Canon Michael Saward

by
20 February 2015

Colourful and multi-talented: Canon Michael Saward

Colourful and multi-talented: Canon Michael Saward

Canon David Winter writes:
CANON Michael Saward, who died on 31 January, aged 82, was a colourful, multi-talented, and occasionally exasperating priest, who left as his legacy to the Church of England the burgeoning "open" Evangelical movement, and a number of outstanding hymns, including "Christ triumphant", already a favourite for great occasions.

He was born in Blackheath, Kent, and educated at Eltham College. Although his family were not churchgoers, he joined a church choir, and, at a camp for young people, he experienced a conversion to Christ which remained intensely real to him all his life.

After National Service with the West Africa Frontier Force in Ghana, he went to Tyndale Hall, Bristol, to train for the ministry. During his time in Bristol he met his future wife, Jackie. Their love for each other was obvious to all who knew them, and Jackie's death a few years ago was a great blow to Michael. They had three daughters and a son.

After ordination, Michael served two curacies, in Croydon and Edgware, before becoming Vicar of St Matthew's, Fulham, and then of St Mary's, Ealing. It was in the Ealing vicarage that the family suffered the appalling experience of a violent burglary by three men high on alcohol and drugs. Michael and then his daughter Jill's boyfriend were viciously beaten, and then Jill herself was taken upstairs and raped. The story was headline news (Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister, sent a letter of sympathy to the family), and Jill courageously declined anonymity in order to draw attention to the pernicious nature of the crime. She later wrote on the subject, and has taken a public role as an anti-rape campaigner. Although Jill seemed to have coped with the trauma well, in fact she later suffered severe emotional after-effects. Michael himself confessed to a failure to see how deeply traumatised she had been.

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During his early years of ministry, Saward had begun to write articles. He had a series published in the newly launched monthly Crusade, on important figures in church history, a subject to which he returned 30 years later in a notable series of broadcast talks on Premier Radio. He strongly believed that we shape the future by learning from the past.

From his curacy days, he also turned his hand to hymn-writing. He was a leading member of the "Jubilate" team that produced many of the popular hymns and worship songs of the 1960s and '70s. Later he was to concentrate on hymns: he professed a distaste for repetitive, superficial choruses, bereft of metre, rhyme, or theology.

Michael was a good preacher and also an able broadcaster, but a stint as the Archbishop of Canterbury's radio and television officer unfairly labelled him as an official "spokesman". The post involved trying to pacify Mrs Thatcher's frequent complaints about trendy leftish bishops on Thought for the Day.

He published an autobiography, A Faint Streak of Humility, John Hughes, Bishop of Croydon, having claimed that he had once detected such a thing in Saward. He took the irony as a compliment, and would freely acknowledge that lack of self-confidence had never been his problem. It may, however, have been a factor in his failure to achieve the senior appointment in church governance that he sought.

Instead, he worked away behind the scenes. He was one of a group of younger Evangelicals who, under the leadership of John Stott, used the National Evangelical Anglican Conference at Keele in 1967 to commit themselves to working within the Church of England as loyal members rather than as a trouble-making fifth column in its ranks.

Following this principle, Saward served on the General Synod for 20 years, as a Church Commissioner for 15 years, and as a member of the Church of England Evangelical Council for 17.

In 1991, he was appointed Canon Treasurer of St Paul's Cathedral, and remained there until his retirement in 2000. It was not quite the bishopric he would have cherished (and for which he was once mistakenly complimented in a letter from Downing Street, which he framed and kept). Nevertheless, he enjoyed the dignity and the traditions of St Paul's, while maintaining his Evangelical approach in worship and preaching.

Michael was an unashamed Evangelical, but in the popular sense of the term he was no puritan. He knew a good wine, loved the theatre, adored Sophia Loren, and wrote a book for Christians on enjoying sex. It was sufficiently frank to be banned in one chain of Evangelical bookshops. With his death, a little bit of colour has been drained from the Church he loved.

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