By Francis Williamson
Having been born and brought up in the UK it had never occurred to me that, when it came time for my children to be married, I would not be able to take part in the day or witness their exchanges of wedding vows. Two of my sons have been married in LDS chapels in England where friends and family can be present to share in the solemnity and celebration. Their mother and I were married in this fashion in the 1970s and one of the most amazing things about that day was that more than three hundred people wanted to share it with us. These people were by no means the usual rent-a-crowd members of the local congregation. They were mostly family members and non-member friends from our many circles of activity. It turned out to be one of the most important aspects of our wedding day and made us feel very, very special. I think it was the first time our LDS chapel had ever seen “standing room only”.
Following his mission and the obligatory post-mission visit to his ex-companions in the USA, one of my other sons proposed to a woman from Utah. We found her to be a lovely person and her family was very welcoming when our own Mormon-sized family eventually made the first leg of the ten-thousand mile round-trip to attend the wedding. During the preceding planning period it was almost inevitable that most of us would overlook some of the things the family on the other side of the ocean considered normal. Inevitably cultural assumptions were made. My son had honestly not realised, until late on in the planning, that the reason for the worringly casual attitude towards arranging the wedding service was that there wouldn’t be one. It didn’t cross his mind until, beginning to feel the time running out to plan the actual wedding, he thought he’d better ask. He was surprised and dismayed to discover that his apostate father, older sister and his two teenaged siblings, half of his family altogether, would be ineligible to attend the wedding since the ceremony had to take place within the secrecy of a Mormon temple. However much Mormons protest that the temple is “sacred not secret” hidden stuff is, and always will be, “secret” to outsiders. One other son had to stay behind in the UK. Like his older brothers before him, he was at the time experiencing the purdah of serving a full-time mission and was also, therefore, unable to attend his brother’s wedding. It was now a firmly established tradition in our family that missions prevented full family attendance at sibling nuptials.
On the day, my wife and our eldest son (the already-married, returned-missionary one) joined the bridal party in the temple while we four unworthies were left at the home of the in-laws with what seemed like hundreds of babies and children who had been left notionally in the care of teenaged siblings and friends. We had never met any of them before and they didn’t know us. I was an obvious oddity, being by far the oldest person present. Actually, my eldest daughter and I were the only adults in the house. It was somehow assumed that we would be babysitters-in-chief. In the UK I have to go through scrutiny by the Criminal Records Bureau to be able to do my normal work with even a fraction of the number of children that were present that day. Strangely no one asked if I were competent to be left in charge of their children. The silly thought did cross my mind that it was because these people were so prolific that they wouldn’t miss a few should I have turned out to be a child-hating, axe-wielding murderer. At some appointed hour we were to make the short journey to the temple where we would be allowed to hang around outdoors until we were called to pose for photographs. I bit my tongue. It was not my day. It was never about me, but it hurt. Why did it hurt so much?
In an attempt at offering a compromise, albeit at great expense on his student budget, my son booked a sit-down meal in a restaurant near the temple where fifty of his and his bride’s nearest and dearest could gather following the sealing. He also hired the function room of the restaurant and arranged for his bishop to perform a “ring ceremony”. This, we understood would be like a civil wedding, just without a register to sign. It wasn’t. After the meal we went into the room where the bishop improvised a little speech about the infinite nature of circles and wedding rings. My son was encouraged to kiss his wife and, apart from the customary “opening and closing” hymns and prayers, that was it. His in-laws didn’t seem to get the idea that it was important for us Brits to be able to share and witness the exchange of vows at a “real” wedding. I realise now, to my embarrassment and shame that my wife and I had made a similar error years earlier when we had failed to take into account the cultural importance of a good old-fashioned boozy knees-up when our eldest son married a celt whose family had no connections with the LDS church. Is this what karma felt like? This ring ceremony was clearly seen as a sop to unenlightened and apostate foreigners by a temple recommend-carrying elite. Maybe it was just me being too sensitive, but there appeared to be a degree of smugness surrounding this gesture to inclusivity.
Later in the day the real wedding reception took place in the cultural hall of the family’s regular meeting-house. This was where family and friends were allowed to mingle. It had been a long and tiring few days for us all. For days beforehand we had driven around the Salt Lake hinterlands picking up huge plastic replica Roman pillars, plastic grapevines and yards of floaty fabric to help create some kind of atmosphere in the traditionally bare cultural hall aesthetic. From my perspective far more importance had been attached to these pillars than to any other aspect of the wedding. The only tears I witnessed during the final countdown to the big day was over a misunderstanding involving the double-booking of Roman pillars. I found all this confusing, alienating and fascinating at the same time. I asked the question, but never did receive a satisfactory answer, as to why so many people kept huge, plastic, replica Roman pillars in their garages. Did all Americans have them stashed away somewhere or was it just Mormons? Was it, perhaps, just Mormons in Utah?
The party was fun. We greeted, we smiled, we chattered and we even knew some of the people who were there. We ate delicious and lovingly prepared buffet food. I think it was probably the last time my wife and I danced together before we divorced. We found a little corner where we could indulge ourselves in improvising our favourite French folk dance moves that we had long ago discovered to be our preferred method of moving to pop music. Our kids understood, smiled indulgently and ignored us. The natives seemed vaguely curious, but not curious enough to ask.
