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Mormon temple weddings leave some family on outside, hurting inside

Published June 15, 2011 12:53 pm

Members only • These sacred weddings can divide families at a time that usually unites them.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

You see them on Salt Lake City's Temple Square nearly every day. They pace nervously or stroll aimlessly, staring down at the tulips or up at the spires.

They are not tourists or templegoers. They are parents, siblings, cousins and friends of Mormon couples being wed inside the LDS sanctuary. But, for one reason or another, they are not allowed to view the ceremony.

Maybe they are Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish or atheist. Perhaps they once were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Or maybe they are current Mormons who fail to meet all the faith's belief and behavior standards for a "recommend" to enter into the temple.

Whatever the reason, their exclusion can divide families at a time when weddings usually unite them.

What should have been a joyous occasion was the "one of the most painful experiences of my life," says Jolene, a Utah County Christian whose daughter joined the LDS Church and was married in the Salt Lake Temple. "I kissed her goodbye at home and then cried on her sister's shoulder. My husband went to work."

For 20 years, the devoted mother showed up to every parent-teacher conference, school performance and athletic event, says Jolene, who asked that only her first name be used to not offend her daughter or neighbors. She was there for her daughter's first words, first step, first prom.

To be excluded at her wedding — "a unique and special" moment in her daughter's life — was deeply hurtful, Jolene says.

Some engaged couples soften the pain with a ring ceremony outside the temple. Some gather their families near the temple, ready for photos. Others simply feel that the temple ceremony — which Mormons believe can "seal" a marriage for eternity — is too important to dilute with other traditions and hope their families and friends understand.

Those left outside also have an array of coping. Former or less-active Mormons may come back to church for a few months to gain entry to the temple. Those of other religions or no faith may simply accept the limitations with good cheer.

"The church is very aware of the issue you raise, and it has been exhaustively discussed over many years," LDS Church spokesman Michael Otterson wrote last fall to Jean Brody, a former Mormon in Canada who is concerned about being shut out of her grandchildren's weddings. "This is a sensitive and difficult issue, with many complexities, not all of which are always apparent."

Jolene has joined with Brody and Michelle Spencer, another Canadian woman, in circulating a petition asking the Utah-based church to allow couples to have a civil wedding first — to which everyone would be invited — then choose when they want to go to the temple for the sealing rather than waiting a year as currently required for LDS couples in North America.

For years, many Mormons living outside Utah had a civil ceremony first, then went to an LDS temple as soon as they could. Former LDS President Spencer W. Kimball, for example, married his bride, Camilla Eyring, civilly in Arizona in 1917, then traveled to St. George for a temple sealing about seven months later. Similarly, Mitt and Ann Romney exchanged rings in a civil ceremony at her parents' Bloomfield Hills, Mich., home, then flew to Utah the next day to be sealed in the Salt Lake Temple.

That two-step approach is still the norm for Mormons in many European and South American countries, where governments require marriage ceremonies be open to the public.

"There is no doctrinal reason for the one-year waiting period," Jolene says. "They would do it if they genuinely valued all families — as they say they do."

She is not optimistic that the church will change, so when other locked-out parents call her, this is her advice: Put a smile on your face and be as gracious as you can while your heart breaks.

A higher law?

Temple worship is the "highest form of religious expression for Latter-day Saints," says church spokesman Scott Trotter. In these sacred structures, Mormons "make formal commitments to God and receive the crowning sacraments of the faith, including the marriage of couples for eternity."

Because of its significance, only members "who have demonstrated their adherence to the tenets of the faith may enter," Trotter says. "Participation in any temple rite, including marriage, requires rigorous personal preparation through study, prayer and commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ."

Exclusion is never intended, he says. "It is the LDS Church's hope that having an understanding of the sacredness and significance of a temple marriage can help those who care about the couple share in their joy and feel appreciation for the commitment they have made to each other and to God."

Part of the problem has emerged in recent years as society has moved weddings from the sacred to the secular, says Brigham Young University sociologist Marie Cornwall. Marriage was once a church-centered celebration, given that most people's religious and secular communities were the same. Now they aren't.

Many of today's weddings no longer are seen as a holy event before God and witnesses, she says, but rather as a chance to bring everyone together to celebrate the newlyweds.

