Below are the historical background of Hanover Presbytery and practices that are unique to the Presbytery. They are to be read at the beginning of each Presbytery meeting; or at least summarized; that we may remember and practice to the end that we “glorify God and enjoy Him forever!” [We are thankful for our Lord’s servant, Dr. Edwin P. Elliott, Jr., for putting Hanover’s history and practice before us.]
“Remember thy congregation, which thou hast purchased of old; the rod of thine inheritance, which thou hast redeemed; this mount Zion, wherein thou hast dwelt.” (Psalm 74:2)
The Hanover Presbytery story begins in the period leading to the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America. Opposition to the deadening theology and social direction of the Presbyterian Church (US) gathered widely divergent groups in a common cause. The words of Moses come to mind, “And a mixed multitude went up also with them; and flocks, and herds, even very much cattle.” (Exodus 12:38)
Everyone wanted out of Egypt but there was no common agreement on where to find the Promised Land. From that turmoil Covenant Presbytery emerged in North Georgia as a rallying point for people interested in restoring the Southern Presbyterian Church. In the course of Providence, other ministers and congregations began to rally around the charismatic leadership of Dr. Joe Morecraft and his suburban Atlanta allies. My father, Sam Brown, and I eventually appealed for refugee status and were received into Covenant Presbytery of the Reformed Presbyterian Church (US).
Dr. Morecraft and I were distracted from denomination building by the demands of our congregations and our side jobs running for congress and publishing the major pro-life newspapers and magazines. In retrospect, the two of us should have paid closer attention to polity but the movement was growing rapidly and we each assumed the best.
The denomination became big enough for form a synod of four presbyteries. The northern ministers and congregations formed Hanover Presbytery, calling to mind the original presbytery formed for evangelization of the South. On the way to a national synod something went wrong. I agree with Dr. Ken Talbot that the fundamental problem was unresolved polity issues.
Father, Sam, George Bancroft, and I felt strongly that we should not stay and fight in the denomination which had given us refuge. The Atlanta presbytery wanted to move in directions which our congregations would not accept. As a presbytery, the Hanover men determined to quietly withdraw without a major controversy and dissolve our presbytery. We wrote a letter to Atlanta expressing our loss of confidence and offering to transfer any minister, student, or congregation interested in leaving us.
At the same time the southern and western presbyteries reached the same conclusion. In reflection, when three of the four presbyteries wrote virtually identical letters and only learned of their common concerns, some effort should have been made immediately to restore unity. I personally take full responsibility for the failure. Perhaps I was to worn down from a dozen years of conflict.
The two western presbyteries soon merged to form the Reformed Presbyterian Church (General Assembly). Under the leadership of the men at Whitfield Seminary, that portion of the Reformed Presbyterian Church (US) moved ahead to form a detailed Book of Church Order which would prevent future disruptions. Hanover has always maintained an open relationship with our brothers in this body.
Dr. Sam Brown took the offer and sought credentials in the General Assembly. George Bancroft accepted a call to the mission field which took him to Australia, Palestine, and England. The remnant neglected to go out of business and eventually developed a fraternal tie to the Bible Presbyterian Church.
The men who formed Hanover Presbytery were of more irenic temperament than the times demanded. We simply wanted to live in peace and build Presbyterian congregations. To that end the presbytery adopted a set of conventions which remain in force.
1. We hold an annual meeting in the spring of the year when there is sufficient business to justify a meeting. That meeting commonly falls in April and the failure to make regular provision for the next meeting has been a continuing problem for us.
2. We follow the practice of the original London Presbytery by having our oldest minister present call the annual meeting to call the meeting to order and provide for a review of our history and customs.
3. At that point a moderator and a clerk will be elected. The moderator holds office only during the meeting. The stated clerk holds office until replaced by a sitting court. Commonly Hanover appoints a page and elects a recording or corresponding clerk to assist the stated clerk.
4. Each minister or church representative must affirm the original Westminster Confession, Larger Catechism, Shorter Catechism, and Form of Presbyterian Church Government and Ordination of Ministers. We take no vows as such but take these documents as our own testimony.
5. Hanover deliberately set the standard at 1712 when America’s first presbytery organized. That was too clever by far. The first presbytery actually met in 1706 and as Dr. Bacon has reminded us, the Church of Scotland accepted some of the peculiar practices of that period with amplifications we should have stated as well.
6. Recognizing the enormous importance of the ruling eldership for the renewal of Presbyterianism we placed great confidence in local sessions, reminding them not at any time to abridge customary rights of Presbyterians in the churches under their care. Consequently music, voting styles, and various other things were left to local prudence. In practice this has meant that local churches have insisted on men obtaining catechism certificates before making them elders or deacons and sending them to presbytery. One church operated with a consistory of two deacons for some years because these older men loved the Presbyterian heritage so much they refused to be called Elders when they could not recite the catechism.
