Obituary: The Right Rev George Sessford

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The Independent Online
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.