Mormonism 101: Mormon Marriage
So, I've yet again been rather lax in updating this blog (and yes, I know I said the same thing in the last post). I still have quite a backlog of things I've been wanting to post about, though, so I think I'm going to shoot for a post a day all this week again. Anyway, though, on my last Mormonism 101 post, I invited readers to suggest what specific aspects of Mormonism they'd like me to write about, and I got a response: someone wanted me to write a post about Mormon temple marriages and sealings. So I guess I'll oblige.
I'm not going to just reiterate word for word what happens in the ceremony, for two reasons. First of all, because I don't have it memorized. And secondly, because it's available elsewhere on the internet anyway. (Granted, point two sort of invalidates point one, in that it means I guess I could just copy it from that site, but even without point one point two still stands.) What I will do is speak in general terms of what marriage means in Mormonism, and what the temple ceremony is supposed to signify.
"Family" is one of the LDS church's biggest selling points; I don't know how many times I've heard of someone converting to Mormonism because they liked the idea that families can be together forever. (That is, in fact, the title of one of the official church hymns.) "Till death do us part" doesn't apply to Mormon weddings; they are supposed to be eternal.
Well, with certain caveats. They're only eternal if both partners make it into the Celestial Kingdom. Don't worry if you don't know exactly what that means--the Mormon concept of the afterlife is rather complex, and could easily (and probably someday will) make for a lengthy post by itself. The short of it is that only those who stay righteous and attain a high level of salvation are united in eternal marriage. Still, those who are will, in time, become gods and goddesses themselves, ruling over their own worlds and having "eternal increase"--i.e., posthumous spirit children.
(There's another thing, incidentally, that will no doubt be brought to many readers' minds by "Mormon marriage" but that is beyond the scope of this post: Polygamy. Yes, polygamy certainly was widely practiced in the early days of the church, and yes, it still is by some splinter sects, though it's no longer condoned by the main LDS church. There's a lot I could say about its history and about its doctrinal implications...but not in this post. I've got enough to say without opening up that can of worms here.)
The eternal family extends beyond just the man and wife, however. Children are likewise eternally sealed to their parents, in a chain that supposedly links all the way back to Adam. (The apparent idea, though it's not really clearly spelled out, is that if one link in the chain proves unworthy, any worthy children of that unsaved link will be "adopted" by a worthier individual.) Any children born to a couple who have been married in the temple are considered to be "born in the covenant", and automatically sealed to their parents. If the parents marry after one or more children have already been born, however (or if a child is adopted, or under certain other special circumstances), the children may be explicitly sealed to the parents in a ceremony that goes along with the marriage.
Not only is marriage eternal for the exalted, but it's a requirement for exaltation. Temple marriage is, in fact, the fourth and last of the major ordinances that, according to LDS doctrine, are necessary for salvation. In short, in the LDS church, marriage is considered a really big deal.
At least, that's the theory, though you wouldn't really know it from the way it's actually carried out.
Anyway, as such a holy ordinance, the marriage (and the sealing) takes place in the temple. Church members can get married outside the temple, and that of course qualifies for legal purposes--even in the eyes of the church, in the sense that the married couple can have sex without it being considered fornication--but for the marriage to be eternal, and for it to count toward salvation, it has to take place in the temple. This is actually rather a big deal; outside of the ordinances performed for the dead, the only other ordinance that takes place in the temple is that of the endowment, which, again, could make for a post of its own.
One drawback, though, is that this means that only "worthy" members of the church--those with current temple recommends--are able to attend the wedding. If the bride or groom has close family members who aren't members of the church--or even who aren't active members of the church and don't have current recommends--they can't go to the wedding. In fact, in practice, generally the only people present at the wedding are the bride and groom's immediate relatives and perhaps two or three very close friends.
Not that there'd be much room for more spectators anyway--the sealing room in the temple isn't very large. It's a small square room with a few chairs on each side, with mirrored walls that ham-handedly symbolize eternity. Outside of the chairs, the only furnishing in the room is an altar--essentially just a big rectangular block of marble or some other material. The bride and groom clasp hands over the altar as a temple officiator speaks the words of the ceremony. If there are children to be sealed to the parents, they then take the parents' hands and that ceremony is done. The whole deal is very short and rather impersonal, and although the officiator does have the opportunity to speak a few words of counsel and encouragement, given that said officiator is usually a complete stranger to everyone else present this comes across as fairly meaningless. (I related a rather ill-conceived example of an officiator's banter here.)
However, it mustn't be thought that since so few people are present at the actual wedding, a Mormon couple misses out on having a big celebration and receiving presents. No, what happens is that in addition to the wedding, the couple has a wedding reception--which takes place after the wedding, but before the honeymoon (generally just before, in that the couple goes straight from the reception to the honeymoon). It's at the reception that numerous guests are accommodated, that gifts are received, that cake is served and the bouquet thrown. The fact that the wedding itself has already taken place by this time and the reception is purely a social affair (well, a social and gift-receiving affair), though, makes it seem (to me, at least) kind of empty. Not helping the case, either, is that (in my experience) Mormon wedding receptions are generally tacky affairs held in hastily redecorated church gymnasia--impersonal locations that don't really lend themselves to imparting due gravitas to a special occasion that's supposed to commemorate an important milestone in a couple's eternal progression.
So, in short, that's how the Mormon marriage goes. A lot of talk about its eternal importance and spiritual significance, but, in my opinion, with the actual proceedings ringing a little hollow. Still, however unexciting the wedding and the reception may be, it's supposed to represent two people being tied together for all eternity--and I guess that's maybe the main point where the Mormon marriage stands out from that of other Christian denominations. Of course, the divorce rate among Mormon couples remains high enough that many marriages turn out to not even make it to the end of mortality, much less beyond it.
Anyway, so, I hope some readers have found this post informative. As before, if there's any specific aspect of Mormonism you'd like me to write about, let me know in the comments. (Though I won't promise to get to it this week, given that I've already got a backlog of posts I've been meaning to make...)