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Rev. Dr. Norman Kansfield

Biography

The Rev. Dr. Norman Jay Kansfield, prominent leader in the Reformed Church in America who was defrocked for officiating a lesbian wedding, was born in March 1940 in East Chicago, Indiana. His parents, Orval Russell and Margaret Norman Kansfield, soon moved to South Holland, Illinois.  South Holland had changed little since it was founded by Dutch immigrants almost a century earlier.  Dutch was often spoken and the Reformed Church was at the center of community life.  Orval was a truck driver and Margaret worked in the local office of the Reformed Church.  initiatNorman studied the Dutch language with a neighbor. Norm was nurtured in this comfortable yet disciplined environment. He was passionate about woodworking, but knew he would become a minister when he finished high school.  

Norman received his Bachelor’s degree from Hope College in 1962. He did his seminary training at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan, graduating in 1965.  During college, Norman  initiated a relationship with Mary Klein, also raised in a Midwestern Dutch community. They were married on June 25, 1965.

During his studies, Kansfield developed an appreciation for languages, particularly Hebrew, so he enrolled in a doctoral program in Old Testament Studies at Union Theological Seminary.  He and Mary moved to New York City after their wedding, where Norman also pastored Second Reformed Church of Astoria in Queens.  Recognizing that the academic demands of a doctoral program in the First Testament was not the best fit for him, Kansfield took a Master’s in Sacred Theology from Union in 1967 and transferred to University of Chicago to study Library Science.  After earning a Master’s in Library Science in 1970, he joined the faculty of Western Theological Seminary as Associate Librarian and Assistant Professor of Theological Bibliography.  In 1974, Kansfield was appointed Librarian of the John Walter Beardslee Library at Western and, after receiving a Ph.D. in 1981, he became Professor of Theological Bibliography. Kansfield enjoyed these years working in the Beardslee Library, including building a new facility, teaching and writing for the denomination and being active in the American Theological Library Association.   Norman and Mary welcomed daughter Ann in 1975 and son John in 1978.  In 1982, the General Synod of the Reformed Church elected Kansfield to the ecclesiastical office of Professor of Theology, the most esteemed position in the denomination.

While Norman and Mary were quite comfortable in Holland’s Dutch Reformed community, in 1983 Norman was invited to become director of the library at Colgate Rochester Divinity School. Bexley Hall/Crozer Theological Seminary, St. Bernard's Institute, in Rochester, New York. Here he experienced and embraced more diversity of theological expression and more racial diversity. In January 1993, Kansfield was elected to be the tenth President of New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Brunswick, New Jersey.  New Brunswick was the oldest Protestant seminary in North America and, during Kansfield’s tenure, the school flourished as racial and ethnic minorities became a majority of the student body.  Additionally, the school’s endowment doubled, and in 1993 the General Synod of the Reformed Church again elected him to the ecclesiastical office of Professor of Theology.

When daughter Ann came to see her identity as a lesbian, she felt some trepidation coming out to her parents.  Norman was a respected religious leader within the Reformed Church in America. However, as someone committed to—and who embodied--hospitality, justice and equality, Norman spoke out for the inclusion of LGBTQ persons in the life and ministry of the church.  He was a member of the Human Rights Campaign’s “Out in Scripture” Editorial Committee, which produced an online inclusive commentary on each week’s lectionary passages. In 1998, Kansfield addressed the General Synod saying: “You now know where my commitments lie. I ask you to count me among those who are committed carefully to listen to and, as necessary, to speak on behalf of homosexual persons, most of whom will not feel free enough to participate in the church’s important conversations.”

When Ann announced plans to marry her partner Jennifer Aull, Norman insisted that he would officiate at the ceremony.  So, on June 14, 2004, one month after Massachusetts legalized same-sex marriage, he presided at Ann and Jennifer’s wedding in Northampton, Massachusetts.   News of the wedding spread quickly in Reformed Church circles.  In January 2005, the New Brunswick Board of Trustees fired him as president.  The General Synod, which had recently voted to affirm marriage as “the union of one man and one woman,” brought charges against him, leading to the first church trial of a Reformed minister in 100 years.  

In his testimony at the June, 2005 church trial, Kansfield stated: “I support marriage, marriage in its broadest possible context, so that it can do the most good for our whole society...Ministers are not to be 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 trial verdict pronounced Kansfield guilty of failing to keep his ordination vows and following the edicts of the church.  He was expelled from the Office of Professor Theology and the Office of Word and Sacrament. Suddenly, Kansfield was persona non grata in the Reformed community in which he had been nurtured—and which he had served--his whole life.  

The Kansfield trial mobilized other supporters of LGBTQ justice within the Reformed community.  Calling themselves “Friends of Norm,” like-minded clergy and lay persons attended the trial and prayed outside the building. They wore T-shirts that read: “Room for All: The Reformed Church in America, increasingly inclusive since 1628.”  In their disappointment with the trial verdict and the harsh punishment, these supporters established a new organization, called Room for All. The group has grown steadily and has become a strong advocate for inclusion in the denomination.  

In 2005, Kansfield was invited to join the faculty of Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, New Jersey, where he taught Reformed theology for eight years. Norman and Mary moved from New Brunswick to Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. They joined Zion United Church of Christ, where Norman served as theologian-in-residence.  The expulsion of someone of such integrity and esteemed service to the church did not sit well with everyone in the Reformed Church.  On October 18, 2011, the Rockland-Westchester Classis of the Reformed Church voted to restore Kansfield to the office of Minister of Word and Sacrament.  After a nearly unanimous vote in favor of his restoration, Kansfield was invited to renew his vows and become a member of the Classis of Rockland-Westchester.  In 2014, New Brunswick Theological Seminary established the Norman and Mary Kansfield Chair of Old Testament through a special gift from benefactors.

Even with this reinstatement and affirmation, Norman and Mary chose to remain in Stroudsburg.   Daughter Ann earned a Master of Divinity degree at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, became a pastor at Greenpoint Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York and also took a position as chaplain in the New York City Fire Department. Ann and wife Jennifer, also clergy, co-pastor Greenpoint Church. In January 2023, Norman and Mary moved to New York City to be closer to family. Norman’s health began to decline and he died on January 27, 2024 at 83 years of age.

(This biographical statement written by Mark Bowman with information from the sources below and edited by Mary Kansfield.)

Biography Date: May 2024

Additional Resources

The New York Times published this obituary for Kansfield on April 30, 2024:
https://www.nytimes.com/2024/04/30/us/norman-kansfield-dead.html

New Brunswick Theological Seminary released this announcement of Kansfield's death, including an obituary written by his wife Mary:
https://nbts.edu/reverend-norman-j-kansfield-1940-2024/

Tags

Reformed Church in America (RCA) | Reformed Church (Dutch) | Clergy Activist | Ally | Marriage Equality | New Jersey | New Brunswick

Citation

“Rev. Dr. Norman Kansfield | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed June 16, 2024, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/norman-kansfield.

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