By Dr. Walter Van Beek
We have rituals in the church, many rituals. We call them differently, though, as we prefer to speak about the sacrament, about blessing, anointment,
ordination, or more generally about ordinances – preferable priesthood ordinances – or sometimes we call them rites, as in temple rites. Rituals is what other people have, the Catholics, the Buddhists, the Hindus, and especially the tribes in Africa where I do my anthropological field work. They have rituals, those strange and non-authorized expressions of faith that are nice to watch, a little eerie to participate in, but in orthodox LDS eyes lack the priesthood authority that makes such an act ‘real’. Ritual is not us. All churches and most religions display a similar tendency: we have sacraments (Catholics), we have a ‘liturgy’ (Protestant), the others have rituals. But from any non-biased viewpoint all the prescribed acts we do inside the church are rituals, i.e. religious acts that have meaning for the participants, and are strange for outsiders. Reasons for that strangeness are clear, but this discussion falls outside the scope of this blog (see van Beek 2012).
The LDS church runs on a true-false discourse in doctrine, and that discourse easily spills over into the rituals: true ordinances versus false rituals. Now statements may be true or false as they can can be falsified or verified, but for actions the distinction has no meaning: an act is, and cannot be falsified. A handshake may be firm, weak, long, short or moist, it is always a handshake. Also when it is symbolic. So religious acts are all rituals, in whatever church they are situated. We as LDS have many rituals, as I said, from prayer to passing the sacrament, from singing hymns to welcoming at the door, from blessing the sick to ordaining a new bishop, from baptism to conferring the Holy Ghost, from giving a testimony to the temple endowment. All religions have rituals, otherwise they would not exist, but the array of rituals may vary considerably. Roman Catholicism is replete with rituals, Calvinist Protestantism is very sober in this respect, just like Tantric and Terevada Buddhism are respectively exuberant and restrained in matters ritual.
As LDS church we have in fact quite a lot of rites – more than we credit ourselves for – and we have even two types of special buildings for our rituals. The one is the meeting house, where we do the weekly rituals, the sacrament and other meetings, the lessons, the sermons, singing, testimony, up till the business meetings of the various officers, also ritualized up to a point. Those are what I call the minimal rituals, not overly strange, recognizable from everyday life, easy to interpret and in case of sacrament and baptism often explained. But we do have a special building for another kind of rituals, ordinances that cannot be done elsewhere. The inscription above the temple entrance clearly indicates the special status of the edifice: here lives the Lord. This is not the meetinghouse of the ward, but the place for the encounter with the divine. The two are well separated in Mormonism. Both buildings have to be sacralized, but the rituals doing so differ greatly. A meeting house is dedicated by the stake president in a special sacrament meeting. But a new temple dedication is very different: it takes multiple sessions directed by a top General Authority, involving all active members, is closed for outsiders, and for most members is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Also for me, as I had the privilege of translating for President Hinckley in his first dedication session of the Zoetermeer temple. I sometimes joke that as the Lord understands only Dutch, I dedicated the temple. (At times, I do mean it, after all, I translated in the first session, and does the Lord need more than one?) This distinction between the domus ecclesiae and the domus dei is very strong, and quite peculiar for our church, demanding always explanation to strangers.
So in our ritual system the temple rituals have a very specific place, as they are well separated from the more run-of-the-mill rituals of daily Mormon life, and members are continually exhorted to keep them that way. So let us have a look at those temple rituals, and one specific rite in particular, sealing of marriages. The logic of the temple rituals is that they form a topping up on those rituals done in the mundane world, in the meeting house. The baptisms in the temple are a celestialization of meeting house baptism: baptizing spirits instead of living people. The endowment, as an initiatory trajectory forms the celestialization of the conversion process, a ritual highlight of the way one comes to more light and higher learning through contact with and instruction by the divine. The washing and anointing, the so-called preliminaries, echo royal investiture rituals, lifting the candidate to higher spiritual planes, or in present e-speak, to the next level.
So the temple is our ‘next level’, a further step on the stairway to heaven. What now with marriage, a transition that is well ritualized in most cultures? Also in ours, in fact, as in modern western society the only two life passages that do receive ritual attention are marriage and death. Marriage is a focus of our culture, almost an obsession. And indeed, marriage is important in the LDS tradition as well, nobody can argue with that. But here we have an anomaly in the LDS ritual framework: the temple marriage should be a celestialization of an existing ritual done in the ‘mundane world’, in the meeting house or elsewhere. When analyzing the actual ritual of the temple marriage it is clear that that is exactly how it is organized: a couple comes to the altar and has their marriage celestialized. In its symbolism is not a wedding, but a sealing of an existing union. Weddings, the world over, have a definite structure: two families come together, one hands over a bride to the other family, for their son, the groom, to marry. The presence of the whole community is essential as it involves the making of a new group, a new nuclear family, that should be recognized. That is precisely what the temple sealing is not. The Mormon ritual corpus lacks a wedding ritual. Joseph Smith was very aware of that, and has given some indications how an LDS wedding should be, in the meeting house. That particular ritual has never come to fruition in the church, through the course of his personal history. But it should be there.
