Guest Post: Why Is “Preside” in the New Sealing Ceremony?

[Photo: Oscar Wilde, “An Ideal Husband”]

By Emily Belanger

When I heard about the changes to the language of temple ceremonies, I made plans to attend as soon as possible. Curious, with only a vague sense of what to expect, I made the 3-hour trip with family members.

There were positive changes in both the Endowment and Initiatory, to the point that I longed for a do-over. The “hearken to the counsel of your husband” covenant had taken me by surprise when I received my own Endowment, and it hadn’t helped that I was only given a split second to decide whether to agree or make a scene by refusing. The only way I could handle it in the moment was to add a mental qualifier in my silent conversation with God: “Only if my future husband is equally obligated to hearken to my counsel.” With the new language, I feel like that prayer has been answered.

So yes, hearing for myself that the covenant is indeed gone was a healing balm. I’m grateful for the change and even more grateful that God softened the hearts of the men capable of making that change, giving them the humility to change something they may not personally object to and the confidence to challenge more than a century of tradition.

And yet, when I participated in a proxy sealing, that healing balm lost a good part of its power. As I’d heard, a bride no longer gives herself to her groom. Like the groom, she receives her spouse, and that change makes the ceremony feel egalitarian. But the uneven giving/receiving was subtle compared to a new addition: the groom now covenants to preside over his family.

Honestly, I can’t decide which version troubles me more. I didn’t notice the giving/receiving disparity during my own wedding (it was the first temple wedding I’d ever attended), and if I had noticed I don’t know what I would have said.

But there’s no missing this new covenant, which takes a word that’s already outdated and hammers it home in the highest ordinance that any member of the Church can receive. It helps that the bride doesn’t covenant to follow, but if I were engaged today and faced the choice between marrying outside the temple or having that word in my new husband’s covenants, I’m still not sure what I’d choose.

Oddly, it almost seems like the Brethren are uncomfortable with that word as well, given how far they went out of their way to modify it in the vows. Husbands promise to preside “with gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned.” Given those words, I honestly believe that they were trying to communicate something other than “The husband is in charge.”

But no matter how many times we spin “preside” and insist it’s a part of equal partnership in marriage or that presiding in a marriage doesn’t mean the husband is in charge, we go to church week after week and see in our Sacrament Meeting program that the man who presides over the meeting is the man who’s highest in the Church totem pole. To see how fathers presiding in the home was originally taught in the Church, we don’t have to look too far into the past. Some of the recent examples I linked above both insist presiding is part of an equal partnership and imply that the father governs the entire family.

Even today, look in any dictionary, and you’ll find a definition that reinforces an authoritative understanding of the term:

Cambridge Dictionary

to be in charge of or to control a meeting or event

Merriam Webster

1: to exercise guidance, direction, or control

2a: to occupy the place of authority : act as president, chairman, or moderator

b: to occupy a position similar to that of a president or chairman

Oxford Dictionaries:

Be in the position of authority in a meeting or other gathering.

MacMillan Dictionary:

to be in charge of an official meeting, ceremony, or other event

The consensus is painfully clear: the person who presides is in charge of whatever or whomever they preside over. And that is the exact meaning the Church once used in reference to fathers. The reason we teach that husbands “preside” is because the Church once openly taught that husbands were in charge of their families. It’s the same reason the directory software still lists my husband as the head of the household and the reason that home teachers and missionaries visit us for the first time and make the mistake of inviting my husband to call on someone to say the prayer.

Yet the Gospel teaches that spouses should work together in an equal partnership. That they have equal authority in the decision-making process. In short, the Gospel teaches that husband and wife are co-presiders over their family, if we’re using the definition of “preside” that every reputable dictionary uses. So why do we cling to the term “fathers preside” when it’s not at all what we mean? Perhaps today’s leaders are clinging to tradition. But why not just admit we see marriage more clearly today than we did several decades ago, thanks to the miracle of modern revelation?

We spent decades pretending that “hearken” meant “obey” in every context other than marriage. That game of pretend caused immense pain. How long will we pretend that “preside” doesn’t really mean “preside”?

