Where is the wedding?

This post is about ritual, not doctrine, so it is about the form of worship, not its theology. I will use the word ‘ritual’ for all formalized forms of worship, Mormon and other, even if we use ‘ordinances’ in our own ‘Mormonese’, but ‘ritual’ is the generally accepted term. Rituals are important since as symbols in action they are ‘sticks to lean on in worship’. In the Mormon church we have quite some rituals, like the sacrament, prayers, testimony bearing, baptism, laying on of hands, administering, and of course the temple is a house full of rituals.

My thesis in this first blog on wedding and marriage is that in our LDS ritual repertoire, large as it may be, we are missing one ritual, the wedding. Now, let me be clear: I use ‘wedding’ for the ritual (or ceremony, but that is the same category) by which a couple is married. Marriage is the institution, wedding the specific form this festive occasion takes, a form which depends on culture and tradition. And on the Church. All cultures know the institution of marriage, but not all cultures have weddings; sometimes the joining of a man and a woman occurs very gradually. But anyway, when a man and woman are married, they form a new group in society: they have gone from their ‘family of orientation (living with mon and dad) to their ‘family of procreation’, and henceforth the children of the wife will have her husband as father (more or less the definition of marriage).

Now the wedding is the ritual that accompanies this formation of the new group, a married couple. Being a shift in group allegiance, in the wedding ritual the families of both partners normally come to the fore. In Africa (my stamping ground) this may be through the payment of a bride price (I will come back to this in another blog), in Anglo-Saxon weddings we have other symbols, that are well-known: the bride’s father walking his daughter through the isle of the church, while near the officiator the groom is waiting in front of the audience with a kinsman. In the admiring audience families and friends of both bride and groom strain their necks to see the bride. Other symbols are well known as well: the unveiling of the bride, the formula by which the officiator initiates the ceremony, the call for those opposing the new union ‘or forever hold your tongue’, the vows, exchange of rings, the ‘I now pronounce you …’ , and of course the crucial ritual of the kiss, the first married kiss. The final walk through the isle of the new couple shows them to be married now, the bride unveiled on her husbands arm, and so they leave the building.

A Mormon wedding in the Netherlands: bride and groom just before their civil marriage.

This is just one cultural form, but in weddings throughout the world we see similar dynamics. The role of both families, the public proclamation, symbols of marital unity, representation of the society as a whole and of religious authority are almost ubiquitous. Since a wedding is a rite of passage accompanying the change of status change of the participants, bride and groom are marked by special clothing with a high symbolic content (something old and something new …) and usually spend some time ‘out of society and out of time’, the honeymoon.

The paradox is that we as LDS are heavily ‘into marriage’, and yet we do not have such a wedding ritual. Eternal marriage, the new and everlasting covenant, temple marriage, those terms are on the forefront of our theology, but our ritual does not match our theology. Yes, we do marry in the temple, and call that ‘temple marriage’, sometimes even ‘temple wedding’, but that ritual in the temple is completely different: it is a sealing. To seal is to make temporary things eternal, a typical priesthood function. The sealing ritual itself is simple and straightforward: kneeling at an altar the couple makes a verbal covenant between them and God, led by an officiator. Family may be present, but not necessarily so. There is no exchange of rings or vows, no public call for opposition, not special witnesses for bride and groom, not even special clothing, and the whole ritual takes a quarter of an hour. Of course, it can be an inspiring moment, and yes of course the covenant with the Divine is highly important, the theology is clear, but that is not my point. As a ritual the sealing comes right after the endowment and is considered the crowning moment of that ritual, this sealing is the end of an initiation, a symbolic journey into the mysteries of the Divine. Thus, qua ritual type the sealing is completely different from a wedding. The sealing, as it stands, is more geared at eternalizing an existing marital union, than producing a new couple. So we have a paradox: in a Church for which marriage is of crucial importance, the wedding ritual is absent. We marry before God, but we do not marry for this world, at least not ritually.

Now why would this absent ritual be a problem? In principle 1. because the temple is not a public place, and people may be excluded from participating in the marital union of close kin., and 2. because the temple sealing functions also as civil marriage, at least in the USA. The actual problem is well-known: parents of convert youngsters who anxiously wait on the steps of the Salt Lake City temple, till their son or daughter emerges from the building after a marriage ceremony they could not attend. Public relations-wise this is a nightmare, surely for a Church battling the image of being a sect.

In the USA the sealing can count as civil marriage as well, meaning that a couple sealed in the temple is considered married by ‘America’; for the Church this is the normal situation, the one to be aspired. For couples with fully LDS families, this is hardly a problem, but in an internationalizing church that will be less and less the case. What aggravates the situation, at least for couples of ‘mixed provenance’, is that in the USA the Church does not give couples the choice to marry civilly first; if they opt to do so, they have to wait for a year before being allowed to the temple; outside the USA this is not the case.

When civil weddings are performed by bishops in the USA, they are discouraged from rendering the ceremony too much ‘like a wedding’: no wedding march, no walk through the isle, no exchange of rings. The Church not only has no wedding ritual, but leaders prevent the members from fabricating one themselves.

In my view this is a problem that will not go away, since at its basis lies exactly this missing ritual: it is the absence of a wedding ritual that creates the quandary. Three ways to solve the problem present themselves. One is that the leadership comes up with a Mormon wedding ritual, to be performed before the sealing. Joseph Smith seems to have been pondering such a ritual, but his untimely death put an end to that.

The second way is to always have a civil wedding before the temple sealing; that is what happens in many countries in Europe in which a civil union is mandatory before any religious solemnization. The Netherlands are one. You first have your civil marriage, and then go to the temple. Non-LDS kin attends the first ceremony and then their exclusion from the temple is not felt as a problem; often the temple is far away. The non-LDS consider the temple ritual in such a case as a personal solemnization of the marriage before God; curiously enough, they are completely right, for that is exactly what the ritual is geared at, eternalize an existing union. Our European experience shows that this civil marriage in no way detracts from the holiness of the temple and its ritual; on the contrary, for the couple it increases the focus on the temple as the crowning element of a wedding trajectory.

The minimal solution is that the year penalty disappears, offering the couples who wish so, to have a civil marriage in front of their non-LDS kinsmen. Some years ago a petition asked the General Authorities to do away with this penalty – which does create also inequality between members – but nothing came of it. At least not yet.
We are not in a Church were the leaders ask for advice from the members, so the following advice is completely unsolicited. Yet, it might be a good idea to either (in ascending desirability)
1.Do away with the year penalty for couples who have a civil marriage first.
2.Make civil marriages mandatory before entering the temple.
3.Design a wedding ritual for LDS.

Just an idea to ponder on.

Walter van Beek

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