Obituary: The Rev Catherine Hepburn, Church of Scotland minister

Minister had 'a rainbow of friends' and made her mark on the Kirk. Picture: Contributed
Minister had 'a rainbow of friends' and made her mark on the Kirk. Picture: Contributed
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BORN: 8 November, 1955. Died: 7 March, 2015, aged 59

Malawi calls itself “the warm heart of Africa”. When nine-year-old Catherine Hepburn left her native land for Scotland, she brought its warm heart with her.

She was good at smiling; she was good at fun. But there is more to a warm heart than cheerfulness. At her funeral, a friend told this story.”I first met Catherine at Gargunnock Manse. I told her that my husband of 20 years was about to leave the marriage. ‘I cannot face being in that house on my own,’ I said. Catherine at that point had known me for all of three hours. She said ‘Why don’t you come here for a few days?’ I left three months later. Catherine gave me a big hug and said ‘I think I just had a crash course in motherhood’.”

No-one who heard the story was surprised. Catherine had a “rainbow of friends” – of all ages, from all around the world, from all stages of her life.

Catherine Anne Hepburn was the daughter of missionaries who had to leave Malawi when they earned the disapproval of Dr Banda. She grew up in Kirkcudbright where her father Hamish was minister of St Mary’s. After studying at Edinburgh University, she became minister of Gargunnock, and then Gargunnock with Kincardine-in-Menteith. She ministered there for 18 years.

In 2000 she was called to the Parish of West Mearns, where worship is conducted in three buildings: at Fettercairn, Auchenblae and Glenbervie. The church website names 12 villages in the parish. For 15 years, she was minister of an area of 450sq. km.

She was her own person. But it was easy to see three determining influences on her life. From her father, the gentle, scholarly, musical Rev Hamish Hepburn, she inherited a love of the Church of Scotland and its ministry, and a tender, listening personality. From her mother, Anne Hepburn, she learned passionate commitment to many aspects of social justice: notably the struggle for justice for women and in particular the struggle for justice for women within the church. And in the Iona Community, of which she was a long-term member, her ministry and her faith were inspired and shaped by the practice of beauty in worship and deep personal devotion and ecumenical endeavor. Ecumenical living was in her blood: Fr Roland Walls said of her: “Catherine was not reared in a denominational flower pot but in a wide herbaceous border.”

She was proud to belong to the Church of Scotland but she knew herself to be part of the whole people of God. She worked with and learned from many people from different church traditions: and she was one of very few Church of Scotland ministers to spend 30 days in silent prayer following the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius.

Catherine made her mark across the Church of Scotland. As a member of the Church and Nation committee, she worked on its Report on the Arts, she was a member of the committee to nominate the Moderator of the General Assembly, and a member of the Council of Assembly; and she was Moderator of the Presbytery of Kincardine and Deeside. However, it was in the leading of retreats and workshops that she found her special gifts; and she used these gifts to help others find themselves and find God. On Devotional Days and Weekend Retreats, she made simple things profound; and she made profound things simple.

She made her mark across the whole Church. But deeper and more important was the mark she made on her two parishes, and the mark they made on her. If knowing everyone and being known by everyone matters, then in the country parishes where Catherine Hepburn ministered, she did that naturally. If loving everyone is what a minister should do, few did it better than she did. One woman said to her: “What I am I owe to you: because you gave me courage to be the woman I am.”

Her very last outing was to the opening day of the fishing season at Balmakewan, where she always prayed. She went because that was where the minister should be; and because that was where she wanted to be.

Near the end, the people of West Mearns ministered to Catherine. When we visited her a few weeks before she died, she told us wonderingly of the extraordinary support: friends from congregation and community doing such imaginative things for her.

During our visit the representative of the “soup group” called, followed soon by the representative of the “dog-walking group”. Her house was filled with liveliness and serenity and faith and fun – no-one who met Catherine in these last weeks will forget her brightness.

She had been listening to one of the Reith Lectures: it was about dying and how we might prepare for the death of those we love. It is a remarkable lecture: but Catherine’s living and dying of it was more remarkable still.

There was no pretence in her: and in 30 years of friendship I never heard her say a nasty word about anyone.

Rev Catherine Hepburn died at home surrounded by faith and love from family, close friends and a Marie Curie nurse. She is survived by her mother Anne, her sister Margaret and Roger and her brother Kenneth and Hong-Yoke.