This story in the Arizona Republic got me thinking. It recounts the temple wedding of a Mormon convert. His mother opposed his baptism, and when it came time for him to be married she was devastated by her inability to attend the ceremony. The article was, I thought, a poignant telling of the story, one that nicely captured the mother’s pain. Among other things, the article notes that in countries where marriage must be a civil ceremony Mormons are allowed to be sealed immediately after a non-temple wedding. But not so in the United States, where a couple must wait a year before they may be sealed. Relaxing this policy strikes me as a good idea. I think that the church should continue to emphasize temple marriage and can even continue to teach that civil marriages followed by temple sealings are disfavored. Providing the option of a civil marriage followed by a temple sealing, however, would give families in difficult situations a tool for assuaging understandable pain. It could also alleviate a point of animosity against the church without compromising its doctrinal integrity.
I do think that Mormons need to do a better job explaining why non-Mormons cannot attend temple sealings. This is universally explained in terms of the absence of a temple recommend and this, in turn, is explained in terms of worthiness. Hence, non-Mormon parents are told that they are excluded because they are “unworthy.” It’s understandable that they feel terribly judged by this. The sad thing, of course, is that this is not actually the reason that they are excluded. Rather, they are excluded because they have not made the covenants of the endowment. For example, a Mormon in perfectly good standing who is otherwise worthy to enter the temple also cannot attend a temple marriage if he or she is unendowed. Explaining this without treading on the esoteric aspects of the temple to which Mormons vow secrecy is difficult. The real problem, however, is not that non-Mormons are “unworthy” to be present at their children’s weddings. Rather, the problem is that they have not made the covenants that any witness of the ceremony must make in order to avoid what for Mormons would be an enormous blasphemy. The blasphemy, however, would not arise because of the unworthiness of the non-member. Rather, it would arise because the actions of the Mormon participants would violate sacred covenants that they have made. I realize this is unlikely to make much of a difference to the hurt non-member parent. On the other hand, it is worth repeating that the exclusion of non-members from the sealing ceremony is not a judgement of their moral depravity. Rather, it is the result of the way that esotericism and covenant intersect in the liturgy of the sealing ceremony.
My own mother did not attend my wedding. Having grown up Mormon, having been through the temple, and having left the church, she thoroughly understood how the Mormon universe worked. I thus had the luxury of not having to explain it to her. I don’t think, however, that this lessened the sting of the day for her, nor my regret at her absence around the altar, although my regret centered less on her exclusion from the endowment per se than on the different religious paths that we have trod. The beauty and power of that moment in the sealing room, however, justified my regret. Indeed, if I am honest with myself I think that it also justified the pain I’m sure I inflicted on my mother. It’s a hard and bitter thing, however, to admit, even to oneself. Finding better ways of managing that bitterness would be welcome.