RIP: Ann Coburn, advocate for women in the priesthood

Posted Jun 7, 2023

The Rev. Ann S. Coburn

[Episcopal News Service] The Rev. Ann Coburn, who opened doors for women clergy in The Episcopal Church, a lifelong advocate for social justice, and beloved mother, grandmother, pastor and friend, passed away June 7 in Oakland, California. She was 74.

Coburn was ordained at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Danbury, Connecticut, in December 1977, just a year after the church formally began recognizing women priests.  She was the first woman priest in Connecticut and one-half of the first married couple ever ordained together.  Coburn confronted sexism in the church with a forceful grace, including working with ecumenical groups in Danbury to encourage churches to open their altars to women, spending time as the only woman priest in the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe, and serving as a part of the Task Force authorized under resolution A045, passed by the Denver General Convention in 2000, to visit dioceses not ordaining women to “monitor progress toward full access of women to the ordination process, as required by the canons.”

Coburn served at St. James’ first as a curate 1977-79 and later rector 1982-98, where she mobilized ecumenical groups in Danbury around a variety of causes, including the founding of the Daily Bread Food pantry that continues to serve residents of Danbury to this day. In addition to her time at St James’, Coburn served as a canon at Christ Church Cathedral, Hartford, Connecticut, as rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Providence, Rhode Island, and as interim rector of Grace Church, New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Coburn also served six terms in the Episcopal House of Deputies and from 2000-2005 on the Executive Council of The Episcopal Church, where she advocated particularly for initiatives supporting women in the priesthood and a variety of other social justice issues. Coburn believed that the church needed to be more inclusive and lead congregations in thoughtful discussions about the use of gender pronouns during the liturgy.  Also, as a member of the Planning, Budget and Finance Committee for many years, she worked to address the ways in which the church supported a greater range of voices in the church structurally. In these roles, Coburn became a mentor to and an advocate for women in the priesthood.  Over the course of her career, women went from being completely unrepresented in the priesthood to now making up 40% of all Episcopal priests (though as Coburn would point out there is still much to be done and a 13.5 percent wage gap between men and women in the church persists).

As the Rev. Marilyn Anderson recalled: “I will always be grateful to Ann and others who were our trailblazers. Ushering in huge changes within an institution is really difficult. There’s a lot of resistance to change and a lot of adapting to do. These first women priests absorbed a lot of pushback, and they made the way a lot easier for those of us ordained in the next generation.”

Coburn was also a fierce advocate for Palestinian rights. Coburn spent several years attending and organizing Sabeel Conferences, which strive “towards theological liberation through instilling the Christian faith in the daily lives of those who suffer under occupation, violence, injustice, and discrimination.” Later she fought for ‘responsible travel’ to the Holy Land including leading four trips to Palestine to bear witness to and build awareness of the oppressive conditions there.

She was director of fundraising and financial oversight for the Episcopal Peace Fellowship Palestine Israel Network and was the 2023 Cotton Fite Award recipient, in recognition of her work for the Episcopal Peace Fellowship Palestine Israel Network.

Harry Gunkel of the Palestine Israel Network said, “In four visits to the West Bank and Gaza with Ann leading our small groups, I witnessed over and over again not only her wisdom, experience and fierce devotion to doing justice. Ann has a rare gift of kindness and gentleness, determination and steadfastness all together in perfect balance.”

Coburn was a graduate of the Ethel Walker School, Pine Manor College, and Georgian Court College in Lakewood, New Jersey. She later went to seminary at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California, where she later returned to work as Alumni Relations Director in 2005, calling the Bay Area home for almost the next 20 years.

At the same time, Coburn remained firmly connected to the East Coast, and Wellfleet, Massachusetts, in particular, where she listened to the Red Sox on the radio, did jigsaw puzzles and swam in the ponds with her grandchildren every summer.

Coburn is survived by her son Noah (Elizabeth Ruane-Coburn), daughter Abigail (Harris Epstein) and five grandchildren Nathaniel, Ruthie, William, Atticus and Azariah.

A funeral service will be held for Coburn on June 24 at All Souls Parish in Berkeley, with a memorial service and burial of her ashes scheduled tentatively for September 9 at St. James the Fisherman, Wellfleet.

The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts has established the Rev. Ann Coburn Fund for Women in the Ministry, and donations can be made to the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, 138 Tremont Street, Boston, MA 02111 or by going to In lieu of flowers, Coburn requested that friends consider supporting this fund or the Episcopal Peace Fellowship Palestine Israel Network.