The senseless murder of church organist Alan Greaves on his way to midnight mass shocked the nation. Seven years on, his widow has asked to share her journey of forgiveness with HEART readers
“Forgiveness works. It works for us, when we experience God’s forgiveness for ourselves, but also when we extend forgiveness to those who have hurt us.”
Listening to the gentle, earnest voice of Maureen Greaves, it seems strange to hear the 70-year-old Church Army lay preacher talk so calmly after the horrific murder of her husband.
Instead of sharing Christmas Day 2012 with their children and missionary daughter, whom they hadn’t seen for two years, Maureen had a late night visit from the police. Subsequently she had to cope with her own raw grief, national press coverage and seeing her husband’s killers in court.
Alan Greaves’ murder on Christmas Eve 2012 shocked the nation. His widow’s response was to be equally shocking, because she openly forgave his killers. Today her radiant smile is a testament to the power of forgiveness in the face of unthinkable tragedy.
The mild-mannered 68 year old was walking up the road to play the organ for midnight mass when two strangers battered him to death.
“It was an extraordinary marriage because we were spiritually united”
The senseless attack on a much-loved father of four and the subsequent trial of his two attackers hit national headlines.
Maureen had met Alan in 1971 when they were both trainee social workers. In April 2012, they had celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. She told HEART: “It was an ordinary marriage – we had our rows – but it was also an extraordinary marriage because we were spiritually united as two
Alan also had a romantic side and would buy his wife flowers with a little note saying, “Love you passionately”. Each Christmas Eve he would bring her a huge bouquet, and Alan’s flowers were still inside their home when he set off to walk up the road to St Saviour’s Church, Sheffield, where he had played the organ for nine years.
Unbeknown to either of them, two men were roaming around with a pickaxe handle, looking for a target.
Alan left home shortly after 11pm. Fifteen minutes later, with the canon and congregation becoming increasingly concerned, Alan was found collapsed on the kerbside by a pizza delivery driver, who dialled 999. An ambulance rushed Alan to hospital, while documents in his briefcase enabled the police to identify him and visit Maureen.
Dashing to her husband’s bedside, she saw his head swollen beyond recognition and his body covered with tubes. Due to severe brain damage, Alan was unable to speak.
“I was almost beside myself with grief”
“The consultant said he was dying. I was almost beside myself with grief,” Maureen recalls. “In one moment I’d gone from being happily married to facing the prospect that my soulmate was about to die. The hardest part was not being able to say goodbye to the love of my life.”
“My soulmate was about to die”
At the time, the press reported her immediate, devastated response: “We are bewildered and we are struggling to understand how this has happened. Alan was soft and caring and would have avoided confrontation at all costs.”
Alan, who was also a lay preacher like Maureen, had taken early retirement from his job as a social worker to help his wife with her work in the Church Army, the Church of England’s outreach arm. He also served as a school governor, played the piano for a primary school and helped with local choirs.
Three weeks before that tragic night, the couple had rejoiced to see the official opening of a food and furniture bank, after years of storing donations for the needy in their garage.
“I left the murderers in God’s hands”
The Greaves had been looking forward to celebrating Christmas with their adult children Emma, Peter, Martin and Alison. Instead, Christmas Day was spent saying their goodbyes.
Christmas Day was spent saying their goodbyes
Serving as a missionary in Mozambique, it was Alison’s first time home in two years, along with her adopted twins, Marta and Inacio.
Her face had become red and raw from so much crying
Doreen recalls that the nurse had to give her moisturiser for her face, which had become red and raw from so much crying.
As a Church Army evangelist, she was used to helping other people in her community deal with heartache. But this time it was personal. “As I was sitting at Alan’s bedside, holding his hand, I suddenly realised that this was a murder.”
Maureen had been due to lead the Christmas service where she would have said the Lord’s Prayer, and now two lines came to her very forcefully: “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”
When she first became a Christian at 18, she had been “captivated” by Jesus’ love for her: “I realised he had paid the penalty for the sins of the whole world, and I had no doubt about his forgiveness. I knew it was pure, clean and almighty – and that it meant I could go to heaven when I died.”
She thought, “I cannot not offer these strangers forgiveness.”
“I cannot not offer these strangers forgiveness”
So she simply prayed: “Heavenly Father, will you please give me your grace to fully forgive whoever has done this to Alan – both now and in the future. I don’t want them weighing on my mind when I go to bed. I don’t want to talk about them in any way that’s ugly or derogatory. You will deal with them with your justice, mercy and love.”
She put out her hand as a gesture to show she was leaving the criminals in God’s care. “I shared my decision with my daughters, and we had a hug and more tears.”
Two days later, Alan died.
