Obituary: Anne Hepburn, missionary and feminist

Anne Hepburn. Picture: Contributed
Anne Hepburn. Picture: Contributed
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Anne Hepburn, missionary, teacher and activist. Born: 20 August 1925 in Scotland. Died: 29 July 2016 in Edinburgh, aged 91

Anne Hepburn was a woman of faith, a missionary, teacher and activist; a woman of Scotland, Malawi and the world. She was a wise and witty friend, a loving wife and mother and a voice for justice in an unequal world. As a Christian feminist, her life embodied the Scottish suffragette motto: “A Guid Cause Maks a Strong Arm.”

Born Annie Burton, she grew up in Dailly, Ayrshire, daughter of the district nurse (who died when she was 20 months old) and village blacksmith Tam Burton. She attended Girvan High School and graduated with an MA from Glasgow University in 1945. A year at Jordanhill Teacher Training College followed, then a job in Barr village school.

By now she was living in Girvan, but Dailly Parish Church remained an important part of her life. Anne’s desire to do something more interesting with her life found a focus after she heard a foreign missionary speak at a Woman’s Guild meeting. In 1949 she was accepted for training at St Colm’s Missionary College in Edinburgh. Recalling that experience, Anne said “St Colm’s blew my mind… The World Council of Churches had just been established, things seemed rosy and there was post-war optimism and hope for ecumenism as the future of the Church… the world was opening up!”

In 1950 Anne travelled to the Church of Scotland mission at Blantyre in Nyasaland (now Malawi), where she was appointed to take charge of the Girls School. She befriended African teachers who gave vital support as she started to learn the Chichewa language. But she disliked the paternalistic colonialism of most White people in church and government. May Scott from Aberdeen shared her outlook. They became supporters of the Nyasaland National Congress, which opposed the British Government’s establishment of the Central African Federation.

Anne grew close to Rev Hamish Hepburn of Blantyre mission, but when he proposed marriage, “I gave him many examples of my bad behaviour which made me unfit to be a minister’s wife. Hamish replied, ‘If you are as bad as you make out, it’s a minister you need!’ ” The newlyweds returned on furlough to Scotland in 1954. It was a decisive moment for the raising of Anne’s feminist consciousness. Having been a missionary in her own right for four years, her name disappeared from the records, while Hamish’s was adorned with an asterisk to indicate his new status. Their three children, Catherine (born 1955), Margaret (1958) and Kenneth (1962), were all born in Africa.

Anne and Hamish were mutually supportive and loving life partners until his death in 2007. Back in Nyasaland, the British Government’s declaration of a State of Emergency in 1959 was a political watershed. The Special Branch kept a close watch on the Hepburns. In Britain, Anne was noted by MI5 as “a minister’s wife worth watching”.

Anne’s lasting connection with Africa was characterised by her fluency in Chichewa, her enduring friendships, and her courageous activism. In later years, she helped establish and coordinated the Scottish Malawi Network, and with Rev Dr Andrew Ross laid the Foundations of the Scottish Malawi Partnership. The Hepburns were exiled from Banda’s Malawi in 1966 and Hamish became parish minister in Kirkcudbright. It was an enormous culture shock after the excitement and turmoil of Malawi, but Anne found new scope for her militant soul in the unlikely environment of the Woman’s Guild. She became President of her local branch and eventually National Vice President.

The Women’s Movement was stirring, and the 1975 UN International Women’s Year propelled her into full campaigning mode, inspired by her friend, Guild National President Maidie Hart.

An investigation into “Sexism in the 70s” coincided with Anne’s awakening to the radical insights of feminist theology. Her engagement as a Christian feminist was shaped around three beliefs: that prevailing patterns of relations between women and men in church and society are deeply distorted; that women and men are equally created in the image of God; and that inclusive language is not a matter of political correctness but a missionary imperative.

Anne’was involved in many initiatives and campaigns, including the WCC Decade of Churches in Solidarity with Women 1988-98, the Ecumenical Forum of European Christian Women, and as chair of the Scottish Convention of Women – a broad alliance and a framework for common action – in the lead-up to devolution, also securing Scotland’s representation in the establishment of the European Women’s Lobby.

In the 1980s, as National President of the Woman’s Guild, she organised an anti-apartheid boycott of South African produce. Inspired by the words of hymn writer Brian Wren, she caused a “stooshie” when she prayed to “God our Mother” at the 1982 Women’s Guild Annual Meeting. A study group was set up to consider the theological implications of the concept of God’s Motherhood, becoming the focus for extraordinary hostility, but also gratitude from those who longed for the church to break free from patriarchy. She led from the front in her advocacy for gender equality, making common cause with the broader Scottish and global women’s movement. Her energy and determination, her stubbornness and sense of humour remained undimmed by advancing years.

The Rev Catherine Hepburn, whose death in 2015 was such a loss for Anne, said of her mother: “Respect the terrifying energy of a woman of God. Hear the ring of the hammer on the anvil and feel the warmth of the leaping flame: both heart and hearth of home and hospitality, and the refining fire that reshapes the world to God’s will and purpose of justice, peace and life in its fullness.”

Lesley Orr