The World Council of Churches (WCC) is mourning the death of Rev. Prof. Dr Mary-Anne Plaatjies van Huffel, a South African pastor and academic who was currently serving as the WCC president from Africa since 2013. She passed away on 19 May.
Plaatjies van Huffel was known as a transformative church leader in sub-Saharan Africa.
Her significance was not only rooted in her leadership positions, her many theological publications, and her lecturing status, but could also be found in her active participation in processes to transform society.
In 1992, she was the first female minister to be ordained by the then Dutch Reformed Mission Church, later the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa. She obtained a first doctorate in theology from the University of South Africa on the topic “Women in the Theological Anthropology in the Afrikaans Reformed Churches (2003)” and then a second doctorate from the University of Pretoria in 2008.
She taught Church History and Church Law at the Faculty of Theology Stellenbosch University and was a co-minister at the Uniting Reformed Church in Scottsdene, Kraaifontein. She acted as actuarius (church law expert) of the Cape Regional Synod and as vice-moderator of the General Synod of the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa.
She was born in Prieska in 1959, as the second of seven daughters of Johannes Jacobus Plaatjies, a headmaster at several primary schools in the Northern Cape, and Jacoba Johanna Plaatjies, a housewife. She matriculated in 1977 at Bergrivier Senior Secondary School in Wellington in the Boland. She first embarked on a teaching career, after completing her teacher’s diploma at the University of the Western Cape in 1978. In 1986 she enrolled at the University of the Western Cape in order to be trained as a minister in the Dutch Reformed Mission Church. After further studies she was licensed by the curatorium of the Dutch Reformed Mission Church.
She is survived by her husband, Rev. Dawid Van Huffel.
Over the course of her career, she had to deal with stereotypes, especially with regard to women in the ministry. She started to systematically break down these stereotypes, sparking many media stories in the mid 1990s.
The legacy she left behind is immense. She established a community service centre with the aim to empower previously disadvantaged groups. She negotiated buildings, designed programmes and managed the community centre with a small staff on very limited funds.
She established the Phumlani Adult Association in the Nqubela Township near Robertson, the Nikithemba aftercare centre, as well as a shelter for the homeless.
She became a legendary figure in the Robertson region. On her experience in Robertson as a minister she commented in an Afrikaans (RSG) radio station interview, in 2012: “I realised soon after my arrival that I would not only bring the gospel to these people, but that I also would have to deal with stereotyping and conservatism in an environment of poverty.”
One of her biggest contributions to the church order has been her tireless struggle to make the church order more gender sensitive. She became a strong voice in the church on church matters as well as on social and economic issues. She developed a sound knowledge of church history and church polity.
She became the voice of the church in South Africa on many issues. Her leadership stretched beyond the church borders as she became a respected South African public persona. She was also given the opportunity to minister to the close family members of the late President Nelson Mandela at his private residence in Houghton after his death.
Her theological framework was founded on three pillars: a theology of dignity especially towards the vulnerable groups; the theological disciplines of church history and church polity; and a theology of ecology and justice.
In an interview in “Rapport” on 10 October 2010, she commented on her election as a female church leader to the highest decision-making structures: “I hope that I am a vision of hope for women in and outside of the church for their own careers. My success story must be the success story of all women.”
WCC moderator Dr Agnes Abuom said it is difficult to fathom, let alone accept, that her dear colleague is actually gone. “And we cannot argue with our Creator God who holds our timelines,” said Abuom. “As a pioneer and visionary leader, you inspired us to begin a journey together of reflecting on the future of ecumenism and your thoughts shared in Arusha, Tanzania still ring bells of invitation to all to rethink ecumenism in the 21st century.”
Abuom commended Plaatjies van Huffel’s commitment to the unity of the church, ecumenism and inclusive communities, “a commitment that will continue to light our paths as pilgrims, and we promise as sisters and ecumenists, to carry on the torch of justice, peace and liberation.”
Metropolitan Prof. Dr Gennadios of Sassima, vice moderator of the WCC central committee, commended Plaatjies van Huffel as a very active member of the Permanent Committee on Consensus and Collaboration of the WCC. “We remember her with love and affection at the last meeting of the committee in February in Switzerland. May our Risen Lord grant her soul, now asleep in a place of light, a place of renewed life, a joyous place. May her memory be eternal.”
WCC acting general secretary Rev. Prof. Dr Ioan Sauca expressed gratitude for Plaatjies van Huffel´s service in the ecumenical movement.
“She was a stalwart contributor to the ecumenical movement during joyful times and times of great challenge, and taught us all the value of persistence,” said Sauca. “Her Christian response consistently combined wisdom with compassion and a deep sense of caring for us all.”