7. Hanover determined from the first to be open to the most conservative Presbyterians. We sing only from the Psalter at presbytery, reject ownership of property above the congregational level, prohibit committees, and assign problems to ministerial superintendents or local sessions.
8. While as “1706 Presbyterians” we are Covenanters, our attitude is best exemplified by Pat Mahoney, one of America’s most prominent defenders of Christian Liberty, who said, “We need men on their knees in prayer at the Supreme Court more than we need more position papers.”
As such there are no tertiary standards. Even issues as important as Creation and Abortion do not need position papers because they are stated in Scriptures and affirmed in the confessional standards.
STANDING UNDER CARE
Because there were no other “1706 Presbyteries,” in the United States, it became necessary to generate a mechanism for receiving and transferring ministers and congregations when dealing with denominations holding more complex and democratic polities. Our solution was to authorize the Stated Clerk to issue “Certificates of Standing under Care.”
A minister or congregation moving from independency or status in some other jurisdiction when known by ministers or congregational officers can apply to the Stated Clerk for a certificate until the next regular meeting. The status acknowledges the continuing ministry of the minister or congregation until a full examination can be conducted by the appropriate court. Such ministers have all the rights and privileges of office short of voting in presbytery during the transition period. The status is not intended to be permanent. The Roman system of graded ministry remains an abominable mockery of Scripture.
SOME THINGS ARE MISSING FROM HANOVER
The founders of Hanover Presbytery picked the 1706 reference to exclude the compromises of the last three centuries. The downgrade process which emerged from the Old Side — New Side, Restoration Movement, Cumberland, New Light — Old Light, New School — Old School, Fundamentalist – Modernist, and other conflicts is not our obligatory heritage. “Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:60) Hanover chooses to return to the American starting goal and be the Full-Bible Presbyterian Church.
The newsletter theologies of the 20th Century have other constituencies and organizations. Let each grow and see which best please the Lord. God gathered 12 tribes to Jerusalem; He will tell us which tribes are actually His.
No position paper promoting the novelties of the times can rival the testimony of Joshua, “And if it seem evil unto you to serve the LORD, choose you this day whom ye will serve; whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the flood, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land ye dwell: but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24:15)
IS THE HANOVER TESTIMONY REALISTIC?
Hanover has never been in a hurry — even crawl off into history. The simple historical facts endorse the Hanover hope. The Associate Presbytery in Scotland began with less than half a dozen ministers. The Cumberland Presbytery was no larger when it began its meteoric rise. Springfield Presbytery which gave a start to host of Campbell-Stone denominations was also a small group of dedicated men. The seeds of great movements just like the seeds of giant trees begin small and appear to die in the earth long before the world sees the result.
If indeed God regulates doctrine, worship, and polity in Scripture as we testify, the church which eventually hears, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” (Matthew 25:21) will be just such an institution as that which we are gathering.
ZION’S TESTIMONY TO THE CHURCHES
“Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein.” (Jeremiah 6:16) “For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; he will save us.” (Isaiah 33:22)
“For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book. He which testifieth these things saith, Surely I come quickly. Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.” (Revelation 22:18-21)
Let me share some peculiarities of the Reformed Presbyterian Church (Hanover Presbytery).
Hanover Presbytery is a simple throwback in Presbyterianism. If you are familiar with the Westminster Standards in the form published by the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland 1 you have most of what you need to know about us. There you will find our confessions, catechisms, directories, and form of government. Beginners find it hard to believe we can function under such a system but we do quite well.
Our roots are in the Southern Presbyterian and Associate Reformed Presbyterian traditions. Most of us were ordained in one or the other of these two groups. As Dr. Roger Schultz of Liberty University put it, “We are just a group of good ole boys.”
Hanover Presbytery of the Reformed Presbyterian Church falls in the historic tradition of the Scottish Relief Church. We honor the founders of the original Associate Presbytery–five out of work preachers with nothing to go on but hope and faith.
We do have some usages and traditions which hide in the shadows. Let me give you an over-view.
1. We require a Biblical basis for any element of denominational life. Committees are not mentioned in Scripture. They have been the ruin of Presbyterianism. If presbytery cannot handle a project we won’t touch it. Should a man propose a committee, he will be scolded. No one has been formally disciplined, but I suspect the elders would do it if a man made a nuisance of himself in the matter. Similarly we have no position papers. Courts do not write position papers. Join the Reformed Presbyterian Church (General Assembly) or the Reformed Presbyterian Church (US) if you get the itch to write a position paper. Publish a book, start a magazine, or blog on the internet but don’t suggest a position paper.
2. We reject the holding of property above the congregational level. American Presbyterians have a long tradition of theft. Jesus said, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)
3. We do not have ordination vows; they have always been used to dissemble. Either our confessional testimony is the testimony of your faith or you belong somewhere else. We do grant standing under care for ministers with faithful records who differ with us. Such men can function as ministers in our denomination but they cannot vote in our meetings. On one occasion we gave such standing to a Methodist minister who was helping to organize a Methodist relief group. The clerk sent the man a letter upon his honest application and he refrained from appearing for a theological examination for several years until he was able to accomplish his objectives. During that time he functioned as a seminary president.
