The Death of Constance Oosthuizen
This certainly is an emotional week for me – a week during which I have had many childhood memories come flooding back, a week of reconnecting with many friends from our youth camp days (isn’t social media a wonderful modern tool?), a week of chats with family members, whom I don’t often hear from and a week of deep personal reflection.
Sister Connie, as I had known her for almost all of my life (for nearly sixty years) has died. She was a constant given in my life. Even when we didn’t have regular contact, I always knew we would pick up where we had left off. She would remember stories of when she was our Deaconess and I would remember stories from our Sunday School Anniversaries and Youth Camps (in the 1960s and 70s) and we would share, laugh, joke and even cry together. And, now she is gone! The sadness I feel is exacerbated by the reality that I shall be unable to attend her funeral because I am serving in Canada for a few years. Connie was not family (not by blood, anyway) but she was ‘family’ nonetheless! Reading all the tributes and comments on my Facebook posts, reminded me that she was ‘family’ to thousands of people. Constance will live on in our memories because she lived so vividly in her lifetime.
I have entitled this blog post ‘Milestones’ because there are so many this year. Constance Oosthuizen became the first woman to be ordained to Word and Sacrament in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa in 1976 – 40 years ago! Fifteen years ago, whilst Connie was serving at the Umkomaas Methodist Church (already in her retirement years), we held a service of thanksgiving and presented the Rev Constance Oosthuizen with a commemorative medallion, marking the milestone of 25 years of women in the ordained ministry. This photo was taken on that occasion – here Connie is with my late Mother.
As I am serving in the United Church of Canada at present, it is quite remarkable to note that this year commemorates 80 years of women in the ordained ministry here. Various celebrations have taken place at Conferences and Presbyteries, paying tribute to the pioneers, especially to the Rev Lydia Gruchy, the first woman to be ordained in the UCC in 1936.
Another painful situation this week, here in Canada, is the interview between a UCC Committee and Gretta Vosper, discerning her suitability to continue serving as a minister in the UCC. Gretta has declared herself to be an atheist although she has continued to be a ‘minister’ in her UCC congregation for approximately thirteen years. She has been asked to answer her ordination questions again, all of whom she replies ‘no’ to this time. She has written a response article to the Committee (and has published it on her blog for all who wish to read it), explaining her decision and giving commentary on her response to every question. Juxtaposing Constance’s passionate life of witness and service to God with Gretta’s academic denial of God’s existence, within the same week, is a painful and disturbing experience for me. Everything Constance did was a response to her love for God and her service to others. Everything Gretta seems to do focuses on her humanist views of life and her dependence on her own strength and skills.
A personal milestone for me is that in June I turned 65 (retirement age). I knew that Sister Connie would one day die but now that she has died, I am reminded of my own frailty, my own vulnerability to aging and, eventually, of my own death. I am reminded of the people I care about deeply and I am reminded of the God, in whom I strongly believe and wish to serve more passionately.