sons, Miles, Rory and Fergus. May they be able to rejoice that they have been close to someone whose life was so well lived, and be comforted by the peace of God, which passes all understanding.
I want to add a postscript to this tribute. In her death, Jill has somehow become public property. That is entirely understandable. Whilst remaining gentle and vulnerable, Jill was a tireless campaigner, fine communicator, a loyal and compassionate friend, a perceptive counsellor, and a courageous justice-seeker. It is interesting that so many tributes have been paid to her by those who are not involved with the church. But Jill was also a faithful Christian believer, whose testimony to God’s goodness and love undergirded all that she was and did. Working for justice in the area of violence against women was in every way her Christian calling, and one she pursued with faithfulness and vigour; indeed, I believe it is impossible to understand her work or her legacy without acknowledging the centrality of God’s love in her life. So, since she has offered such encouragement to other Christians, we might ask why her work received more attention from those outside the church than those within it and why, now that she has gone from us many Christians are wondering why they never learnt from her or supported what she was doing. So here’s the challenge. If the outpouring of tributes following Jill’s death, helps us in the church to re-think our own agendas, recognizing our blind spots, and our entrenched parochialism, Jill’s work will continue. For even now, she is surely encouraging us towards a bigger vision, where we can engage with the needs of our culture and our world, with more insight, compassion and care.