Several men have brought unhappy experience to their understanding of the confessions. We commonly give such people standing under care and direct them to study the documents for what they say rather than what they are assumed to say. I think that is an important part of what Brian was telling you. You would be amazed at the insight which develops when one honestly reads the standards and examines the footnotes; flipping through the pages as you take the airplane to the meeting will not sit well with the elders.
Someone is certain to ask where you stand on stews or enclosures. Question 99 in the Larger Catechism has been known to get a work-out. If you were actually a buddy of Rush or Nigel and can point to a couple of hundred things we should have read–the way Brian did–it will go easier. Other people get by saying, “Please show me which part of the standards you have in mind and explain the question in more detail for me.”
4. In the usage of the Reformation era Church of Scotland, we appoint superintendents to solve problems. Brian is the superintendent of his congregation and his region; that means he must solve problems, take charge, and formulate any business from that area which requires the attention of the entire denomination. Either something is very serious or there is no need for more than one person to worry about it.
5. Our meetings are held in the spring of the year when there is enough business to justify getting people together from all over the country. The senior minister present announces the meeting, calls for prayer, and then suggests the election of a moderator for the meeting. Only the stated clerk holds office when the court is not in session. We sing Psalms A Cappella during the Presbytery meeting.
6. Presbytery does not tolerate practices during its meetings which are offensive to the historic traditions of the Presbyterian Church. That means we are an exclusive psalm-singing jurisdiction. However, local elders direct local practices such as music, communion, and worship practices. If a congregation does not have Psalters, it should not invite the court to meet with it. I could be wrong but I think we practice weekly, quarterly, and annual communion according to the determination of the local elders. Qualification to vote in congregational meetings is also a local matter. Should such matters necessarily come by appeal to the court, they would be evaluated by the stated practice of the congregation in question.
7. Generally, an officer should have a catechism certificate to represent his congregation and certainly he should have one to vote. However, years of faithful local service and a reputation for knowing the Reformed faith have justified seating mature elders and even deacons as congregational representatives. So far as I know only one congregation at present has a deacon but he has a catechism certificate.
One congregation has wardens because it has an Anglican background; they are studying the Larger Catechism under the direction of their pastor. We had a congregation with deacons come to us and we suggested a name change but the men said they did not want to insult the office and that at their ages they did not want to stand examination on the catechism. They would do the work and promote the doctrine but they didn’t want to be used as an excuse for lowering standards. Heaven is a better place now that those particular “good ole boys” have entered it.
Commonly all ministers and ruling elders present vote in our meetings. Check our form of government and you will see that the formulas common in other groups do not have much Biblical basis. The elders keep things on track. Start quoting Van Til, Clark, or Hoeksema and they will put you in your place, prove they can match you for quotes, and then tell you to start over from the confessional testimony. I do not think we have any cruel elders, but the ones we have take seriously the fact that they at least have to take off work to come and they do not want to spend time listening to younger men demonstrate their academic experience.
8. When a church doesn’t have elders it will have a superintendent. When it does have elders we don’t much care what they are called locally. When the elders meet alone we call them a session. When the composition of the local body differs, we call it a consistory.
9. Chapter One of the Confession of Faith is the ultimate deal breaker. Our formal position is that God has providentially preserved the text. The Majority Text, the Byzantine Text, the Textus Receptus, and the Church Text are obviously all the same text but among us the courteous thing is to refer to the Providential Text as the confession suggests. If you don’t like that some elder will probably suggest you be given a year under care to think about it and can come back next year.
In our community people joke that the Geneva Bible is the best English Bible but that if you must use a modern language Bible, stick with the King James. In point of fact, every minister is expected to be able to work in the original languages and the first chapter demands that the church make the Bible available in the language of the people being reached.
10. Our perspective on separation is simple. If someone will let you into his pulpit or on to his band stage with your Bible, seize the opportunity. If the Anglicans, Hungarians, or Congregationalists want to give you standing without violating your conscience, enter and preach them into the Kingdom. Just be prepared to explain to crafty old elders what you are doing. We have fraternal relations with the Bible Presbyterian Church; try not to disappoint them in public.
11. Strong stands on historic food fights of the 20th Century will get you told by someone it is time for you to take a coffee break and maybe you should make that a two-donut event. If you want to promote one of the nine position papers of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church it won’t help you if we all agree with you–we will give you a time-out for tracking that stuff into the room.
We want to hear from those who wish to be a part of our fellowship. Tell us who you are, where you have been, and why you are interested in joining an obscure and pedantic group like ours. Then tell us what you think the Lord proposes to do with you that makes it worth our while to consider your application. And one other point, we take ministers’ wives very seriously, you might bring your wife to the meeting or have her write a letter of endorsement for you. Even a simple phone call to the stated clerk’s wife can do. An unhappy current resident wife is probably the second deal breaker.