By Jessica Grace Brown
3,500 couples were wed at a mass ceremony of the Unification Movement in South Korea, on 17 February. This regular ritual is the first since founder and leader of the church, Reverend Moon, died last year.
Many couples knew their fiancé for only a month before the ceremony, with some only meeting on their wedding day.
Reverend Moon – believed to be the messiah – would match couples based on their ‘compatible spirits’. Since his death, his widow Hak Ja Han Moon oversees the ceremonies, but most couples’ engagements are now arranged by their families.
Pauline McCarthy was married at a mass wedding in 1992 with 30,000 other ‘Moony’ couples. After 12 years in the Unification Movement, Pauline was engaged by Reverend Moon to a man she’d never met. They were given pictures of each other and were in contact for a month – they met four days prior to their wedding.
“I had been married before and it didn’t work out, and in the church it looked like these marriages were really good, and I thought, ‘Hell’s bells’, you know? In those days you’d meet guys at the disco, it was like pot of luck – but in the church they looked like perfect matches.
“The actual experience was really amazing, it was beautiful – there was such an atmosphere of camaraderie. The ceremony itself was so holy and everyone was so serious, it was really beautiful.”
The Unification Movement press release describes the many features of the recent wedding, including: “Hak Ja Han Moon… performed the ‘Holy Water Ceremony’ which represents a new beginning for the couples. This was followed by an affirmation of vows, in which the couples pledged to inherit the tradition of eternal love between husband and wife and to establish an ideal family.”
Couples were near identically dressed, an effort by the church to symbolise union of the various nationalities being wed. In 1992, the nearly-weds were given a template dress to copy: “In Britain we followed it exactly, and it was so ugly! It had a scoop neck with flowery lace covering it, and we were sitting out in the heat for four hours in 40 degree sunshine – I had this flower emblazoned on my chest for months like a tattoo!”
Pauline left the church six years after her wedding, and her marriage broke down a few years later: “The only thing keeping us together was the fact that we believed in this match, and that the leader was the messiah and this was what God wanted.”
The church and its former leader have been widely criticised for brainwashing and cult behaviour; one of Moon’s daughters claimed he had fathered several illegitimate children with members of the church.
“So much of what the press had been saying that we thought was bullshit turned out to be true – the only thing we still believed in in this church was Reverend Moon – so then once we heard that we thought, fuck this.
“I don’t regret it because I have these two amazing kids and I came to Iceland and I just love it, and I would never have ended up here otherwise – life’s an experience.”
London pastor of the Unification Movement, Simon Cooper, married his wife in 1995 with 20,000 couples. Simon became a member 2 years before his engagement.
“As a student, I’d had various relationships that hadn’t been very successful, so I thought this would be something worth trying! It was just intuition more than anything.
Simon was introduced to his fiancé a month before their wedding: “I don’t think we would have gone ahead if we hadn’t obviously felt we could get on. For me it was quite straight-forward because we both felt very attracted to each other anyway, so it wasn’t such a difficult decision for such a big decision.”
Unificationists are always engaged and married in mass weddings, although many have an individual ceremony afterwards.
“Most of the time when we’re trying to find someone to hook up with we’re calculating a lot about what we think they would be to us, whereas if you’re asking someone else to suggest someone for you, you’re thinking more about what you could be for the other person.”
As the Unification newlyweds begin their married lives, the veterans offer their advice.
“People get married and think they’ve somehow made it, ‘phew’, or parents think ‘oh finally my kids have got married’,” Simon said, “but of course reality is you need to nurture your marriage, and make time – especially when you have kids – to spend with your spouse alone. Every relationship needs consistent investment to really keep fresh and alive.”
Pauline said: “If they want it to work, they have to want it to work for themselves, not for the church or for Reverend Moon – they have to believe in it themselves.”