Current policies around temple divorce can add more hurt to an already difficult situation; but it does so, I believe, because the church wants to recognise the persistence, the continuing redemptive force, of commitments made during the sealing ceremony.
At present, the institutional church is reluctant to cancel sealings for those who have received civil divorces. This policy can – but does not always – lead to painful situations in which people are (or feel) ritually tied to previous partners who may have treated them or their loved ones badly. This pain is real and to many it appears as though the church is blind to this hurt.
Rituals and ordinances in Mormonism are more than symbols, they mark dramatic shifts in the salvific status of the individual. The church’s position on temple sealings is grounded in this view. Their reluctance to offer a cancellation of sealing, it seems to me, reflects a concern that cancelling a sealing is to act as if the rituals and ordinances performed at the time of the marriage no longer have force in the present. This position can be compared with the Catholic church’s practice of marital annulment. In rare cases, the Catholic church will offer an annulment of a marriage but the implication of this annulment is not that the marriage has ended but rather that the marriage never occurred. That is, the change in status that marriage is supposed to bring was, in fact, never actualised. From a Mormon point of view, this position is deeply problematic. It suggests that the covenants made at the time of the temple sealing never occurred. This is reflect in the language used to describe the process, i.e., sealings are cancelled.
But this view of sealings conflates two quite separate parts of temple marriage: 1) the willingness to be faithful to another person and to be with that person through eternity and 2) the person to whom that promise or commitment is directed.
When people are sealed in the temple they make a set of promises or commitments to both God and their prospective partner; promises that involve fidelity, giving wholly of ourselves, and receiving the other person unconditionally as well. The promises also have a temporal dimension; namely that these people will commit to live in this relationship for eternity. Like the baptismal covenant, however, these promises are made in the spirit of willingness. We cannot fully live them on earth and so these promises and covenants represent our willingness to live in such a relationship for eternity. This willingness – again much like baptism – brings with it certain blessings that are tied to temple sealings. I believe that the willingness to live in that type of relationship remains in force even after the relationship has dissolved. In this view, a cancellation of sealing could be treated much more like a divorce than an annulment, where there is a recognition that the marriage has occurred and that the promises made in that moment are still important (especially because they were made to God as well as the other person).
There is a clear policy change that could follow from this view. Temple divorces would be just that, a divorce and not an annulment of a covenant. The promised blessings would remain and the details (as so many other things in this life) will be left ‘until after the resurrection’.
There are some problems with this view. One obvious objection is this: if sealings represent a willingness to be sealed only then should the church allow people to receive the sealing ordinances if they are willing to be married but merely have not found that person yet. I see good reason to allow single parents to be sealed to their children but I think the church could retain the importance of the marriage sealing and still make this adaptation. For example, the church could argue that an important manifestation of this willingness to enter this type of relationship is that two people come to the temple to be married.
The church’s current approach to marriage sealings can cause some pain but I believe some of this could alleviated if we approach the cancellation of sealing as a divorce rather than an annulment.