Ralph Emmerson

RALPH Emmerson who has died aged 94 was born in Headingley, Leeds, and was educated at the nearby Leeds Grammar School where he excelled at both cricket and rugby, as well as his academic studies.

During the Second World War, although he was by that time an Anglican parish priest, his old school would call him back to teach science on a part-time basis.

On leaving school he was employed at the Education Office in Leeds. At the same time he became increasingly involved as a volunteer in the pioneering social work of the Rev Don Robins at St George's Church in Leeds – St George's Crypt becoming a by-word for care of the very needy.

With a strong sense of vocation, he went to train for the priesthood at King's College, London, graduating as a bachelor of divinity in 1937. He was ordained in 1938, returned to St George's and married Nancy Bygate, a member of the congregation.

One unexpected job in 1939/40 was to help organise the evacuation of children from Leeds on the outbreak of war, and he remembered with great affection the plaintive nine-year old who asked him just before the train moved off: "Mr Emmerson, will there be owt to spend me money on in Lincolnshire?"

In 1941 the Bishop of Ripon, Geoffrey Lunt, appointed him to work as a curate-in-charge of the New Seacroft Conventional District where Leeds Council was building thousands of new houses.

Ralph and Nancy occupied one of them. This council house was to be a base for worship, prayer and social action until the first Church of the Ascension was completed in 1946.

Ralph's sporting skills and organising abilities saw the creation of cricket and football teams for young people on the estate, and it was common practice for him to conduct weddings during the summer months at the old church on Seacroft Green in white flannels and shirt carefully hidden beneath his cassock and surplice.

He was an accomplished opening batsman and he wasn't a bad tweaker and swinger of the ball when required.

In 1948, he moved on to the ancient parish of Methley whose rector, by coincidence, was traditionally Suffragan Bishop of Knaresborough. Here Ralph's pastoral work and his articulate and dynamic sermons were nearly as much appreciated by the predominantly mining community as his cricketing skills.

He played for the local team and for several years was top of the Yorkshire Council bowling averages, and second top in its batting averages.

To his great delight, in 1956 Ralph was appointed Vicar of St Michael's church, Headingley, home of Yorkshire Cricket.

New gifts emerged – he collaborated closely with the producer/

actress Pamela Keilly encouraging religious drama in the parish and beyond; his pastoral work with students influenced many young lives, and some would say, best of all, the local British Legion which had met in a dingy back room in the Bennett Institute were allowed to apply for a drinks licence, and never looked back.

One young man in the congregation in those days was the author Alan Bennett; Ralph always maintained that Bennett's famous sermon "Esau was an hairy man and Jacob was a smooth man" was definitely not based on his own style.

In 1966 the Bishop of Ripon, Dr John Moorman, appointed him Canon Missioner in the diocese, and six years later made him his assistant as the Suffragan Bishop of Knaresborough. Ralph would often say that this was "the very best job in the Church of England".

Those on the evangelical wing of the church loved him for his robust preaching and knowledge of the scriptures; those of more Catholic persuasion admired his prayerfulness and spirituality; and those in the middle generally sensed that this dear man loved them and cared for them.

He acted as senior Bishop of the Diocese of Ripon for several months in 1975 when Bishop Moorman retired and again two years later when Bishop Hetley Price sadly died soon after his enthronement.

Retirement of a kind came in 1979 when Nancy and Ralph moved to a house in Wakefield.

He helped out regularly throughout the Diocese of Wakefield and for several months when the neighbouring See of Bradford was vacant he became senior bishop in that diocese.

Throughout his time he was still in demand as a leader of spiritual retreats and quiet days. Also the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Runcie him to take over the care and oversight of a small number of clergy in the northern dioceses who for various reasons become alienated from their own bishops.

After a short illness, Nancy died in 1982. Ralph then soon moved back to Ripon to live in a flat nestling very near the beloved cathedral.

Eighteen years later, in 2000, to the surprise and delight of his many friends, when he was 86, Ralph married Mrs Elizabeth Firth, a widow, who had some years before been a teenager in the youth club at St Michael's Church, Headingley. They were happily married for eight years.

In cricketing terms, Ralph's 94 years is no mean achievement, especially when his life influenced for good so many people. It was a wonderful innings played with grace and not a little style.

Back to the top of the page