5 min read

Sarah Everard: she was 'exactly like us'

An anniversary of anguish deserves the miracle of our attention.
A woman looks down slightly, smiling.
Sarah Everard.
BBC/Everard Family.

This week, three years ago, we’d been shut in our homes for nearly a year and things were anything but normal. I don’t know about you, but when I think back to those locked-down days, it’s all a bit of a haze, those weird weeks tend to blur into one.  

Except this week, that is. This week, three years ago, was a wholly different story.  

We, the public, had just learnt that Sarah Everard, a thirty-three-year-old woman in South London, had been abducted, raped and murdered by Wayne Couzens, a serving police officer in the Metropolitan Police. And the news of this heinous crime took our breath away. Do you remember it? How you felt when you learned what had happened to Sarah?  I can remember the anguish of hundreds of people ringing out from Clapham Common, reaching every corner of the country. I can remember that, legal or not, nothing seemed to quell the outrage that was drawing people to the vigil being held there. All that grief, it had to go somewhere.  

The anger that night was so visceral, it feels like it’s still in the soil of the Common. The fear, so palpable, it still lingers in the air. And at that point, we didn’t even know the half of it. ‘She was just walking home’ - That’s the sentence, isn’t it? The one that haunted those days, weeks, and months.  

Three years on and we’re no closer to coming to terms with what happened. Not really. In the wake of the recent Angioloni Inquiry, which concluded that Wayne Couzens should never have been allowed to become, let alone remain, a police officer, the BBC released a documentary that follows DCI Katherine Goodwin’s story as she led the investigation. From first seeing the bulletin of a missing young woman, to hearing the ‘whole life’ sentence come down on Couzens – viewers are walked through the whole thing, step by step. What led up to Sarah’s death, and what followed it. It’s something that we should all see, even though we’ll immediately wish that we hadn’t.  

Because it would be hard to unsee the grainy footage of Wayne Couzens standing next to a handcuffed Sarah on the side of a busy road, abducting her while his hazard lights flash, all of it so sickeningly hidden in plain sight. It would be harder still to unhear the victim statement from Sarah’s mum, who admitted that every night, right at the time of the abduction, she silently screams ‘don’t get in the car, Sarah. Don’t believe him. Run!’.  

All of it, it’s just so hard to know.  

The details are hard to think about, and harder still not to think about. But that’s the point, I suppose. I remember what philosopher Simone Weil wrote,

that ‘capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle… it is a miracle’.

I’m just not used to a ‘miracle’ making me feel so nauseous. In theory, Weil’s words are beautiful, in reality though – they ache.  

I don’t tend to acquaint a feeling of utter helplessness with the miraculous. Where my understanding runs dry, my answers falter, and my tears flow – those aren’t the places I expect to see anything of any use, spiritual or otherwise. 

But Weil goes on:

‘…it is recognition that the sufferer exists, not only as a unit in a collection, or a specific from the social category labelled ‘unfortunate’, but as a man (or woman), exactly like us, who was one day stamped with a special mark by affliction.’  

Sarah Everard – her memory, as well as the people within whom her memory is most vivid, and her loss most keenly felt – deserve the miracle of our attention. Then, now, and for many years to come. We continue to grieve her, the woman who never made it home, as if we each knew more of her than her name. And that’s a beautiful thing, a human thing, a sacred thing. Because Sarah was more than her name, and she was more than her death. And so, she must be grieved as such, with our eyes fixed on the beauty of who she was, and the tragedy of who she will never be.  

And it’s tricky, because you can’t tidy up lament, can you? There’s no silver-lining, nothing to polish. You can’t put a neat bow on despair or grief. 

And then there’s Weil’s ‘exactly like us’ line to grapple with. And grapple with it, we do. The knowledge that it could have been any of us is ever-present. As a woman, I feel it every single day. If male violence against women is a spectrum - 1 being a wolf-whistle as we walk down the street, and 10 being death – the truth is that most of us will only ever face experiences that sit on the lower end of that scale. And yet, we are ever aware that 10 exists and that we could encounter it at any point. So, we are on the lookout for it. We are alert, always.  

Sarah walked home a specific way that night; not the quickest route, but the best lit.   

That’s what we all do. ‘Exactly like us’, indeed.  

Lament; I suppose that’s what this feeling in my stomach is. And maybe yours too. It’s a feeling that goes beyond the rage I feel toward the monstrous perpetrator, and the institutions that failed to stop him, and so many others. It’s a kind of wordless grief that things are the way they are, agony that we live in a world that hurts this much, despair at how things could have been so different. I felt all this three years ago, when I heard about Sarah’s death. And I felt it last night, when my sister walked home from my house in the dark with her hood up so that she was less distinguishable as a woman walking alone.  

And it’s tricky, because you can’t tidy up lament, can you? There’s no silver-lining, nothing to polish. You can’t put a neat bow on despair or grief, and you can’t pull yourself out of it by your own bootstraps. And that’s not to be defeatist, or to relinquish our responsibility to enact justice and fight for change. On the contrary, lament is rooted in the knowledge that things can be, and should be, better. But to try and find a way to solve the outrage we feel when it comes to the death of Sarah Everard is to completely misunderstand it, and ourselves, and reality. 