However, even with all this joy, festivity and bemusement, what sticks in my mind and in my throat more than anything else was the sadness (and, if Im honest, anger) at not being allowed to witness my son marry the woman he loved. Part of the joy of attending the wedding of a close family member lies in being able to shed tears of solidarity and pride as one sees one’s babies taking on the solemn responsibility of adult commitment.
That was not the end. Years later, someone on Facebook shared a petition that was being submitted to encourage the Church to allow civil weddings everywhere prior to temple marriages. My son’s situation was that, had he and his wife chosen to go through a civil ceremony prior to their temple marriage, even if they held the wedding on the same day, they would have incurred a penalty of having to wait a year before they could be married for time and all eternity in the temple. Such a penalty is normally reserved for sinners and new converts. Why was my RM son and his RM wife put under this pressure to conform? This does not happen in England, when weddings take place on the same day as temple marriages. In writing the petition, someone had obviously realised that inviting friends and families to weddings was quite normal in most of the rest of the world. My ex-wife and I, our other sons and innumerable others had enjoyed our weddings in a chapel open to anyone we cared to invite and from where we made our way to the nearest temple for the Mormon added-on temple marriage and sealing. God had never thrown thunderbolts, although it had rained very hard on our own wedding day. It struck me as very cruel that LDS families in Utah and maybe other places were denied this joy and were sifted for eligibility to attend family celebrations by their degree of adherence to Mormon rules. I shared the petition on my Facebook wall and alluded to my own story. Then family war broke out. My post was visible to everyone on my “friends” list. I had written my contribution very carefully, so as not to blame my son and his wife. It was not their fault. My disagreement was with LDS custom and practice in this particular spot on the planet and by implication LDS church leadership. However, some people seem to work hard at taking offence. One of my ex-LDS children leapt to what he saw as his brother’s defence, telling me that it was my “choice” not to attend the wedding. I could have attended had I really wanted to. All I needed to have done was obey LDS rules … Unfortunately, the teachings and the rules of the church had stopped making sense to me decades before then. The very idea that I should somehow simply have flipped a “faithful member” switch to earn a temple recommend was problematic. While I was pleased to note inter-sibling loyalty I was taken aback by the ferocity and tenacity of the attack, which gradually drew in other family members who proved that they also had not read my comments and arguments. Some interesting points were raised in this exchange that signposted lingering LDS conditioning. My real friends who did read what I wrote were shocked and called me to ask if I were okay. It all blew up very quickly and when I saw that further enlightenment and knowledge were not contributing to the discussion I deleted the thread.
From what I have gleaned from this story LDS members do not see any problem with excluding ineligible family members from weddings. We “choose” whether to obey the rules. I suppose this is the same in any gang or club, but a lot of people get hurt in LDS Utah, where it would appear that obedience, age and church status are requirements for attending family weddings. My son in the USA explained his view that he felt this was healthy. He would rather live in a country where religious views are “respected”. He hoped the church would one day be accorded the same “respect” in England. Were that ever to become a prospect I would fight it very strongly and it would join the list of causes for which I have taken to the streets in protest or solidarity.
Once it had became clear to me that I would not be attending a wedding I had discussed with my wife whether it would be better for me to stay in England and save money we didn’t have, and that we were going to have to borrow, for the trip to the USA. Both of us were also taking unpaid leave from work. She convinced me that this could have bad long-term consequences and I eventually conceded that she was right. When I brought up in the online discussion that I had considered this as an option my son pointed out that I was making the ceremony more important than being there to support him for his wedding. By this time I was thoroughly confused. Apparently me being in the vicinity was enough for him. Things got worse. Over this divisive issue battle lines were drawn and he cut off communication with me, stating that I had not taken an interest in anything he or his family had done since the wedding. He did not respond to letters or other attempts at communication. Perceptions may be everything at times, but a rational look at the evidence would have proven otherwise.
Following receipt of a small bequest after the death of a close family member it took me no time to decide that the best use of the money would be to book a flight to visit my son and his family in the USA as soon as was mutually convenient. Such a move would definitely have met with the deceased’s approval. I went earlier this year and we had a great time together. I met my bevy of grandchildren for the first time and fell in love with all of them. My daughter-in-law is as lovely as ever she was and has proven an exemplary mother. I am so proud of my son, his achievements and of the man he has become. I love him and his beautiful family dearly.
My relationship with my son and his family is back to being a good one in spite of the teachings and customs of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that sought to separate us. Excluding family and friends from family celebrations is not good practice. For an organisation that claims to be all about family and that takes such pains over its attempts to boost its membership, such a stance is inexplicable. From the points of view of those of us who have been caught up in this inconsistently applied and unnecessary dogma it is very cruel and can cause lasting schisms in families. I have neither rights nor wishes to deny Mormons the freedom to conduct their temple rites as they see fit, but the consequence for those of us not attracted to the faith is that many are left cold and left out in the cold by the leadership’s insensitivity, arrogance and this pursuit of exclusivity and “peculiar people” status. I would love to know that my American friends could have the same privilege to attend family weddings that we have in Europe. It’s not deep doctrine. It surely only requires a policy change.