Bishop Olav Fykse Tveit, presiding bishop of the Church of Norway, served as WCC general secretary during the same years Plaatjies van Huffel served as WCC president for Africa. “She represented a strong combination of academic theological competence, experience from church leadership, and ecumenical commitment to unity, justice and peace,” said Tveit. “She represented well African women as theologians, church leaders and ecumenists, and inspired many to use their gifts and talents in the service of others and the mission and prophetic task of the church.”
Her death is a great loss for her family, her university, and her church, as well as for the ecumenical family in South Africa and worldwide, added Tveit. “Her faith and love will remain an inspiration to many. I give thanks to the God of life for all that she gave to us in the ecumenical movement.”
Prof. Dr Isabel Apawo Phiri, WCC deputy general secretary, recalled traveling with Plaatjies van Huffel on many WCC engagements in South Africa, Kenya, Madagascar and Jamaica. “I was inspired by her leadership especially on the church and gender issues,” said Phiri. “The church visits in Madagascar in 2015 stand out for me.”
There, Phiri, recalled, Plaatjies van Huffel touched the hearts of many church women, university professors, church leaders and children’s groups. “She gave hope even in hopeless situations,” said Phiri. “When she reached out on 8 April to ask for prayers, it was a friend that we prayed for. I will forever cherish her memories.”
Rev. Dr Nyambura J. Njoroge, WCC Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy coordinator, said she first met Plaatjies van Huffel at the WCC 10th Assembly in Busan. “Eventually I got to know that we were pioneers in the ordination of women in our respective churches and in other ways as African women theologians and ecumenical leaders,” said Njoroge. “When she celebrated 25 years of her ordination and I 35 years, we agreed we will find ways of documenting our experiences for posterity. I am very sad to lose her and pray that I will be able to fulfil our dream.”
Rev. Pauline Njiru, eastern Africa regional coordinator for the WCC Ecumenical HIV & AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy programme, fondly recalled spending time with Plaatjies van Huffel while traveling. “We talked about many things: our mission, academia and the conference,” said Njiru. “We have lost a matriarch, one who was approachable and encouraging. We pray that God will console her family and give them courage and hope as they the cope with the loss.”
Rev. Dr Kuzipa Nalwamba, WCC programme executive for Ecumenical Theological Education and professor of Ecumenical Social Ethics at the WCC Ecumenical Institute at Bossey said: “Her voice lives on in our hearts for its clarity, and her uncompromising and passionate grounding in her deepest faith convictions.”
Rev. Dr Angelique Walker-Smith, senior associate for Pan African and Orthodox Church Engagement at Bread for the World, spoke on behalf of the Pan-African Women’s Ecumenical Empowerment Network (PAWEEN). “PAWEEN celebrates her pioneering legacy of faith and our shared vision of inclusion captured at a PAWEEN event in Norway,” said Walker-Smith. “I look forward to a future where a wider range of perspectives and responses are heard and included, regardless of gender, race or origins, and treated equally seriously.”
Deacon Adebayo Anthony Kehinde, a member of the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs and moderator of the WCC-CCIA working group on Africa, said Plaatjies van Huffel was an excellent ecumenical leader, as well as an exceptional church leader who passionately raised the banner of women in ministry as well as providing a clear example of what it means to give women space in leadership. “During your time with us, you were a pillar of wisdom, source of sound knowledge, and a person of good heart with great passion for the ecumenical movement in Africa and the world at large,” said Kehinde. “We thank God for the service you rendered to all God’s people, continentally and globally.”
Rev. Dr Wushishi Ibrahim Yusuf, WCC programme executive for Peace Building in the African Region, said: “She was a valuable and highly respected member of the WCC African team. The effects of her loss are being felt already by those of us who had the honor and pleasure of working with her.”
Prof. Ezra Chitando, regional coordinator for Southern Africa for the WCC Ecumenical HIV and AIDS Initiatives and Advocacy programme, said: “This is to celebrate an ecumenical leader, academic, visionary and most loving person. In Gaborone, Botswana, last year, we shared a happy photo together…and you were calling upon us to continue to work for a world characterised by gender justice. That vision will inspire generations.”
Segma Asfaw, programme executive for the WCC Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, said Plaatjies-Van Huffel will always be remembered as a champion of stateless people, and particularly stateless children and women. “She always stood ready to voice out their struggles and hopes,” said Asfaw. “The statelessness community lost a caring mother.”
Isis Kangudie Mana, from the Centre Oecumenique of Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo, said Plaatjies van Huffel was clearly a warm and important person. “We can lose a person who is dear to us, but we do not lose and we do not forget her works and her marks,” said Mana. “Mary-Anne we will not forget you because you have marked all the people for whom you were precious and your works will continue to speak about you.”