Obituaries: George Wilkie

Rev George Davidson Wilkie OBE, BL. Born: 18 April, 1921 in Edinburgh. Died: 6 February, 2024 in Edinburgh, aged 102

George Davidson Wilkie was born in Edinburgh on the 18 April, 1921 to David and Isabella Wilkie. George joined a brother and sister, Jack and Bet and a younger sister, Rae. His father was a plumber and his mother a seamstress. Following in the family tradition, he attended George Heriot’s school from the age of eight. He thrived academically and played rugby and cricket for the school.

Holidays were spent in West Linton with his grandparents where he developed his lifelong passions for golf and cycling. Other interests included the Scottish Schoolboys Club, playing piano and later messing about in boats with his friends.

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On leaving school George obtained a Law degree from Edinburgh University. During his student days he heard about the Iona Community and in 1941, aged 19, he made his first journey to Iona. This involved an open boat ferry to Mull followed by a 30-mile bike ride to Iona.

George was ordained as a Church of Scotland Minister in 1948George was ordained as a Church of Scotland Minister in 1948
George was ordained as a Church of Scotland Minister in 1948

He was inspired by the fellowship of the Iona Community and its leader, George MacLeod who was preaching the need for a new and revitalised role for the church and it’s relationship to a changing world order. At a time when the world was tearing itself apart through the ravages of World War Two, the Iona Community offered an alternative vision of what might follow, one of hope and regeneration.

As part of this, each summer a group of students and young ministers would join a group of craftsmen to work on rebuilding the Abbey, but of course the bigger task was to build a community based on a message that a new interpretation of Christian life was needed to make the church more relevant to the rapid societal changes occurring throughout mainland Scotland.

In 1942 George began studying for a Divinity Degree at New College in Edinburgh. During this time, while still in his twenties, he was involved in the setting up of the Christian Workers League, a part of the Iona Community’s youth movement, initially based in a condemned tenement building located in the deprived Canongate area of Edinburgh. This involved a lot of fun. But there was a serious side also which involved Bible study and the principles of “See/Judge/Act” with the goal of trying to understand real everyday problems in the light of the Christian faith. And then crucially to try and do something about it! The “action” part was essential in helping estranged teenagers to change their lives around and actively engage with society.

George also organised and led a number of Summer Youth Camps on Iona and it was at one of these camps, in 1945 that he met his future wife, Rita Sutherland. They married in 1951 and had three children; Lynne, David and Grant. The youth camps continue to this day.

In 1948, George was ordained as a Church of Scotland Minister. His first role was as Industrial Chaplain to the Inverclyde shipyards. He also worked for a short spell as a shipyard labourer. In 1950 he became parish minister for a new Church Extension in Port Glasgow, a deprived and mainly working class area, which was exactly the sort of parish that the Iona Community had been set up to serve. George’s energy and drive and above all his ability to engage people “where they were at” led to the growth of the church and a vibrant community of working people actively involved in Christian life. The building of St Martin’s Church was completed in 1958. The chancel, in the centre of the church had an inscribed piece of Iona marble that George had personally transported from Iona in the back of his old van.

In 1963 George was appointed to the post of Organiser of the Industrial Mission, based in the Church of Scotland Offices in Edinburgh. Under his leadership the Industrial Mission grew, with increasing numbers of parish ministers working either part time or full time in industry. Perhaps surprisingly, they were often accepted as an approachable and independent presence on the local factory floor, listening, learning and at times interpreting one side to the other. George himself was a skilled mediator in worker/management relations and was always concerned about the pastoral care of young workers. He was not only unafraid of raising difficult issues but saw the need to do so and even relished the prospect on occasion!

As part of this work he regularly invited to his home men (and in the 1960s it was usually men!) who in any other situation could not speak to one another without falling out. At Ormidale Terrace they were welcomed with coffee and savouries and the occasional box of cigars which George would skilfully produce at strategic moments in the discussions. These meetings, away from the workplace in a warm and relaxed environment often allowed a different space where open discussion about complex issues became possible. George would always seek common ground and compromise. Rather than focusing on difference he would often ask the deceptively simple question,“ Yes, but what do you have in common?”

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In addition to his organisational role George continued to work as an industrial chaplain for Ferranti, at that time the biggest employer of labour in Edinburgh. In 1978 he was awarded an OBE for his work as the organiser of the church’s industrial mission in Scotland.

In the late 1970s George returned to being a parish minister at Viewforth Church in Kirkcaldy for what he thought would be the final stage of his ministry. He approached this challenge with the same vigour and steady determination that marked the whole of his working life. After a busy and fulfilling decade in Kirkcaldy, he and Rita moved back to Edinburgh. They became parishioners of St Giles’ and Rita became a ‘Welcome Host’ at the Cathedral, making full use of her passion for all things historical.

In 1988 George spent a year as Chaplain to the Moderator, Jim Whyte, a long-time colleague and friend. As part of this year they travelled to India and then Australia. Amongst other things this provided an opportunity to learn about and engage with Christian faith in different countries and different cultures around the world. Around this time George also accepted a part-time appointment as the Associate Director of the Centre for Public Issues at New College and an advisory role in the placement and training of new ministers

His growing family of nine grandchildren and six great grandchildren continued to be at the heart of George and Rita’s life. Just as he had motivated so many others, the grandchildren were inspired by George and the letters he wrote to them every month. He left them a legacy of love for Iona.

George wrote and published several books and articles which explained his personal understanding of faith. His views were always accessible, well-argued and inclusive and yet they were carried with the conviction of a man who lived his theology in the here and now of everyday life.

George died peacefully in Edinburgh on 6 February 2024 at the age of 102. The funeral held to celebrate his life on 23 February at Warriston Crematorium brought many old friends together in a sense of community and gratitude, two sentiments that would surely have pleased him. As part of the ceremony the family had put together a series of slides – including some of his work and many of family holidays on Iona.

In the background was a piano playing ever so gently the evocative melody of Abide with Me. Although he has passed on to “the next stage” (as he sometimes put it) in some measure George continues to live on and “abide” with us all.

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