It’s high time we cast off the false language of our fathers.

Notes:

  1. A few of the dictionaries I cited also list definitions relating to music, but that’s clearly not what the Church is talking about when they say that husbands preside over their family.

  2. Yes, I do mean to say “the false language of our fathers.” The mothers of Mormonism have never had a chance to shape the temple language.

  3. I took a course from Brent Barlow (one of the linked authors above) in the early 2000’s. For what it’s worth, he candidly admitted that he had previously been mistaken in his belief that the husband made all final decisions in the marriage. He even chastised male students who refused to marry a woman who wanted to work outside the home.

  4. The temple is sacred and a sensitive topic to most members of the Church, so in this piece I have shared no current quotes from the Endowment ceremony and have made no allusions to any information that the ceremony instructs members not to repeat. I think sealing language is a different matter and something that prospective brides and grooms should know ahead of time.

 

Emily received an MFA in Creative Writing from Brigham Young University in 2012. She is currently a doctoral candidate at the University of Georgia.

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19 Responses

  1. TopHat says:

    This is definitely a problem. I’m going to have a difficult time not glaring at that point in the next sealing I go to.

  2. DB says:

    If anyone cares to entertain a man’s perspective, I’ll offer mine for the sake of perspective. If not, just ignore what I have to say and move on. To me, and honestly as a man in the church this is how we are taught and how it is beat into our heads over and over, it’s all about accountability, not authority. This is how any covenant works. We don’t have to be baptized to follow Christ and keep his commandments, but once we’re baptized, we become accountable for doing that. The sealing covenant is the same. It doesn’t give the husband the authority to preside, and it doesn’t say that the wife doesn’t preside, but it does make him accountable to do it “with gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned.” If the husband shirks his responsibilities in the home or does it without gentleness, meekness, and love, he will be held accountable for that. The same accountability is not placed on the wife. So we don’t see the sealing covenant as egalitarian either because more accountability is placed on us than is placed on the woman.
    Like I said, if you don’t want to agree with this, that ok, but if you want to understand a man’s perspective, here it is.

    • Dani Addante says:

      Interesting perspective! I wonder if they could word the accountability in a different way, so that women aren’t made to feel less-than. Perhaps they could change the wording to say that both spouses are accountable to having an equal partnership.

      • DB says:

        What, tell men that they are no longer the accountable party in their marriages and families! That the eternal salvation of their wives and children doesn’t rest solely on their shoulders! That their wives will be just as accountable for their screw ups as they are for their wives’ screw ups! Are you trying to upend the entire priesthood paradigm!?

      • Dani Addante says:

        Response to DB: I don’t view “preside” as the same as “accountable.” I’ve always learned that I’m accountable for my own choices, and everyone else is accountable for their own choices.

        I’ve definitely heard that parents are accountable for their children’s choices, to some extent, but I’ve never heard that the husband is accountable for the wife’s choices. That seems very strange to me.

      • DB says:

        I don’t view preside as the same as accountable either but in the theology of the church (from a man’s perspective anyway, at least me and most other men I know, because this is how we are taught) men are responsible for presiding because we are the ones who are accountable for the marriage and family. Yes, everyone is accountable for their own actions but men are also accountable to preside over their family. In other words, if I don’t preside (lead, teach, provide, protect, etc.) over my family in righteousness like i should and my family (wife and children) go astray because of my failures, I will be held accountable for that. The same accountability is not placed on the women, at least not in regards to their husbands. Since we are the ones who are responsible or accountable for our marriages and families, we are the ones who covenant to preside in righteousness.

  3. So many questions says:

    The church really needs to stop using the word ‘preside’ in conjunction with ‘equal partners.’ You cannot have it both ways. Would the earth stop spinning if the wording was ‘together, husband and wife are accountable for presiding over the family?’ They absolutely could have found a way to word it so it’s egalitarian, but they insist on hanging on to male authority with a Jedi hand wave saying it’s equal.

