Recently I spent an afternoon at the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, doing some research for a group 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: 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 Digest of Acts and Deliverances is a beautiful document of the church’s collective commitment to issues of social justice and mission. 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.
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 itself, 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.