OAKLAND — In a major change to a century of Latter-day Saint wedding tradition and policy, members who marry in a civil ceremony no longer face an automatic yearlong wait before they can be eligible for a temple sealing, an ordinance that allows a marriage to continue after death.
"The policy requiring couples who have been married civilly to wait one year before being sealed is now discontinued," the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced Monday morning in a letter. "Couples who have been married civilly may be sealed in the temple when they receive their temple recommends."
The change, effective immediately, came on the same day leaders of the church were in Oakland to show the newly renovated Oakland Temple to Bay Area journalists and dignitaries as it readies to welcome others before the temple is once again dedicated for sacred ordinances, including the sealings of men and women.
Two hours after the announcement, it affected an exchange between "Jew in the Pew" columnist David A.M. Wilensky and Elder Gary E. Stevenson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. During a Monday morning media tour of the temple, Wilensky sat in a sealing room replete with Asian motifs and asked a natural question for a religion reporter: Given that temples may be entered only by worthy Latter-day Saints, what happens to family members who don't belong to the church while their loved ones are being sealed in a temple?
"We answered that question today differently than we would have yesterday," Elder Stevenson said afterward. "I think it's another indication of a Heavenly Father looking down upon his children recognizing the diverse nature of the church today and the focus we have on families. Diverse family configurations are now blessed to be able to enjoy observing a civil union together, and then a couple can enjoy the blessings of a sealing ordinance that binds them eternally."
The First Presidency said it anticipated the 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."
For example, church spokeswoman Irene Caso said she married her husband in a civil ceremony at city hall in Madrid in 2005 with family present. Later that day, they were sealed in the Madrid Spain Temple.
"After going to the temple, we all celebrated with music and dance," Caso said. "Most of my immediate family and friends are not members of our faith, so it was especially meaningful for us to have them witness our civil union and help them feel included in the festivities of the day. These changes announced today will bring the same happy and memorable experience to many families throughout the church."
Church leaders said the policy change does not reduce the significance of the temple sealing, which they called a "crowning experience."
An Oakland landmark
Elder Stevenson and Elder Quentin L. Cook, also of the church's Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, led separate groups of Bay Area journalists through a cool, misting morning atop one of the green Oakland Hills and into the freshly renovated Oakland California Temple, called "one of the East Bay’s most stunning landmarks" by the East Bay Times when it closed for renovation a year ago. The media tours kicked off events leading up to the first public open house for the Oakland Temple in 55 years, which begins Saturday and runs through June 1.
The temple, with its Asian-inspired five towers and spires and the waterfall cascading from its roof, has a dramatic place in the area's skyline, especially when lit up at night. The best view is from San Francisco, said Paul Cobb, CEO of the Post News Group.
The media turnout and enthusiasm of others at the event indicated interest in the open house could be high.
"I'm just so excited that the temple will be open to the public," Oakland City Councilwoman Sheng Thao said. "I've always wanted to see what it looks like inside."
Thao said her sister, whose husband is a Latter-day Saint, was jealous of her place on Monday's tours. But the Oakland Temple has a larger place in Thao's personal history. She and her own son were homeless for a time while she attended Oakland's Merritt College
"Every day that I would feel sad, I would just look up to the temple," the councilwoman said, "and (seeing) something so positive, always beaming out that positivity, really kept me going. ... It has driven me to where I am today, growing up as a daughter of refugees and as a survivor as well as going through (life) as a single mother. This temple, just the sight of it, has been such a positive beacon. So I thank you all so very much for welcoming us here and welcoming us to the temple to view it. It's just a blessing for me."
Presidents Russell M. Nelson, Dallin H. Oaks and Henry B. Eyring signed Monday's letter and sent it around the world to the church’s international and local leaders.
But the change will be felt most keenly in the United States and Canada, where a one-year waiting period for a temple sealing after a civil marriage was the policy for about 100 years, according to a previous blog post by historian Ardis Parshall.
Parshall wrote that among the reasons the one-year wait was instituted was a concern among leaders like church President Joseph F. Smith and the man who succeeded him in 1918, President Heber J. Grant, that elaborate public wedding celebrations among Latter-day Saints in Utah were turning the sacred temple sealing into an afterthought.
Leaders addressed that concern Monday in a question-and-answer document enclosed with the First Presidency letter that continued to emphasize the difference between marriage and a temple sealing.
"A civil marriage ceremony performed for a couple being sealed in the temple should be simple and dignified," the document stated.
The document also called the sealing the central focus of marriage, saying it provides a spiritual basis for the start of a marriage. The First Presidency said the temple sealing offers eternal blessings available nowhere else and encouraged all couples to qualify for it.
"This change in policy should not be interpreted as lessening the emphasis on the temple sealing," the document stated. "The sealing of a husband and wife in the temple is of eternal significance and a crowning experience on the covenant path. Where possible, couples should be encouraged to be simultaneously married and sealed in the temple."
Changing global church
The policy change is further evidence that church leaders are bringing the faith's programs and policies into alignment around the world to meet the needs of a global church of 16 million members in more than 180 countries.
For example, the church began in 2013 to allow all men to serve missions at age 18, a policy that previously applied only to those in Mexico and South America.
This year, the church implemented a new, standardized Sunday School and home study curriculum that is used worldwide and changed the North American seminary program’s school-year based schedule to a calendar year one that fits the global church better. Next year, it will drop Boy Scouts and globally apply its own new programs for teens.
Latter-day Saints often are married and sealed simultaneously in temples in the United States, Canada and many other countries where laws permit.
But a majority of church members live in dozens of other countries where laws require couples to marry civilly first, Elder Cook said. In those places, the church for years has allowed a temple sealing to happen soon after a civil wedding, even on the same day.
"The whole church gets on one footing with this change," Elder Cook said. "It's this way for 60 percent of the church already, so this makes sense."
Elder Cook earned a law degree at Stanford and worked as an attorney and healthcare executive while living for 33 years in the Bay Area and serving for 15 of those years in the San Francisco Stake presidency before his call to general church leadership.
He said leading tours Monday was a homecoming for him and his wife, Sister Mary Cook.
He and other church leaders said there is no specific time frame for sealing after a civil marriage.
"Worthy and prepared couples can be sealed as soon as circumstances permit," the church-released documents stated.
Globally, many Latter-day Saints who live far from one of the faith's 163 temples first marry civilly and live without sealing for months or years before they can save money to travel. The church has engaged in an intensive 20-year building program that has brought the number of temples from 53 to 163, bringing them closer to members around the world.
The church's tens of thousands of meetinghouses can be used for civil marriages.
Newly baptized members will still need to wait a year before being sealed in the temple to provide time for them to prepare to receive another ordinance, the endowment.
Correction: A previous version incorrectly identified columnist David A.M. Wilensky as Dennis A.M. Wilensky.