  4. kimberly says:

    “Given those words, I honestly believe that they were trying to communicate something other than ‘The husband is in charge.’ ”

    Nah. They are just trying to soften it enough for women to continue to put up with it. I saw this play out in other Christian marriage ceremonies when women began refusing to vow to “obey” their husbands and if it wasn’t taken out, they’d write their own with a JOP. Eventually, it was dropped.

  5. Dani Addante says:

    Yes, using the word “preside” makes no sense. I like the hymn “Love is spoken here” because there’s a line that says “with father and mother leading the way.” Both spouses preside, not just one. Otherwise, it makes it seem as if the husband is promoted and the wife is demoted in a marriage. This is how I felt when I got married. Seeing how some members treated me as opposed to my husband is what really opened my eyes to inequality.

  6. Jade says:

    “in the highest ordinance that any member of the Church can receive”

    Sealing isn’t the highest ordinance; the second anointing is. It’s probably even more sexist, but us ordinary members will never know.

    • anon says:

      The church does not officially recognize or disclose the second anointing and much on the internet is speculative. Although some people claiming to have received it do write about it. Again, this is all speculative so should not be relied upon. But it is claimed to be made available only to married couples. Apparently the wife washes the husband’s feet and then pronounces a blessing upon him.

  7. LD says:

    I wonder how much the lowering of the missionary age has played a role in the changes. With an influx of young sisters going through the temple, before getting married, there were probably more women out their who weren’t “getting trapped” on the eve of their wedding days, and then- being able to speak directly with mission presidents, had a ear higher to the top to provide their concerns to… now, however, it feels like the inevitable has only been delayed… still pushed back to their weddings. What are we doing to make sure that women don’t feel “trapped” or “surprised” when they get married? Candace Bure, a non-Mormon Christian, opening speaks of having her husband be at the head of her home as Christ is at the head of the church. If this is what we believe, we need more inspiration on how we can prepare both our young men and young women to handle that responsibility. We need to be able to teach and preach against unrighteousness dominion in all forms. If we truly believe the words of the temple sealing ceremony, we need to prepare our young men and young women for it in all forms.

    • LD says:

      Adding… the word “preside” is in the family the proclamation. I don’t know if it will be as much of a “surprise” as some of the wording of the previous covenants.

  8. Liz Hammond (Elisothel at FMH) says:

    Honest question re: “Yet the Gospel teaches that spouses should work together in an equal partnership. That they have equal authority in the decision-making process. In short, the Gospel teaches that husband and wife are co-presiders over their family…”

    Please elucidate – when/how/where does the gospel teach this?

  9. Steve LHJ says:

    The problem is that it is partially true. Men ideally ought to be leaders and presiders in a marriage–as the head of the masculine sphere.

    What is missing is that women equally ought to lead and preside over the feminine sphere as the head. The masculine and the feminine ought to be seen as equally valuable and essential spheres to the family makeup. And by combining the energies both husband and wife are meant to grow in both spheres (whatever their natural propensities in the masculine and feminine spheres) that all power, growth, and love may belong to the both of them.

    Specialization is not meant to be separation forever, but a means of complementarianism that leads to the growth of both parties that they both might obtain the greater whole than if they started the same.

    I believe the main issue is that when words like lead, provide, and preside are used in our culture, I think more often than not we imagine things in the masculine sphere from a symbolic perspective. By this limited view, the natural conclusion is that the husband leads and presides because it is actually true he should lead and preside over the things being imagined more often than not (or I believe those things our leaders are contemplating on more commonly). But I believe they are not imagining more fully the feminine sphere and what it means to lead and preside in that sphere. And we are missing that important doctrine and emphasis because of it. It’s part of the further light and knowledge we will one day get, parts of the next steps in our growth. Our leaders already partly understand this intuitively, which is why equality in marriage is rightly emphasized while at the same time we are left with this confusing presiding language.

    Liz, I am the same Steve who commented on your Mormon Priestess piece years ago and told you I had seen in vision the changes coming to the endowment ceremony. Many of those are now here, and I am very grateful for that like many others here. At the same time there is still much more to come, things I believe most human hearts have not even considered, and I am very excited for that day, and I hope that faith and hope prevail in the mean time over understandable fear and angst that can lead to bitterness, resentment, and anger which I do not wish on anyone.

