So, The New York Times recently ran a profile of the Rev. Ann Kansfield, the first female chaplain and the first openly gay chaplain in the New York Fire Department. As GetReligion readers would expect, the doctrines of orthodox "Kellerism" were in effect (click here for background on that term), with the Times team making no attempts whatsoever to explore any points of view other that those of people thrilled about this event.
So what else is news? Well, this time around the story did manage to contain a few hints that the denominational history behind this woman's ministry is a bit more complex, and interesting, than the culture wars triumph on the surface.
First, there is the rebel-with-a-cause lede:
Maybe it is her short, spiky hair, or the cigarettes, which she gives to the men repairing the wiring in her Brooklyn apartment. Maybe it is because she swears. For whatever reason, the Rev. Ann Kansfield does not fit the stereotype of a minister.
Not that she is worried about meeting anyone’s expectations for what a clergywoman should say or do.
“We shouldn’t have to hide ourselves or worry about being judged,” Ms. Kansfield, who ministers at the Greenpoint Reformed Church, said.
Now, remember the name of that church and the "Reformed" reference.
You see, this story is pretty predictable -- when it comes to New York City culture. However, if you read between the lines, it's offers interesting glimpses into the state of life in the Reformed Church in America, a small, declining flock that is perched right between the world of liberal, oldline Protestantism and the rapidly evolving world of evangelical culture. RCA leaders are trying to figure out which direction to fall.
So, is Ms. Kansfield an ordained RCA minister or what? That's a long story, a fact that someone at the Times is familiar with, since the newspaper covered her complex story back in 2006. Thus, readers are told in the new story:
Ms. Kansfield is familiar with the sort of institutional resistance that long marked the Fire Department. The New York branch of the Reformed Church in America would not ordain her, despite her being deemed “fit for ministry” by her seminary professors. She was instead ordained through the United Church of Christ. (Because the two denominations recognize each other’s clergy members, she is able to preach in the Reformed Church.)
Now, would it help if readers also knew that the president of the seminary that backed her ordination -- New Brunswick Theological Seminary -- was her father, the Rev. Norman Kansfield? Instead of that crucial fact, readers are simply told:
Ms. Kansfield, in her ministry and in her own life, has not always taken the path of least resistance.
When she and her partner, Jennifer Aull, also a pastor at Greenpoint, wanted to marry, they asked Ms. Kansfield’s father, a minister in the Reformed Church, to officiate. He did and as a result, he was no longer allowed to minister, though he was later permitted to resume his clerical duties.
So the father was out of pulpit, but then he was allowed back in, while his daughter was ordained outside the church -- in the most doctrinally liberal oldline Protestant denomination -- and then allowed back in. Interesting. Might they be somewhat controversial in the RCA?
This brings us back to the church she leads, with her spouse -- Greenpoint Reformed Church. Note that Aull is also ordained. By whom? And what about that congregation itself? It takes about 90 active members to pay the salary of one pastor and surely that number must be higher in Brooklyn. So this church has co-pastors and, according to its website, it also has an ordained minister of family programs and a director of its urban hunger ministries.
So this must be a pretty large and important church, right? Actually, the Times notes:
In a sermon last month, she told the 30 or so congregants seated in the dark pews of her small chapel that they would fail in their efforts to live free of sin.
That's interesting and raises, for me as a reporter, a few questions. How did the pastor of such a small flock come to the attention of the the NYFD, landing such a historic appointment? Also, how is the church supporting its large staff with so few members in attendance? And one more: What is the denominational affiliation of Greenpoint Reformed Church these days?
Maybe I missed a reference, but I don't think there is an RCA reference on the Greenpoint website. However, it appears that Greenpoint is still in the RCA. Might this small church also be receiving quite a bit of financial support from its denomination? Government money for the hunger programs? These would an interesting and symbolic facts to know. Clearly, this tiny church is connected, somewhere.
Does any of this matter as much as the historic nature of Ms. Kansfield's FDNY appointment?
That is not my point. I am simply saying that this story raises some interesting questions about this important woman's ministry as a whole, in a national denomination that is clearly changing rapidly (at least in the Northeast). A few more sentences of content about the CHURCH in this story would have been helpful. That is, if the church matters.