“The weight of my heartache and loss was too heavy for me to feel any other emotion,” says Maureen. “But after forgiving the attackers, I felt that the matter had been dealt with. I knew that I had done the right thing before God and I firmly believe it’s what Alan would have wanted me to do.”
Maureen says it was especially difficult to break the news to her sons Peter and Martin, who have learning disabilities, but explains that the police officers did “an incredibly wonderful job” in working alongside her.
She found the murder investigation that had to follow very intrusive in the midst of her grieving. “It took a lot of dealing with. I was heartbroken but also in a real state of shock over what had happened.”
However, her family’s forgiveness of the attackers meant that neither she nor her children needed counselling. “I don’t say that with any pride – I really think it was God at work. When you forgive someone, you’re setting yourself free from them.”
“God taught me how to cope”
Gradually Maureen and her children began coming to terms with the loss. “We are a very close family, which was a wonderful blessing,” she says.
The first time Maureen brought herself to walk down her street to the spot where Alan was attacked, she found that the locals were full of “anger and foul words” over what had happened. Yet in the face of their well-meaning support, she was able to explain what God had done in her heart: “I told them that I had entrusted the attackers to God’s mercy and justice.”
Didn’t she ever struggle with feelings of hurt and anger? “I had real faith that the criminals remained in God’s hands. I was very conscious that I needed to stay close to God.”
The police had to visit Maureen several times to ask questions; afterwards she would go for a little walk to a wooded area nearby: “I’d remind myself that the Lord was my shepherd and was caring for me.”
The two young men suddenly walked into court wearing blue jumpsuits, hands and feet shackled
Police identified the killers as Jonathan Bowling and Ashley Foster, both 22. Maureen, who touchingly always refers to the men by their first names, was understandably very emotional at Sheffield Magistrates’ Court when the two young men suddenly walked into the Perspex defendants’ box wearing blue jumpsuits, hands and feet shackled.
“I told their mothers that I was praying for their sons”
“I found it quite startling and upsetting. Jonathan and Ashley looked over at their families and one of them had tears in his eyes. I felt so thankful that I had forgiven these two young men. I didn’t feel any hatred towards them, by the grace of God, and was able to have a quiet chat with their mothers and tell them that I was praying for their sons.”
The pair were remanded in custody ahead of the trial at Sheffield Crown Court.
Before the trial began, Jonathan Bowling surprised the court by pleading guilty for murder. His blood had been found on the pickaxe handle. Ashley Foster denied having touched Alan, but the pathologist confirmed that a second weapon had been used, indicating that he had also been involved.
According to the prosecutors, the pair had been walking around looking for someone to attack. If Alan had not delayed his journey to the church by a few minutes to return home for his hat, he would not have come across their path.
The gruelling trial lasted three and a half weeks. “I went to court every day. I wouldn’t have missed any of it because I was there for my beloved Alan. I used to come home really tired from concentrating; sometimes I wasn’t even sure what the result would be,” Maureen recalls.
“On the final day, I took a little cross and a photograph of Alan with me, telling my girls that whether or not Ashley was found guilty, we would just sit quietly out of respect for his family.”
To her great relief, Ashley Foster was sentenced to nine years for manslaughter, while Jonathan Bowling was given a life sentence with a minimum of 25 years for murder.
After the sentencing, Maureen made a public statement outside the court. She said, “Alan was a man who was driven by love and compassion, and he would not want any of us to hold on to feelings of hate and unforgiveness… My prayer is that Jonathan Bowling and Ashley Foster will come to understand and experience the love and kindness of the God who made them in his own image and that God’s mercy will inspire both of them to true repentance.”
In the weeks that followed Alan’s death, Maureen started to notice that there were always flowers in the house, once such a familiar symbol of Alan’s love. “I believe the flowers were God’s way of showing me that he was with me.”
Eventually the family started to sleep well again and even if Maureen unexpectedly came across a photograph of the men on TV or in the papers, she would deliberately reaffirm her forgiveness, as an act of her will.
One year later, she publicly asked people to pray for the men who killed her husband during a memorial service at the murder site. The railings where Alan was killed have now become her personal prayer station.
Today, Maureen continues to be fully involved with the Church Army. In 2015 she was awarded a British Empire Medal in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in recognition of her work tackling poverty in north Sheffield.
Alan’s murder has often prompted people to share their own emotional struggles with Maureen: “Having read the Bible all my Christian life, I don’t believe there is an answer to the ‘why’ of suffering. But God does have an answer to our question, ‘How will I cope?’”
Maureen believes she will indeed never walk alone. “In fact, you don’t necessarily have to feel God is with you – you just have to believe that he is, because that’s what he’s promised.”