IT was without doubt the loudest 'I do' in history. More than 40,000 brides and grooms, packed into the Olympic Stadium in Seoul, South Korea, responded in unison as The Rev Sun Myung Moon asked them to affirm their marriage vows. It sounded as if the home team had scored a goal.
In the largest mass wedding held by Mr Moon's Unification Church, 20,825 couples were married yesterday. Another 9,800 couples in 10 other countries were linked to the ceremony by a live satellite link.
Many participants, who do not like to be called Moonies, met their partners hours, or at most days, before the ceremony. They had been paired by Mr Moon on the basis of photographs and brief life histories. Some do not share a common language. But these are mere details in the face of Mr Moon's vision of a world family unified in peace through his mediation. 'The festival is a model of a synergy that could exist on a global scale,' said Thomas Cromwell, a spokesman for the minister.
The show was well choreographed. The couples, all wearing white wedding dresses or dark blue suits, waited in the sweltering sun until a fanfare announced the arrival of the archpriest of 'Godism'. Mr Moon emerged through a door fringed with gold, and walked on a red carpet to a platform overlooking the crowd. He wore white robes embroidered with gold and a crown on his head. Beside him his wife was similarly attired, with a coronet to reinforce the king-queen imagery. But the effect was more like the arrival of a game- show host - the biggest show going, in which everyone wins a prize for life. Everyone in the stadium rose and cheered.
Annie Hong, 36, an Englishwoman who joined the Unification Church in 1979 while on holiday in California, said: 'The reverend is definitely a prophet and most people would regard him as a Messiah too.' She was married in a mass wedding seven years ago to her Korean husband and was at the stadium yesterday to see her sister-in-law married.
She said the experience of a mass wedding was valuable. 'It makes you realise how individualistic other weddings are when people think of having their own special day.'
Not everyone was overwhelmed, however, and a group from established Christian churches in Japan and Korea protested about the event. Lee Dae Bok, who used to be a member of the Unification Church and is now a Presbyterian minister in Korea, said: 'The mass wedding is wrong. I can tell you from my own experience how unhappy people are who get married in mass weddings.'
The Unification Church has tried hard to shed its image of brainwashing young people and cutting them off from their families. The church was set up in 1954 by Mr Moon, who was born in 1920 and claims to have received a revelation from Jesus Christ when he was 16.
Behind the church is the Tongil Group, a secretive business empire, with interests in publishing, including the Washington Times, and property, soft drinks, schools and machine-parts manufacturing. But as Mr Moon's mass weddings have become bigger, the income from his commercial interests has suddenly started to decline, and this year Korean banks have become reluctant to extend new loans to the group.
No financial worries were evident at the ceremony. Half the participants were from Japan, where clearly the empty materialist society has produced many people in search of many people are attracted to Mr Moon's family-centred love and peace message. Japanese members paid dollars 2,000 ( pounds 1,000) to take part. For Westerners the fee was dollars 1,000 and those from poorer African states paid dollars 300.
On a rough average of dollars 1,000 each, that is dollars 60m for a 20-minute ceremony for all the couples. But no doubt that was far from the mind of Mr Moon as he proclaimed the mass wedding 'before God, true parents, the world and cosmos'.
IN an article on a record mass wedding conducted by the Unification Church on 26 August 1992, it was estimated that the Church 'made' dollars 60m in connection with the ceremony. The stated assumption for this estimate was that some 30,000 couples paid, on average, a fee of dollars 1,000 per person. The Church has asked to make clear that this is an estimate which they do not accept. In particular, fees were not paid by the 10,000 couples who participated in the ceremony without going to Seoul; and fees charged were in no sense profit, since many expenses were incurred. Any impression to the contrary is regretted.