Obituary: The Right Rev George Sessford

Bishop George Sessford was for many years the acknowledged leader of Catholics in the Scottish Episcopal Church. As such he found himself involved in ecclesiastical controversies which were never to his taste and which drained him, mentally and physically.

The most recent and the most serious was on the issue of women priests. Sessford had a horror of schism and would never have led a breakaway group. But as his church moved further and further away from its traditional rather conservative stance, in 1993 he felt compelled to resign his see and for a while it seemed that he might follow his close friend Dr Graham Leonard into the Roman Catholic fold. However not long after his resignation he was struck down with cancer and his last years were marked by increasing physical infirmity. Significantly, in spite of his principled and definite stand on many issues, he neither lost friends nor the affection of his diocese.

George Minshull Sessford was (as he himself put it) "raised in Aintree". His roots were in Lancashire but there was somewhere a Scottish connection. Sessfords abound in the Border country, and after National Service with the Royal Army Service Corps in Egypt he "reaffirmed his Scottish ancestry" by enrolling as a student at St Andrews University; and graduated MA in 1951. St Andrews set the course of his future life. Here he "learned the Catholic Faith" at the beautiful All Saints' Church whose Rector then was a formidable Scot named Alexander MacDonald. And here George Sessford found his vocation.

He trained for the priesthood at Lincoln Theological College and came back to Scotland to a title at St Mary's Cathedral, Glasgow. Five years later he was appointed to a new church in a new town - Cumbernauld. The town was built to cope with Glasgow overspill and on the face of it it seemed unpromising territory for the Episcopal Church. But the new mission priest found his work hugely satisfying. He drove himself hard but his leadership, geniality and warm humanity elicited a steady response from this young community. Sessford often said that his Cumbernauld period was the happiest time of his ministry and he used to confess years later "half of me is still there".

In 1968 he was offered and accepted the living of Forres in the Diocese of Moray. The contrast with Cumbernauld could not have been more striking. The town of Forres, with a settled population of under 5,000, is (or certainly was then) a quiet, established, prosperous - and rather couthy Highland burgh. This was to be George Sessford's only incumbency and his stay was destined to be short. But that he made a very considerable impact, there seems little doubt. One of his parishioners writing long afterwards said, "I caught from him the vision of an open, rich and thrilling Catholicism." He spoke of the Rector's "compelling social Catholic preaching" and added, "The whole town felt his spiritual power."

George Sessford was elected Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness in 1970. He was in his 42nd year. He retired "earlier than I had intended" in 1993. The 23-year period was one of change on a scale of which the small Episcopal Church was quite unaccustomed.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Bishop of Moray embraced many of the new arrangements with enthusiasm. His diocese was a pioneer in the field of non-stipendiary ministry; he supported, like the majority of the bishops, a radical reorganisation of the Church's government, he accepted the new liturgies. He played a full and significant part in talks with a variety of non- Roman Catholic denominations and always he enjoyed good relations with the major bodies who between them account for the vast majority of Scottish Christians - the established Kirk and the Roman Catholic Church.

But his opposition to fundamental change he stated with succinct clarity. "Our little church does not have the authority to change something which in essence does not belong to it." The ordination of women to the priesthood was such a change.

It is not as either a controversialist or as a dissident that George Sessford will be long remembered. He was a great pastoral bishop of much wisdom and sensitivity. His missionary zeal knew few bounds. He prayed much. His journeys around his vast diocese were legendary. Shepherding his tiny scattered flock he regularly clocked up startling mileages. He was hugely interested in individuals and gave over hours of time to solve their problems - or at least to show them that there was an ear open to them. He sustained a huge correspondence. He loved the telephone. He also loved his books and often lamented the small amount of time, and that often far into the night, when he could come to them. His house was a home to many guests, the hospitality was splendidly generous and there was always much coming and going.

He had so very little leisure to enjoy his tiny boat or the vintage car lovingly restored or the totally surprising motorcycle. These, with the books, were for a retirement in a glorious corner of Wester Ross. Sadly it was cut short.

George Minshull Sessford, priest: born Aintree, Lancashire 7 November 1928; curate, St Mary's Cathedral, Glasgow 1953-55; Chaplain, Glasgow University 1955-58; Priest-in-Charge, Cumbernauld New Town 1958-66; Rector, Forres, Moray 1966-70; Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness 1970-93; married 1952 Norah Hughes (died 1985; three daughters), 1987 Joan Black; died Inverness 21 July 1996.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month