Bad things hurt. 

So, although writing this piece has been hard, I’m at least comforted in the knowledge that it was supposed to be a hard piece to write. And that the queasiness I feel and the tears that are threatening my professional resolve are the evidence of some kind of miracle that I don’t fully understand.  

5 min read

Dawkins is wrong about the nature of belief

You can’t rejoice in its collapse and like its cultural inheritance too.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A man sits and speaks, against a background of a bookcase.
Dawkins on LBC.

Richard Dawkins sat in a tree,  

Sawing every branch he could see,  

As he sawed through the branch on which he sat,  

He raged, "It's not fair that I should go splat!" 

I am a recovering New Atheist. I was such a New Atheist that I have a claim to fame: I have given what-for to Anne Widdecombe and the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja. I was there, as a spotty, greasy haired, angry teenager when Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry socked-it-to the Roman Catholics at an Intelligence Squared debate. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’. The question I asked was so poorly formed that the moderator deemed it a comment.  

I was a callow youth. Forgive me.  

I am now not quite so young and not quite so spotty. Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things. I have abandoned atheism and embraced faith in Jesus Christ. I am a priest in the Church of England, fully in favour of the Ten Commandments and the moral framework of the Church. Clearly, I’ve been on a journey.  

So, it seems, has Professor Richard Dawkins.  

The author of The God Delusion, and scourge of many public Christian thinkers and apologists, has recently made some turbulent waves. Having surfed the tides of New Atheism, he now seems to be swimming against the current. He is a proud ‘cultural Christian’. In an interview on LBC he forcefully defended the Christian inheritance of this country: 

“I do think that we are culturally a Christian country…I call myself a ‘cultural Christian’… I love hymns and Christmas carols…I feel at home in the Christian ethos… I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country…” 

Professor Dawkins went on to clarify (several times!) that he doesn’t believe a single word of Christian doctrine or the Bible. He was cheered by the continued decline in the numbers of believing Christians in this country. This wasn’t his Christianity. He argued that the distinction between a ‘believing Christian’ and a ‘cultural Christian’ is such that one can be both a very firm atheist and a ‘cultural Christian’. He doesn’t want people believing the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Jesus, but he does want us to keep our Cathedrals and beautiful parish churches. At first reading this could be seen as positive - an unlikely defender of the Christian faith coming to the rescue of a beleaguered Church.  

It isn’t. 

What the interview demonstrated was that Professor Dawkins doesn’t really understand the nature of belief or the nature of culture. If he did, he would understand a basic principle: culture doesn’t just magically appear and grow. Culture is formed and maintained from fundamental beliefs.  

You can’t have the fruits without the roots. 

Professor Dawkins likes church music. He likes the architecture of grand Cathedrals. He likes living in a society with a Western liberal ethic. All three of these fruits have grown from roots of the Christian tradition, and not just any Christian tradition. They have grown out of the BELIEVING Christian tradition.  

Why on earth would people spend inordinate amounts of time and money building Cathedrals if they didn’t actually believe the worship of God was important? Why would musicians pour out the best of their creativity into sacred music if not for a love of Jesus? Why would they structure our society in a way that sees the care of the poor and oppressed as a fundamental necessity if they don’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? 

People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

Professor Dawkins finds himself living in a world that has been so shaped and saturated by Christianity that even our secularism has been called ‘Christian’. He lives in a Christian house. He likes it. Now he thinks he can have it and keep it while seeking to undermine and destroy the very beliefs that are the foundation, the stones, the mortar. 

He can’t.  

You don’t get to demand that everyone build their house on sand, and then complain that it is collapsing…and he does worry that it is collapsing. Predictably, he opened the interview by discussing his qualms about Islam and how he wouldn’t want this country to change from being ‘culturally Christian’ to ‘culturally Muslim’: “Insofar as Christianity can be seen as a bulwark against Islam I think it’s a very good thing.” I find this invocation of my faith offensive - not just because I believe my faith is ‘the truth’ (not just a club for angry atheists to bash Muslims with), but because it is so stupid! 

I use the word advisedly.  

It is a comment from a man who can’t seem to understand cause-and-effect. People who don’t believe strongly in something don’t fight for it. Rejoicing in the collapse of Christian belief while expecting it to protect you from other religions is about as obtuse as an individual can get. The Church grew, and spread, and produced the hymns and cathedrals and ethics that Professor Dawkins loves so much, because of people’s firm belief in Jesus Christ as our Risen Saviour. People died to spread this faith - THIS CULTURE! As Tertullian said: “…the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

It was this realisation that led me to where I am now. I found that everything I cared about flowed from the Christian faith I rejected, so I rejected it no more. I wanted to continue enjoying the ‘fruits’ of my ‘cultural Christianity’, so I stopped hacking away at the ‘roots’ of ‘believing Christianity’. Professor Dawkins is seemingly wilfully blind to this fact: ‘believing Christian’s make it possible to have ‘cultural Christians’. Take away the belief and just watch what happens to the culture. 

“I don’t was to be misunderstood. I do think it’s nonsense.” 

As a believing Christian I respond: can we please have our culture back, then?