Racial Justice Resources

PC(USA) celebrates the life of the Rev. Dr. Mary-Anne Plaatjies van Huffel

She worked tirelessly to uphold the dignity of all people

by Douglas Tilton, World Mission | Special to Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Dr. Mary-Anne Plaatjies van Huffel, who played a significant role helping the PC(USA) adopt the Confession of Belhar, died May 19. (Photo by Albin Hillert/World Council of Churches)

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Professor Mary-Anne Plaatjies van Huffel, former Moderator of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa (URCSA), died in Cape Town, South Africa, on May 19, from post-surgical complications.

Last week, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) leaders wrote to URCSA leaders to express condolences and to give thanks for the life and witness of Plaatjies van Huffel as a “fearless pioneer who broke down barriers in both church and society” and a “precious gift” to the global ecumenical movement.

In 1992, Plaatjies van Huffel became the first woman to be ordained as a minister in the Dutch Reformed Mission Church, the denomination out of which the Confession of Belhar had emerged a decade earlier, at the height of the struggle against apartheid. The Church later became part of URCSA. Plaatjies van Huffel was elected URCSA’s first female moderator in 2010.

Throughout her life, she worked tirelessly to uphold the dignity of all people, particularly vulnerable and marginalized groups, and to make church order and polity more inclusive.

Representing URCSA at both the 219th (2010) and 221st (2014) General Assemblies of the PC(USA), Plaatjies van Huffel spoke powerfully for the inclusion of the Belhar Confession in the PC(USA)’s Book of Confessions.

“Both the world church and especially the church in South Africa lost a great saint of the church with the passing of Rev. Prof. Dr. Mary-Anne Plaatjies van Huffel,” said Stated Clerk Emeritus Rev. Dr. Clifton Kirkpatrick, who co-chaired the Special Committee on the Confession of Belhar at the 221st General Assembly.  “I had the privilege of working closely with Mary-Anne when she, in her role as the Moderator of URCSA, used her good spirit and her good insights to help the PC(USA) move to the adoption of the Belhar Confession as one of confessions of the church.  We will miss Mary-Anne but give thanks to God for all the gifts she shared with us in making the vision of Belhar — for unity, reconciliation, and justice —come alive throughout the world church.”

The Stated Clerk of the PC(USA)’s General Assembly, the Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II, paid tribute to Plaatjies van Huffel’s role in the worldwide ecumenical movement as a leader of the World Communion of Reformed Churches and as President from Africa for the World Council of Churches.

At the time of her death, Plaatjies van Huffel was Professor of Ecclesiology at Stellenbosch University, the first woman of color to be offered a full professorship at the Faculty of Theology. As a theologian, “she eagerly embraced opportunities to help students and visitors alike to think deeply about issues of equity and inclusion,” Nelson wrote. “Several visiting groups from the PC(USA) were enriched by participation in seminars that she helped to arrange on the significance of Belhar and the church’s calling to stand with those who are marginalized and suffering.”

Plaatjies van Huffel emphasized the need to hear afresh the message of the Confession of Belhar in each new context. “Africa is not the only place where racism exists. … It is lurking in all of our hearts,” Plaatjies van Huffel told commissioners to the 221st General Assembly. “Maybe your church has arrived at a point in its own history to sense the rare and radical act of confession to reclaim the gospel.”

Nelson picked up Plaatjies van Huffel’s timely theme in his message to PC(USA) partners in South Africa: “We commit to honoring her legacy by working alongside URCSA to realize the vision of God’s justice and inclusion, reflected in the Confession of Belhar, which she so tirelessly and eloquently promoted,” Nelson wrote.

On Friday, Stellenbosch University held an online memorial service for Plaatjies van Huffel. She is survived by her husband, the Rev. Dawid van Huffel.

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