Norman Kansfield, 83, Dies; Defrocked for His Daughter’s Same-Sex Wedding

Norman Kansfield, 83, Dies; Defrocked for His Daughter’s Same-Sex Wedding


For most of his life, the Rev. Dr. Norman Kansfield seemed to personify the Reformed Church in America.

To an extraordinary extent, he had grown up in the world of his church’s 17th-century Dutch founders. His hometown, South Holland, Ill., consisted largely of descendants of Dutch immigrants who still spoke the language and farmed onion seedlings. Social distinctions did not rest on who kept the Sabbath — pretty much everybody did that — so much as on who peeled their potatoes on Saturdays, in order to more fully avoid labor on Sundays. (His family would not so much as mow the lawn.) —

Dr. Kansfield grew up to be a professor of theology, the denomination’s most esteemed rank, and president of the school that trains its ministers, the New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey, which is the oldest seminary in the United States. On special occasions, he gave sermons in Dutch.

So when his daughter, Ann Kansfield, was considering coming out of the closet to him, she was nervous. After she did, Dr. Kansfield went beyond responding with warm acceptance. Years later, in June 2004, he insisted that he officiate at her wedding, held in Massachusetts weeks after the state legalized same-sex marriage.

“Clad in his church vestments, he read with emotion from the Book of Isaiah about a God who extends his kingdom of love beyond Israel to cover foreigners and eunuchs,” The Star-Ledger of Newark reported.

There had been no other known instance of a Reformed minister officiating at a same-sex wedding. Earlier the same year, the General Synod, the church’s annual meeting, had voted to affirm the definition of marriage “as the union of one man and one woman.”

Dr. Kansfield told The Bergen Record that he realized his choice might provoke a “dust-up.” It led to much more: his termination as seminary president, the first trial of a Reformed minister in 100 years, his defrocking, and the start of an existential debate among church members, which helped to produce a major schism nearly 20 years later.

“People presume I have been on a crusade,” he told The Associated Press in 2005. “In point of fact, I’m a conservative theologian. I would not do anything that goes against the church.”

Conservative, perhaps — but not conventional.

”He would say his orthodox theology is what assured he became a social liberal,” his daughter, who is herself a graduate of the New Brunswick Theological Seminary, said in a phone interview.

Dr. Kansfield died on Jan. 27 at a hospital in Manhattan. The cause was complications of a series of infections, including pneumonia, his daughter said. He was 83.

His death was not widely reported, and The New York Times was only recently informed of it.

Within days, news of Ann’s wedding spread among members of the Reformed church. In January 2005, the seminary’s board fired him. At the General Synod in June, he went on trial.

“I support marriage — marriage in its broadest possible context so that it can do the most good for our whole society,” he said in his testimony. He added that ministers were not asked “to pledge ourselves to the unity, purity and peace of the church, but to the things that make for unity, purity and peace.”

The Synod found otherwise. It pronounced Dr. Kansfield guilty of failing to keep his ordination vows, to heed the admonitions of the General Synod and to keep the faith of the denomination. He lost his status as a professor of theology and was defrocked as a minister. He prepared to move out of the 139-year-old president’s home on the seminary grounds.

“I’ve never lived apart from the Reformed Church,” he told The Record.

Norman Jay Kansfield was born on March 24, 1940, in East Chicago, Ind. His father, Orval, was a truck driver, and his mother, Margaret (Norman) Kansfield, was a secretary at the local office of the Reformed Church in South Holland, where the family moved shortly after Norm’s birth.

As a young man, he earned five academic degrees, studying two subjects, library science and religion (mainly the Old Testament).

He took pre-seminary coursework at Hope College in Michigan, where he developed a crush on a young woman named Mary Klein when he saw her playing a hymn on a piano inside a sorority house. He graduated in 1962, and they married in 1965.

Dr. Kansfield was a pastor and librarian at a number of institutions in the Midwest and the Northeast. He extolled the past of the Reformed Church — believing that, centuries ago, theology had been a matter of everyday conversation for the common man — yet his model minister of recent times was a progressive figure: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

His traditionalism and egalitarianism found dual expression in the unusual syntax he used to describe the mission of the church in a 1993 interview with The Central Jersey Home News Tribune: to present “a new vision of what society was intended to be.”

After he was defrocked, he taught theology at Drew University in New Jersey and served as theologian in residence at Zion United Church of Christ in Stroudsburg, Pa., where he and his wife moved. He remained there even after the Rockland-Westchester governing body of the Reformed Church voted to restore him to the office of minister in 2011.

Ann Kansfield was ordained as a Reformed minister around the same time. She works as a chaplain with the New York City Fire Department and as a minister at Greenpoint Church in Brooklyn, along with her wife, the church’s co-pastor, the Rev. Jennifer Aull.

In 2022, theological debates within the Reformed Church about gay rights led more than 40 congregations to split from the main organization, which ultimately went in a less restrictive direction, Christianity Today reported.

In addition to his daughter, Dr. Kansfield is survived by his wife; their son, John; and three grandchildren.

There were non-theologial issues with Ann and Jennifer’s wedding — drinks were not served to guests upon arrival at the party venue, and the people who were supposed to pass around slices of cake failed to show up. Dr. Kansfield was too happy to care. He gave the place an enormous tip.

He had felt proud of getting through the whole service without tearing up, he told NPR in 2012. When it ended, two women approached him. They said it was the first church service they had felt genuinely part of in years. They were a lesbian couple. At that point, Dr. Kansfield could contain himself no longer: He wept.



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