LDS Church changes policy about civil ceremonies and temple sealings, making way for more family members to be part of weddings

They were there for their child’s first words, first step, first prom. They showed up for every parent-teacher conference, dance concert and track meet.

But when it came to one of the most pivotal moments in their child’s life — her wedding — they found themselves sitting on a planter outside of a Latter-day Saint temple or in a carpeted waiting room.

That’s because these parents were either of another faith or hadn’t met the belief and behavior membership standards to enter Mormonism’s most sacred spaces.

For such families, a wedding that should have joyously united kin on every side became deeply divisive.

On Monday, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints took a giant step toward eliminating such painful exclusions. It ended the one-year waiting period between a civil marriage and a temple “sealing.”

Now, couples can marry civilly and invite all their loved ones to the wedding and then be sealed in a temple ceremony without a long delay.

That already has been the practice for Latter-day Saints in many nations, which require couples to wed in a public ceremony first before any private religious vows are taken. Until now in the U.S. and Canada, newlyweds routinely had to wait 12 months before being sealed if they married civilly. Consequently, they often married and were sealed simultaneously.

This major change, which church officials have been considering for years, creates a single global standard for Latter-day Saint couples. It also comes a month after the Utah-based faith reversed a controversial LGBTQ exclusion policy that had labeled same-sex member couples “apostates” and barred their children from religious rites until they turn 18.

In Monday’s letter to church leaders around the world, the faith’s governing First Presidency wrote, “Where a licensed marriage is not permitted in the temple, or when a temple marriage would cause parents or immediate family members to feel excluded, a civil ceremony followed by a temple sealing is authorized.”

The letter went on to say, “We anticipate that this change will provide more opportunities for families to come together in love and unity during the special time of marriage and sealing of a man and woman.”

Newly baptized members still must wait a year from the date of their confirmation to be sealed in a temple.

A legacy of heartache

For Fiona Givens, converting to Mormonism “fissured the foundations of my family.”

“Shock and grief rumbled through the family when I announced that I was engaged to an American,” says the British-born Givens, “and unmitigated pain when I explained they were not permitted to attend the ceremony.”

Her mother was particularly devastated.

“I was her only daughter and she had spent years anticipating the festive occasion, having even picked out the church in which I was to be married,” Givens, co-author of “The God Who Weeps,” wrote in an email. “Overcome with grief, [my parents] visited the Mormon bishop whose home was in the same neighborhood. He wrote me to tell me of my parents’ grief and warn me of the irreparable familial damage that would likely ensue.”

That Latter-day Saint lay clergyman “strongly urged a civil ceremony prior to the sealing,” she recalled. “However, those who did not marry in the temple in the U.S. were assumed not to have been worthy on the grounds of sexual impropriety.”

Now church policy is correlated with church doctrine, which emphasizes “the centrality of the family,” Givens said, by doing nothing that “might mar the sacred and happy occasion.”

Next month, Boise resident Kristen Talmage Lindsay and her husband will celebrate the 15th anniversary of their wedding in the Oakland Temple.

“I was the only member in my family, so my parents, my sister, grandparents and all the important people in my life had to wait outside,” she wrote on Facebook. “It was cruel and so painful for me. At the time, I told myself I was being obedient, and it’s just how it is. I so, so wish I had just had a civil ceremony.”

Lindsay had “sad tears on my wedding day,” she said. “I wanted to throw up because of how alone I felt without my family.”

Provo resident Sue Bergin was a 22-year-old, fully faithful Latter-day Saint in 1980, when her brother was married in the temple. Yet she still couldn’t attend. The reason: She was too young.

“I was excluded because I was not endowed [hadn’t done her own temple rituals yet],” she wrote, “and I was not endowed despite my requests to be because at the time the rule was that if you were female and not getting married or going on a mission, you had to wait until age 40 (according to my stake president at the time).”

Instead, Bergin wrote, “I was relegated to baby-sitting outside the temple.”

Not a replacement

Monday’s revisions, however, should not be interpreted as diminishing temple sealing as the highest goal.

“Where possible, leaders should encourage couples to be both married and sealed in the temple,” members of the First Presidency — President Russell M. Nelson and his counselors, Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring — emphasized in the letter. “The sealing of a husband and wife in the temple is of eternal significance and a crowning experience.”

It’s also not an invitation to plan elaborate alternate weddings.

When couples choose a civil ceremony first, church authorities said, the rituals should be “simple and dignified," adding that they can be performed in Latter-day Saint chapels, where anyone can attend.

Indeed, the church’s Handbook, which spells out rules for its lay leaders, describes how these weddings should be performed.

They can be done in the chapel, cultural hall or any other room, to be determined by the man who will officiate.

No extravagant decorations or “pomp in the proceedings,” the Handbook instructs. No wedding march down an aisle and no video recorders of cameras.

For some couples, a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse is the perfect venue for a civil wedding. It’s free. Others may choose more photogenic sites, with more freedom to plan their exchange of vows.

It could be a boon to Utah’s wedding industry, with more engaged Latter-day Saint couples in the mix.

Paul Augenstein, a church bishop in Riverton, said this universal two-track approach was long overdue. “We knew it was coming because that’s how it’s conducted everywhere else.”

Augenstein believes having a civil ceremony first might actually “add to the sacredness of the temple experience when they do go there.”

Future celebrations

For years, many Latter-day Saints living outside Utah had a civil ceremony first, then went to a temple as soon as they could. Former church 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.

In Utah and the West’s so-called Mormon corridor, where temples are plentiful and accessible, the one-year waiting period for a temple sealing after a civil marriage was instituted decades ago.

In recent years, though, some brides and grooms have created “ring ceremonies” in public places as a way to include those left out. And the church even discouraged those. When Utahn Gretchen Hoefer Terry married in 1981, her Latter-day Saint stake president (a regional leader) told her that she would “offend God and my temple covenants if I were to even have a ring ceremony.” That’s how Terry explained to her mother why she would not be included in her wedding.

Years later, when her mom died, the South Jordan woman found in her mom’s wallet the letter she had written about it. “She never forgot and I have never forgotten that I did that to her,” Terry wrote. “It was shameful.”

Some years ago, the Salt Lake Temple added an enlarged and enhanced waiting room to serve the outsiders.

The late Latter-day Saint writer and poet Emma Lou Thayne spent several years as a greeter in that room.

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

But they weren’t in the room where the vows were being exchanged.

Now, they will be — not in the temple, but in a place open to all.

Ross Trewhella, a bishop in the United Kingdom, believes it’s “fantastic.”

In his country, all Latter-day Saints have to wed in a public ceremony, so he has conducted many in his Cornwall chapel.

They are modest and meaningful, he said, and then they go as soon as they can to a nearby temple.

“Surrounding yourself with as many loved ones as possible to celebrate your love and union,” he said, “can only be positive.”