"Everyone now has relatives who are not religious," she says. "So weddings have become more and more part of the market. Couples are spending huge amounts of money for celebrations to include all their friends."

Modern Mormons with non-temple-going family members have sought ways to satisfy both traditions through extra rituals — ring ceremonies, elaborate parties, even gatherings that might include prayers, musical selections and a spiritual message from a local LDS leader.

Or they have their non-church family wait in a designated temple anteroom.

Mormon writer and poet Emma Lou Thayne has spent several years as a greeter in the Salt Lake Temple waiting room, which was enlarged and enhanced during the administration of the late LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley.

"These people used to be shuffled into a corner or left outside," Thayne says. "Now they have this beautiful room, which gives them a feeling of being in sacred space."

Thayne, dressed in white, doesn't see her role as defending the church's policy or explaining the temple services. Instead, she asks visitors about themselves and listens to their stories.

"Some of them are not that hurt," she says. "Usually we talk about things that matter to them, that make them feel good about it all."

The worst experience Thayne had was with a non-Mormon student who flew to Utah from the East Coast to surprise her roommate, who was marrying in the temple.

"When she heard she couldn't go in," Thayne recalls, "she was pretty disheartened."

Exchanging symbols

Thayne's own daughter Dinny faced a similar dilemma when her future husband had family members who couldn't attend the temple. So the couple held a ring ceremony at the Thayne cabin, with the late Mormon teacher Lowell Bennion giving a sermon.

"It was so beautiful, so personal and so intimate, a great complement to their time in the temple," Thayne recalls. "It made everything OK."

Julie M. Smith, a Mormon convert in Austin, Texas, also had a positive experience with a do-it-yourself ring ceremony. It took place at a Houston country club and included a wedding march, rings, flowers, bridesmaids, vows and photos. The couple gave their LDS bishop a word-for-word script to follow.

The LDS Church may not encourage ring ceremonies that imitate a traditional wedding, she says, but she felt good about what she did for her family.

"We had about 100 people listening to a Mormon bishop talk about the temple," Smith says. "It was an incredible missionary opportunity."

And it created good feelings that have persisted for the 15 years of her marriage.

Smith's one regret is that rather than saying to her parents, "You're going to have everything you dreamed of," she started with, "We are getting married in the temple and you're not invited."

When Linda Hoffman Kimball married in the Salt Lake Temple in 1977, her non-Mormon mother and two sisters could not attend. But they were escorted around the grounds by her husband's aunt, a Mormon from Wyoming who arrived with an expired recommend so she could not enter the temple either.

"It was fortuitous proof that the church is (in some ways) an equal opportunity excluder," Kimball, a Mormon writer in Chicago, says in an email. "I can't imagine anyone more delightful than that aunt to have kept my mom and sisters company on the temple grounds."

Sensitivity at the start?

The way they celebrate their union is the first of many decisions a couple will make in uniting their two families.

"Many are going to run into problems with church members and nonmembers for the rest of their lives," says Kristi Young, curator of BYU's Wilson Folklore Archives. "How they make this work can be indicative of how they are going to deal with their families at lots of important moments — like baby blessings, baptisms and priesthood ordinations."

It is the beginning, says Young, who studied Mormon courtship and marriage patterns for about 15 years, of the lifelong job of balancing family needs.

Smith agrees.

"We face all sorts of decisions related to the family, how to set it up and how it will comport to the rules of the faith," she says. "A couple should absolutely get married in the temple to show they are going to put their commitment to their faith first."

But, she adds, that doesn't mean they should be "insensitive to the traditions of their family — unless the traditions contradict the gospel."

Kimball strongly endorses temple sealings as the "most sacred aspect of the covenant between the couple and God," but longs for "some aspect that includes celebrating the marriage in the company of friends and the community."

Ellen Mitchell, a Salt Lake City teacher and Episcopalian, spent her Mormon brother's wedding day sitting on Temple Square with her daughters, the flower girls.

"It felt like we were excluded, but not in an ugly way," she says. "My brother was darling to us. The bride and groom came out separate doors and met in the middle of the temple grounds. It was really joyous."

Honoring her brother's wedding, though she wasn't present, was part of accepting his faith. After all, every group has rules.

Still, if it were her child instead of her sibling, Mitchell says, "I would demand that there be another ceremony."

pstack@sltrib.com