Obituary: Anne Hepburn missionary, teacher, feminist and Guild President

Anne Hepburn, Church of Scotland missionary, Guild President, teacher, feminist and social justice advocate: August 1925- July 29, 2016

Anne Hepburn
Anne Hepburn

Anne Hepburn, Church of Scotland missionary, Guild President in the early 1980s and a teacher, feminist and social justice advocate has died aged 90.

A service of committal will be held at 11am Saturday 6 August at Warriston Crematorium, Lorimer Chapel, followed by a service of thanksgiving at 1 pm in St. Andrew's and St. George's West Church, Edinburgh.

Iain Whyte, Secretary of The Guild paid tribute to her saying:

“It was with great sadness that we learned of the passing, on Friday 29 July, of Anne Hepburn, National President of the Guild from 1981-84”.

“Anne was a remarkable woman, who had spent time in Africa and had a great love for and interest in the people of Malawi.

“During her time as National President, she famously raised the issue of "the Motherhood of God" whilst leading worship at a National Meeting.

“She was also instrumental in leading the Guild's response to apartheid in South Africa through a boycott of oranges from that country.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with Anne's family and friends at this sad time.”

Born Anne Burton, in Dailly, in the Girvan Valley in South Ayrshire, she studied at Glasgow University before going on to Jordanhill to train as a teacher. Her father was a church elder and Anne was a keen member of Dailly Parish church. After three years teaching in the village of Barr, she decided to train as a missionary at St Colm’s, a Church of Scotland college.

In 1950 she went to Malawi, where she served for many years along with her husband Rev Hamish Hepburn. The couple later returned to Scotland and Mr Hepburn became minister at St Mary’s in Kirkcudbright, and later at Braco in Perthshire.

Mrs Hepburn had many interests. She helped set up the Scottish Malawi Network and served as the network’s convener for close to 10 years. She attended the World Council of Churches general assembly in 1983.

Very Rev Dr Sheilagh Kesting said Mrs Hepburn was a passionate advocate for justice who cared about people across the world.

“Anne stood up for what she believed,” Dr Kesting says. “She would always put her head up above the parapet. People admired her because she was absolutely straight. You always knew where you were with her.”

Mrs Hepburn, who was married to Rev Hamish Hepburn, created a stir in the Church when at the Guild’s annual meeting in 1982 she recited a prayer by hymn writer Brian Wren, which referred to ‘God our mother’.

Two months later the 1982 General Assembly created a study group made up of members of the Panel on Doctrine and The Guild to study “the theological implications of the concept of the Motherhood of God.”

When the group reported back to the Assembly two years later, after struggling mightily to find agreement, the topic was still too hot to handle. Before the Assembly had even received the report, a voice from the floor proposed moving on. And Commissioners voted to do just that.

“it was the biggest slap in the face,” says Dr Kesting, who was a member of that study group.

“Here was a report the Assembly had asked for and it didn’t even receive it. It departed from the matter. It was sore on Anne and it was sore on Alan (Rev Alan E Lewis, secretary of the Panel on Doctrine and the report’s author.)”

Dr Kesting says 21st century theologians generally consider God as beyond gender.

“Today we’d say God is not gendered, but we are and the only language we have to talk about God is the language of our experience.

“At that time, the theme of the day was the language we use to describe God and how to be inclusive. So we looked at the language we use to talk about God, including the fatherhood of God,” she said.

“Since then there has been a sea change, although there are still some people who would find the report disagreeable, even heretical.”

The General Assembly’s unprecedented decision not to receive the report wasn’t the end of the discussion, however. People around the world wanted to read this document, so controversial it couldn’t be discussed.

“Churches around the globe wanted copies of the Motherhood of God report,” Dr Kesting says. “It was read and appreciated around the world. Anne loved that. It made her chortle. And in fact, the report is still talked about among academics.”

Mrs Hepburn was preceded in death by her husband Hamish, and her daughter Rev Catherine Hepburn. She is survived by her daughter Margaret and son Roger and by Kenneth and Hong-Yoke.

The 2014 Church and Society report, ‘Living a theology that counters violence against women’, recognised Mrs Hepburn’s contributions saying:

In the 1970s and 1980s, a further study on the Community of Women and Men in the Church drew unprecedented local participation. The Kirk was well served by gifted women who showed leadership, imagination and courage in their contributions to this work–not only by raising the issues in Scotland, but as valued participants in many international conferences and programmes.

Dr Elizabeth Hewat, Elizabeth McKerrow, Maidie Hart and Anne Hepburn, among others, deserve the recognition and gratitude of the Church for leading prophetic and sustained commitment since the mid-20th century.”