Now, the situation in Europe, say the Netherlands, where I live, is that a couple has to have a civil wedding first, required by law and then can have a church wedding – or not, as is usual now. That civil wedding can be short but does involve a speech, an exchange of vows and the signing of the wedding certificate by the bride and groom, plus their witnesses, usually their family. This has all the trappings of a wedding ritual, and in present-day Holland is becoming ever more so. The location used to be at the town hall, but increasingly a special place is selected for these weddings, provided for by the municipality. Old castles are very popular, adding the mystique of antiquity to the ceremonial nature of the civil wedding. For the speech the civil servant – who normally delivers this sermon – like oratory, can be replaced by someone from the family or friends of the bride and groom. I have provided this service for some couples from our church, and it was a great pleasure to do so. Also, one can opt to become a ‘special civil servant’ with the authority to perform legal civil marriages for that community, a kind of voluntary, part-time civil servant with one duty only. For my retirement I have planned to opt for this position, as I feel that marrying people is a noble profession.
So, for the Dutch saints, the civil wedding is not just a formality, it is a wedding proper, also if they go on to the temple afterwards. When my second son married his Spanish bride, he did so in Spain, in a wonderful old hall in La Coruna, and there the ceremonial setting really added to the occasion. All her family and friends, mostly Roman Catholic, and his family and friends, mostly Mormon, witnessed a ceremony that was not as elaborate as in the Netherlands, but impressive anyway. Then they had a service in the ward chapel, to celebrate this union with the ward – plus all the family and friends. The missionaries had a field day. Afterwards they went to the temple in Madrid – a 500 km ride – with just a few of their dear ones. Afterwards I have asked them how they experienced this two-tiered wedding-and-sealing, and they found it was a wonderful arrangement. All her family and friends were happy and content, as were we, and though the bride’s parents were not in the temple and she did miss them, it never was a problem. They, my son and daughter-in-law, viewed the temple as their personal special event, being sealed for eternity before the Lord, and expressed this as ‘offering their union up to God’. This was their moment with God, their very personal moment of being a celestial union. Both of them had already received their endowment some time ago, which made the sealing all the more special.
A the very same wedding, my first daughter met a boy from the same Spanish ward, an indeed, some time afterwards, they married as well. In anthropological terms, the two wards exchanged brides. She married in the Netherlands, and choose a location in a community close to our home town. In the Netherlands you can often choose the community you marry in, often depending on the quality of the marriage venue, one reason why towns compete in ceremonial locations. Theirs was a wonderful civil wedding, in a Baroque setting, with a marriage sermon delivered by one of their close friends. Afterwards, they also went to the temple and were, as a special treat, the first couple to be sealed in the New Dutch temple, the one in Zoetermeer (officially the The Hague temple, but no Dutchman ever calls it that). They had the same experience: a great wedding with all the friends and family present, and then a sealing of that union before the Lord. In their case, both families were predominantly LDS, and the family presence in the temple session was more balanced, but that did not change their interpretation: this was their moment before the Lord.
Also they had received their endowment long before, and the more I see weddings-plus-sealings, the more I think that for a young couple that is highly advisable. Have your endowments first, then marry. Some brides want to have all in one day, to add to the specialness of their big day, but it is simply too much to take in in one go. And, let us be honest, the endowment has preciously little to do with the wedding, and definitely is not a wedding ritual. It is an initiatory journey, and does not fit in as a preliminary before the sealing of a marriage. I have spoken with some LDS couples, where the brides had received their endowment on their marriage day, and all expressed some regrets that they had overloaded the day. It was a ritual overdose. All of them wanted to redo the endowment in order to know what had actually happened, as none of them retained anything of the endowment proper.
Viewing these experiences I think the Saints in Europe are better off than in the States. The best option, for all concerned, is to go first through the temple for one’s own endowment, then on the Great Day have a civil wedding, and finally solemnize and celestialized that union in the temple. Especially when bride and/or groom has not received their endowments yet, it is highly advisable not to perform the endowment plus the sealing in the same day. In short, to have a civil union plus a sealing in two separate ceremonies adds to the notion of marriage, adds to the celestial nature of the LDS marriage and in no way detracts from the importance of the temple.
To read more of Walter Van Beek’s thoughts, click on the following links:
Click here to read his essay in Dialogue about how the Dutch saints use the temple to create sacred space.
Click here to read his essay in the International Journal of Mormons Studies entitled, “Meaning and Authority in Mormon Ritual”
Click here to listen to Dr. Van Beeks thoughts on families being excluded form Temple weddings.
Click here to read his thoughts on “Mormon Scholars Testify”