Leaders of the Reformed Church in America suspended a New Jersey minister on Friday night, ruling that he violated the Bible and the denomination's teachings when he officiated at his gay daughter's wedding. The Reverend Norman Kansfield, 65, had been dismissed in January from the presidency of one of the church's two seminaries, New Brunswick Theological Seminary. Kansfield performed his daughter's wedding ceremony last June in Massachusetts, shortly after it became the first state to allow same-sex marriage.
About two thirds of the 240 delegates at the church's annual gathering also found Kansfield guilty of breaking his ordination vows and failing to seek the church's counsel before performing the wedding, said the minister's attorney, William Rupp of Hackensack, N.J. A majority of delegates voted to suspend Kansfield from ministry until he changes his views to fall in line with church doctrine. They also stripped him of his standing as a professor of theology in the RCA.
Kansfield said the decision was "going to be very hard to deal with. My life has been the ministry." But he was encouraged that at least one third of the delegates were willing to consider a "far more open stance on the inclusion of gay people." He has served in the church for 40 years. Rupp said an appeal would be possible at next year's annual meeting. "I think it's a decision that will haunt RCA in years to come," Rupp said.
Afterward, the church leaders who brought the case against Kansfield said they decided as a group not to speak to reporters. Church spokesman Paul Boice said it was an emotional issue for the denomination. "I'm thankful that through it all, folks were respectful of each other," he said. "I really believe they were trying to do what they think is best with a sense of love, though that might be hard to explain."
The Reformed Church in America has 279,000 members in 897 congregations, many of them in New York, New Jersey, and Michigan. The church's roots date to Dutch settlers who arrived in America 400 years ago. The church has at least 100 congregations in Michigan, many in the western part of the state. In Ottawa and Missaukee counties Reform Church membership accounted for more than half of all church affiliations in 2003, and between a quarter and a half in Allegan County, according to the church's Web site.
The case against Kansfield, filed by dozens of church leaders, says he acted intentionally against Bible teachings and the church constitution when he officiated at the wedding of his 29-year-old daughter, Ann, and 31-year-old Jennifer Aull. The women met while studying to be ministers at Kansfield's
seminary. Accusers say Kansfield acted without consulting church leaders. Kansfield had sent his seminary's board a letter shortly before the wedding announcing his decision to officiate and saying he wasn't seeking the board's permission to do so.
Friday's trial was wrapped in the language of church procedure, but the real issue of the day was homosexuality and how the church should handle it. "[Kansfield] seems to be saying that God accepts all persons regardless of their continued engagement in sinful behavior," the accusers' trial brief read. "The offense seems to be that Norm endorses homosexual acts," Rupp said. Both Kansfield and his daughter were allowed to make statements during the trial before the delegates went into a closed session to make their decision. Kansfield said he didn't know at the time of his daughter's wedding that church leaders at their annual meeting had just adopted a resolution that said marriage was only for one man and one woman.
On Friday, Kansfield called the resolution "a most troubling and troubled document." He said the church, one of the more conservative Protestant denominations, should think about marriage in its broadest possible context to do the most good for society. "The church of Jesus Christ needs to be as inclusive as the arms of our Lord himself," Kansfield said. Rupp said Kansfield violated neither the Scriptures nor the church constitution but rather the positions of the General Synod, or annual meeting of leaders. "The General Synod also has spoken against using Styrofoam cups. Ever use a Styrofoam cup?" Rupp asked delegates at the trial. "The General Synod has spoken against SUVs. I saw a few of those in the parking lot."
Outside, supporters of Kansfield held a prayer vigil, wearing T-shirts that read "Room for All." They said about 130 church clergy had signed and submitted a petition in support of Kansfield. As he left the meeting Friday night, the group applauded and some cried. One of them, Rob Williams, senior associate pastor with the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, said he has officiated at a dozen or so weddings for gay and lesbian couples at his church. The state of New York doesn't yet license
same-sex marriage, however. "They haven't come after me yet," Williams said, referring to church leaders.
Maybe one reason Kansfield is being singled out is that he officiated at the church's first and only legal same-sex wedding, Williams said. This is the latest of several cases where Protestant churches have debated the issue of homosexuality and church practice. Unlike its fellow Protestant churches--such as Episcopalian and Methodist--the RCA has not had high-profile controversies over gay rights until now. (AP)