Hanover Presbytery was the second of the four original presbyteries that came together in 1789 to form the Presbyterian Church in the new nation. Therefore the loss is not a simple, organizational change; it constitutes abandonment; it is an unfortunate rewrite of Presbyterian history that fails to keep faith with either the suffering or the success of our forebears. In the early years of our new presbytery (James was organized in 1989) we were reprimanded for any reference to Hanover – or of welcoming persons into Hanover. No, we were creating a new thing!
I heard arguments in the constituting assemblies of the Synod of the Mid- Atlantic and the Presbytery of the James. We are a new denomination. In our region, we are blending Northern and Southern presbyteries (Southern Virginia – UPCUSA, and Blue Ridge and Hanover – PCUS) and we need to eradicate any vestiges of the PCUS, which, after all, came into existence over slavery. Yet in this new day, no one has suggested that in a genuinely new denomination, all names of the original presbyteries might change, not only Hanover and Orange (in North Carolina) but New York and Philadelphia as well. Was the Southern church being welcomed into the Northern church? Were we actually doing a new thing?
Further, I believe this kind of politically correct erasure is precisely what the Bible warns against by both example and proclamation. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are full of memories of the failures of God’s people – and of God’s great triumphs in the arc of salvation history. Psalm 95 begins as a joyful hymn of praise and turns into a lament and a challenge: O that today you would listen to [God’s] voice. Do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day of Massah in the wilderness, when your ancestors tested me.
God knows American Presbyterians have hardened their hearts against each other, reading the same Bible, yet filling the musket, loading the canon, and drawing the sword to take each others’ lives, believing that God was on “our” side. And we have surely tested the patience of the Almighty, not least by thinking that we, with institutional amnesia, could actually make a new church by a name change and a committee shuffle.
Unless the memory of Hanover Presbytery – its strengths and weaknesses, its witness to the gospel and its disobedience – is going to be limited to an occasional anniversary celebration, or become the preserve of a few academics and historians, its name needs to be brought out, dusted off, and restored. The same applies to Orange Presbytery.
In a fragmenting church, there is a deeper matter for the whole church to consider. What stories about ourselves do we pass on? How do we instill institutional loyalty in such a time as ours? How do we have reasonably sized presbyteries where we become colleagues again in ministry – not only of Word and Sacrament, but in regional witness and advocacy? I have no idea what it’s like in other synods, but our presbytery (the James) has voted to send no funds to Synod. We support the General Assembly, and divert funds otherwise designated for synod to campus ministry within the bounds of our presbytery.
And in this region of the PC (USA) we have lost all semblance of unified, Presbyterian public witness. When you don’t even know the names of Presbyterian colleagues across the state, how in the world do you coalesce around matters of importance coming before a state legislature?
Even as I raise more questions than I can answer in one editorial, there is one more thing. As our membership precipitously decreases, might we not consider that in spite of much faithfulness to the gospel, some of our wiser and more discerning folk have simply “had it up to here” with the everlasting boredom of institutional and structural change.
What’s in a name? A rich and varied witness. A testimony to failure and to faithfulness. And evidence of God’s extraordinary grace with the chosen people from Exodus to the Eschaton.
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