Recently I spent an afternoon at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, doing some research for a group who are bringing an overture to General Assembly, the governing body of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
It had been a long time since I’d been in a historical society, but the smell of old paper, the hush of the reading room, the pressing desire to read everything soon seemed familiar again. The historical society is located in the heart of Old City Philadelphia, not far from Independence Hall, Washington Square, and the Liberty Bell, touchstones of our nation’s struggle, so many years ago, to forge a path to independence, liberty, and justice for all. Of course, historians of American history and activists alike agree that this struggle continues for many in the US, even with advances in rights for immigrants, people of color, women and LGBT couples.
As I sat in the historical society’s reading room poring over GA minutes, surrounded by books and ephemera recording centuries of the American Reformed experience, I found that I was distracted from my research goal by many of the historical words I was trying to breeze past.
When I was struggling to find the exact information I needed, I turned to an archivist for help. “It might be in the committee notes,” she said, and we exchanged a knowing eye roll over the Presbyterian propensity for committees.
But then the archivist pointed me back to The Digest of Acts and Deliverances — a beautiful document of the church’s collective commitment to issues of social justice and mission and a record of what comes from our conversations with one another, our willingness to tackle issues that have divided us, and that may continue to divide us, again and again. At every assembly, there were overtures presented with the intent of seeking God’s full justice; some policies and reports were reaffirmed year after year. The topical categories trace the denomination’s (and its predecessors’) responses to issues like hunger, gambling, environmental crisis, alcoholism. Historians track change over time and the digest is a record of how the PC(USA) has changed in the last centuries, how the church has been in continued conversation with each other.
Some of the most recent milestones that will be be important to this month’s GA have not yet made it into the Digest:
- July 8, 2010: The General Assembly extends ordination to LGBTQ people. (Peggy Howland’s video connecting women’s ordination to LGBTQ ordination is particularly powerful.)
- May 10, 2011: Amendment 10-A is ratified by a majority of presbyteries and ordination of LGBTQ people takes effect. (Since this date, over 500 news stories have covered the new era of LGBT inclusion and welcome in the Presbyterian Church (USA).)
- July 6, 2012: The General Assembly narrowly disapproves same-sex marriage
As Alex Patchin McNeil wrote in the most recent More Light Update, “The work we do in Detroit builds on decades of advocacy work by faithful Presbyterians.” But it is also part of more than a century of continued conversations about faith, justice and the community we build together.
Hillary Mohaupt serves on the MLP Editorial Board and has a decade of experience in communications work with cultural, religious and educational organizations. She has served on the coordinating committee of the National Network of Presbyterian College Women and the churchwide coordinating team of Presbyterian Women, with whom she has held educational trips to Switzerland and France. She is currently an MFA candidate in the fiction writing program at Pacific University in Oregon; she also holds a Master’s in History and Museum Studies from the University of Delaware, and a BA in history from Macalester College. An Illinois native, she lives in Philadelphia with her partner and their cat. She is a ruling elder at Hanover Church in Wilmington, Delaware.
Her posts can be found here.