Born into a wealthy family of lawyers in London, Coakley attended Blackheath High School. Following this, she spent a gap year teaching English and Latin in Lesotho. Her education continued at New Hall (now Murray Edwards College), University of Cambridge (BA, First Class Honours, 1973) and at Harvard Divinity School (Th.M., 1975), to which she went as a Harkness Fellow. Her Ph.D. on Ernst Troeltsch is also from the University of Cambridge (1983). She has taught at Lancaster University (1976–1991), at Oriel College, Oxford (1991-3) and at Harvard University in the Divinity School (1993–2007; as Mallinckrodt Professor of Divinity, 1995–2007). She was a visiting professor of religion at Princeton University (2003-4). In 2006, she was elected the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge (the first woman appointed to this chair) and took up the position in 2007. In 2011, she became Deputy Chair of the School of Arts and Humanities with a four-year appointment on the General Board of the University. Coakley's teaching and research interests cover a number of disciplines cognate to systematic theology, including the philosophy of religion, the philosophy of science, patristics, feminist theory and the intersections of law and medicine with religion. Her contributions to these areas have generally been by way of co-ordinating research projects and editing or co-editing collections of papers. It was through these collaborative projects that her profile gained a level of international prominence. Indeed, at the time of her appointment to the Norris-Hulse chair in Cambridge, Coakley had not published a monograph subsequent to the 1988 publication of her doctoral thesis. She has been working on a four-volume systematic theology, the first volume of which was published in 2013 as God, Sexuality and the Self: An Essay 'On the Trinity'. From 2005 to 2008, Coakley co-directed, with Martin A. Nowak, the "Evolution and Theology of Cooperation" project at Harvard University, sponsored by the Templeton Foundation, out of which has come a co-edited volume, Evolution, Games, and God: The Principle of Cooperation. An earlier interdisciplinary project on "Pain and Its Transformations" undertaken with Arthur Kleinman at Harvard (as part of the Mind, Brain, Behavior Initiative), produced Pain and Its Transformations: The Interface of Biology and Culture (co-ed. with Kay Kaufman Shelemay, Harvard UP, 2007). Coakley is a priest of the Church of England and has assisted in parishes in Waban, Massachusetts, and in Littlemore, Oxford, England (where she served her title). Her training for the priesthood included periods working in a hospital and a prison. In 2011 she is was appointed an honorary canon of Ely Cathedral where she assists with the morning office and Eucharist.