Very Rev Dr Sheilagh Kesting retires after 23 years as Kirk Ecumenical Officer

It is hard to imagine the ecumenical scene in Scotland and beyond without the quiet but influential presence of the Very Rev Dr Sheilagh Kesting, who retired at the end of September from her post as Ecumenical Officer and Secretary to the Ecumenical Relations Committee of the Church of Scotland.

Very Rev Dr Sheilagh Kesting
Very Rev Dr Sheilagh Kesting

Sheilagh had been in post since 1993, devoting an impressive 23 years to the cause of Christian unity. Born in Stornoway, Sheilagh grew up in Lewis, an island marked by the presence of many different denominations.

After serving as a probationer in Glasgow, Sheilagh was ordained a minister of the Church in 1980. Her first parish as minister was Overtown in the Presbytery of Hamilton, and she later served in Musselburgh.

She came to believe passionately that visible unity is an imperative for Christians and that, as a first step, we must strive to work more closely with our Christian sisters and brothers in Scotland and throughout the world.

Her move to the Church Offices allowed her to devote her considerable skills to that end:

  • her interest in theological issues and liturgy;
  • her generous understanding of differing traditions;
  • her clever and diplomatic drafting (many a tricky document was vastly improved and universally acclaimed once Sheilagh found exactly the right words); and, above all,
  • her personal commitment to ecumenism

Her gifts were recognised by both national and international bodies in which she fulfilled key roles.

In a country scarred by the ugliness of sectarianism, Sheilagh worked tirelessly, and successfully, with the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland and the other denominations to build friendship and trust.

She was instrumental in the conversations which led to the Columba Declaration, an historic symbol of improved relationships between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, and she worked closely throughout her working life with the Scottish Episcopal Church, leading to the recent Our Common Calling initiative.

Sheilagh's talents led to her election as Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 2007. She discharged her Moderatorial duties with her usual unobtrusive grace and poise, presiding with confidence over the General Assembly and carrying out a demanding schedule of home and overseas visits and preaching engagements.

Rev Alison McDonald, the current Convener of the Church's Ecumenical Relations Committee, has worked closely with Sheilagh. She said:

"Sheilagh is held in the highest regard not only in Scotland, but across the ecumenical bodies to which we belong, for the quality of her listening, her ecumenical sensitivity, understanding and wisdom.

“The Church of Scotland and the wider ecumenical movement could not have been better served."

Mgr Philip Kerr, Vice-President, Office of Ecumenism, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Scotland said:

"I have known Sheilagh for nearly 30 years when we were the respective secretaries for the Joint Commission for Doctrine in its original form.

“Since then we have worked together on various occasions, through the work of ACTS, the ongoing bilateral dialogue between the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church, and for more local matters.

“I have always admired Sheilagh’s thoroughness and dedication to her work and her friendliness to Christians of so many different backgrounds.

“I hope she will have many blessed years ahead in which she will contribute in different ways to the upbuilding of unity within Christ’s Church".

Liz Taite, former Ecumenical Officer to the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Scotland, said:

"On many occasions I have seen Sheilagh handle complex or sensitive situations with poise and clarity, demonstrating her love and knowledge of the Scottish Churches in a way that leaves everyone feeling understood and edified.

“I have seen her go way beyond any call of duty and firmly believe that - in God's time - everything she has sown will come to fruition in the richest of harvests."

Mary Welsh, the current Ecumenical Officer, added:

"I know that the Bishops' Conference will join me in wishing Sheilagh a happy and healthy retirement and laud her for her commitment to ecumenism in Scotland and beyond".

A spokesperson for the Inter-Church Relations Committee of the Scottish Episcopal Church paid an equally warm tribute:

"The Scottish Episcopal Church greatly appreciated Sheilagh's breadth of knowledge of ecumenical relations worldwide, her deep commitment to fostering closer working together of all the churches in Scotland and, above all, the warm and fruitful relationships she has fostered with partner churches.

“Her theological rigour challenged and encouraged in equal measure and her passion and faith that we would one day be one was an inspiration."