Ten thousand is the word limit for reports to a General Assembly.

The limit came up more than once during a recent meeting of the General Assembly Special Committee to Study Issues of Civil Union and Christian Marriage.

This was the group's second meeting since the Reverend Bruce Reyes-Chow, Moderator of the 218th General Assembly (2008), appointed the members less than six months ago.

The committee began by clarifying its assembly mandate, which calls for a study of the following areas: "the history of the laws governing marriage and civil union, including current policy debates; how the theology and practice of marriage have developed in the Reformed and broader Christian tradition; the relationship between civil union and Christian marriage; the effects of current laws on same-gender partners and their children; and the place of covenanted same-gender partnerships in the Christian community." Additionally, the report may include any policy recommendations that grow out of the study.

In clarifying the mandate, the Reverend Jim Szeyller (Charlotte Presbytery), who chairs the special committee, led the group in a conversation about the difference between a final report that is "descriptive" versus "prescriptive" in nature.

Szeyller set up a pastoral scenario that pointed out the difference between the two. He said, "If a same-sex couple comes to a pastor to ask to be married," a descriptive report would take the approach of "Here are the confessional, theological, legal, and polity issues in play and here's where you [as a pastor or session] can go to study and reach some kind of conclusion."

"I see great practical value in that [kind of report] that would be much less problematic than a prescriptive document," said Szeyller.

The special committee is working in the midst of a great deal of activity in this area across the country since the group began its work. Iowa recently joined a handful of other states in legalizing same-sex marriage, and the California Supreme Court upheld a voters' ban on gay marriage, though the ruling allowed as legal the marriages of same-sex couples that occurred in the interim between the vote and the court's ruling.

The group spent the majority of its three-day meeting working in sub-teams, each of which focused on a particular segment of the committee's mandate.

One sub-team is looking at the history of the laws governing marriage and civil union, including current policy debates. In their report back to the full committee, they noted that they are looking in particular at legal statutes that are being used to defend same-sex marriage and, similarly, those that prohibit same-sex marriage and in some cases deny benefits to same-sex couples.

Another sub-team is studying the theology and practice of marriage as it has been developed in the Reformed and broader Christian tradition. They noted how understandings of marriage and religious traditions throughout the church's history have influenced laws that were established. In many cases, church law and governmental statutes were one and the same.

A third sub-team is concentrating on definitions as it studies the relationship between civil union and Christian marriage. The sub-team reported that while the PC(USA)'s Constitution defines marriage as being between one man and one woman, other terms need more specificity, including civil union itself.

A final sub-team is looking at the effects of current laws on same-gender couples and their children. Their report noted that the effects of current laws cover items such as health benefits, immigration laws, and tax code issues, among others.

The special committee is one of seven special committees that were formed out of actions of the 218th General Assembly (2008). In addition to Szeyller, the members are the Reverends Clayton F. Allard (Grace Presbytery), Emily J. Anderson (East Tennessee Presbytery), Earl Arnold (Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery), Margaret Aymer Oget (Greater Atlanta Presbytery), Tracie Mayes Stewart (Salem Presbytery), William Teng (National Capital Presbytery), and Derrick Weston (Pittsburgh Presbytery); and elders Luis Antonio De La Rosa (Pacific Presbytery), Katina Miner (San Francisco Presbytery), Stephen L. Salyards (San Gabriel Presbytery), and Lisa Cooper Van Riper (Foothills Presbytery). Emily W. Miller (Shenandoah Presbytery) also serves as a member.

The committee is scheduled to meet again in September, after which they plan to make available a draft of their final report to the denomination. They will solicit feedback from across the church until January, when they will hold a final meeting to incorporate changes to their report based on the feedback received. Shortly thereafter, they will submit their final version to the 219th General Assembly (2010) – in 10,000 words, more or less.

Comments, suggestions, and questions can be directed to the committee.