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Essay

The Laying on of Hands: Celebration and Lament

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Lynn Japinga is substituting for Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell while he is on sabbatical.  She is a religion professor at Hope College and writes about recent RCA history.  Her forthcoming book will include more than you ever wanted to know about the history of women’s ordination in the RCA. 

There has been a lot of discussion about the progress of women in the Olympics in the last few weeks. The consensus seems to be that women athletes are strong and successful but they still face a number of challenges. The same might be said about the progress of women in leadership in the RCA.

I was ordained in 1984 by the Holland Classis. It was a great celebration.  Leonard Kalkwarf, pastor of my teaching church, preached, and two of my college religion professors prayed and gave the charge to the minister. When the presiding officer read the liturgy he failed to change the male pronouns, so the prayer at the laying on of hands went something like this. “Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who calls men to this holy office, enlighten thy servant with thy spirit, strengthen him with thy hand, and so govern him in thy ministry that he may decently and fruitfully walk therein.” As I knelt there in the midst of all those men, I could feel the hand of Brian, my friend from seminary, gently squeezing my neck whenever a “he” was spoken, to remind me that I was still included.

In 1991 I attended an ordination service at the church where I grew up, Second Reformed in Grand Haven, Michigan. For nearly twenty years after the RCA approved the ordination of women as elders and deacons, the church preserved a by-law which said that only men could be elected to office. After much debate, several votes, and a five year suspension where they did not talk about the issue, two-thirds of the church members voted to change the by-law, and a woman was elected as an elder. The service was a great celebration, but I also felt sad and angry that the church had excluded women for so long.

In 1992 I preached at the ordination service of Kama Jongerius at the Reformed Church in Rock Rapids, Iowa. Kama had been one of my students at Western Seminary.  The charge was given by a female clergy friend. Kama said later that during the laying on of hands she had noticed and appreciated the two sets of legs wearing nylons and high heels amidst the sea of suit pants and wing tip shoes. 

In 2012 I attended the ordination of Jes Kast-Keat at Hope Church in Holland, Michigan. The laying on of hands included at least two dozen women ministers, seminary professors and elders from Hope Church. It was a great celebration. Clearly women had come a long way. And yet, as I stood there for the ordination prayer, this time with feminine pronouns, I found myself crying. Not just a few joyful tears leaking out of the corners of my eyes. I was sobbing, and more out of grief than joy. What was that about?

Perhaps it is impossible to be a historian and not cry at the ordinations of women. They are mixed occasions of joy and sadness, celebration and lament, hope and reality.

It was powerful to see a strong, confident woman be ordained in the presence of so many supportive people. Jes has been blessed with wonderful mentors, female and male. She is now a pastor at a church that loves her and celebrates her gifts.

Unfortunately, there are many women who do not receive this level of support and encouragement. One of my students who went to seminary had to join a different church because her home church refused to take her under care, citing (wrongly) the conscience clause. Too many other churches simply refuse to recognize and utilize all the gifts of women. Some of these churches still have by-laws which prohibit the ordination of women. When women are ordained, many of them still encounter various forms of sexism and resistance.

Women in the RCA have come a long way in the last four decades. We should celebrate that. But sexism is still alive and well in church and society and sports. And that is something we should all lament. And change.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell and his wife, Sophie, are the pastors at the Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa. Steve has served on numerous Reformed Church commissions and task forces, and also edited the journal Perspectives for many years. Before coming to Iowa, he lived and served as a pastor in upstate New York. Sophie and he have two adult children. He holds a Ph.D. from Boston College in theological ethics.

One Comment

  • RJerow says:

    Cheer up Lynn. As someone who grew up in the Catholic church, I have been watching the spectacle of the all Male Bishops and the Nuns with a heavy heart. We are light years past that debacle. I learned the meaning of "practicing christian" from the nuns who taught me and owe them a debt of gratitude. Talk about the ultimate gated community–the all male club! So things could be worse.

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