  10. Liz (Elisothel at FMH) says:

    Hi Steve!

    I appreciate your thoughtful approach to this. Your awareness is very commendable and not often encountered.

    A few thoughts:

    I absolutely do not believe that equality is a gospel value or built into Mormon theology.

    I think we hear rhetoric about equality because there is a lot of social pressure around this, female members are more likely to leave than in past years, and because leaders recognize they need to provide guidance to men against abuse of power. But I do not see equality as being theologically built in, taught, or emphasized. Hierarchy, on the other hand, is given ample airtime, especially in discussions of priesthood, family life, and gender roles. It is a benevolent patriarchy approach – we’re not “equal,” but those in power are counseled to use their power wisely. If they do abuse power, there is still little recourse for those on the receiving end.

    That said, I appreciate your awareness of the feminine sphere model. In that approach, there would need to be things in which women, who have an inherently different nature/spirituality/knowing should be able to have decision rights and resource control that can trump the brethren in items within the “feminine sphere.” This was how women wielded power in some instances of church history. I think you are correct that LDS practice and teachings may continue to evolve along these lines. I do not think it is because the leaders understand it, however. And if they do so, I believe it will be to actually retain a patriarchal order, not to bring women into “equality.” Creating a women’s sphere of empowerment would serve to continue keeping women out of avenues of power such as priesthood. Your comments along the female sphere remind me a great deal of how I felt a few years ago – looking, hoping, expecting for development and revealing of the female divine and female sphere in our Restoration.

    However, I have since come think it is more complicated, since empowered male/female model adopts the premise of gender essentialism. I no longer think that male and female are so fundamentally different, or that gospel purpose, access, and blessings should be predicated upon a soul’s gender/sex. To do so is, in my view, a philosophy of men that is about power and not spirituality. The bifurcation and classification that we spend so much time on putting people into categories is, I think, a very natural thing to do based on our psychology…but it is also a mechanism of apostasy and is continuously discouraged in the Book of Mormon. In my current view, we don’t need -ites, we need each other. We waste time obsessing about classifying people and dwelling on power.

    I think the gospel is about being the same body of Christ, brothers and sisters in the same family, our goal at-one-ment, unconditional acceptance and love, working together- the fundamental messages of Christianity. Not creating ingroups/outgroups, building barriers around access to blessings or creating those who should submit to others. Spending so much energy on these things is an effective means of social control, but not, in my view, a divine order of things.

    However, for those of us who subscribe to gender essentialism, it will indeed benefit many to have the female divine continue to be unveiled.

    • Steve LHJ says:

      Hi Liz, for some reason I didn’t ever see your response. Just wanted to leave a note to let you know if you ever see this that it wasn’t my intention to ignore you. You have a lot of interesting thoughts you put forward, I wish we might even be able to talk in person some day. I do believe in gender essentialism, although I’d agree with you that spending so much time categorizing or creating rigid roles is often counterproductive as the goal is not separation but ultimate unity. Hope you are well.

  11. Tim Milne says:

    “Seek and ye shall find…”, so make sure you are not seeking offense. That said, maybe you should consider a better definition: to preside means to be responsible for or accountable to. In a world full of fatherless children, God would have his sons do better. The individual covenants are directed to those who make them, but made in a joining covenant to help us all be accountable to God and each other. So let’s work on what specifically God has asked us to do and worry less about others.

  12. William George Dunbar says:

    My wife and I, having been Temple Ordinance Workers for 15 years and having been proxies for hundreds of our ancestors, were humbled and emotionally moved by the expanded obligations in the matrimonial covenant of the sealing of a man and woman according to God’s law.
    It is more meaningfuland places a superior obligation upon both the husband and the wife to love each other in unity.
    This is a continuation of the restoration of ‘all things’ as mentioned by a president Nelson.
    Civil legislation under the subtle influence of Satan is corrupting marriage and families.

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