Among his many contributions and achievements as a writer in spirituality, parish priest, seminary dean, General Convention leader and diocesan bishop, John Bowen Coburn, who died August 8 at age 94, was a leader in the Episcopal Church’s participation in God’s global mission. He was concerned that Adventure in Mission, the 1980s’ capital campaign for the Diocese of Massachusetts, have a significant global dimension. His conversations with Desmond Tutu prompted him to turn toward Zimbabwe, for at that time in the anti-apartheid struggle Tutu felt that assisting the Anglican Church in Zimbabwe would help provide a model for what the church could be and do in a post-apartheid South Africa.
Massachusetts’ companionship with three dioceses in Zimbabwe beginning in 1982-83 was one of the first large-scale companion diocese relationships. About $500,000 ($1.1 million in 2008 dollars) was devoted to the project by the Diocese of Massachusetts, and it had many dimensions: dozens of personal and parish links, joint educational projects, medical outreach, leadership development in partnership with the Mustardseed Foundation, clergy pension support, and missionary deployment.
It was Bp. Coburn’s vision that launched the project and his persevering pastoral care that sustained it. As missionaries of the diocese and the DFMS in the Diocese of Manicaland, Jane Butterfield and I were very touched by John’s visit with us and his continuing care. I’m sure that experience was shared by Louis Pitt, who served at the Cathedral of St. Mary and All Saints in the Diocese of Mashonaland (Harare now), and Jim Peters, who taught at St. Patrick’s School in the Diocese of Lundi (Central Zimbabwe now). John’s leadership of a clergy conference for the three dioceses at Gokomere in early 1984 was luminous and is still remembered by many who were there.
It is possible that Coburn’s mission vision germinated during his several years of teaching at Robert College in Istanbul as a young man. Certainly his commitment to the youth of New York City during his time as rector of St. James, Madison Avenue, illustrated an understanding of mission as a commitment to engage with difference in communities other than his own. The companionship with three dioceses rather than just one in Zimbabwe turned out to be a tall order, for it involved differing perspectives and resources among the three African dioceses, with consequently difficult political relationships. Coburn negotiated the issues with delicacy, dignity, and deep respect for all who were involved. In the current anguish of the church in Zimbabwe, John’s contribution continues to be honored.
John was a mentor and model for me as a young priest. I am grateful for how his life and ministry touched mine, both in Massachusetts and on another continent.
Update: Bp. Coburn’s funeral was held on Friday, August 14, at the Church of St. Anne in the Fields, Lincoln, Mass. A memorial service was held on Saturday, Oct. 3, in St. Paul’s Cathedral, Boston.