When a vicar is handed out a 4-year jail sentence for conducting hundreds of sham marriages for illegal immigrants is raises questions for vicars like me in a multicultural inner city parish.
I have now been in post for 19 months and have had around 14 marriage inquiries in that time. For only two of these have both partners held British passports. Of the others, most have involved one partner whose visa has expired (illegal immigrants). In the end I’ve only conducted two weddings as most couples have struggled to meet our criteria or have separated before the proposed wedding day.
In the cases where one partner is an illegal immigrant the advice for clergy is for us to be satisfied that the relationship is bona-fide. As long as the couple are genuine then the marriage may proceed and the immigration status “need not be fatal to the marriage.” This advice means I must take extra steps to ensure that I am satisfied that the couple are together and seek to form a permanent relationship. This work is time consuming and puts me in the awkward role of detective, sniffing for clues like a bloodhound round a foxes’ earth, looking for trails to the real state of play. In the end, I am responsible for marrying people and what I conclude about the state of a relationship, if wrong, could land me in jail.
This predicament has arisen because the Church of England has occupied a unique position in British law since the marriage act of 2005, in which the illegal immigrants could no longer be married by the state’s civil registrar. This works as all religious bodies, other than the CofE, require the state’s civil registrar to process the marriage documentation. However, Church of England vicars wear two hats, civil registrar and Christian minister, and somehow marriages in the CofE fall outside the marriage act of 2005. Since this is the case, the CofE became the only viable option in the UK for illegal immigrants who sought to legitimise their relationship in the eyes of the state. When the floodgates opened the clergy were ill-prepared to deal with it.
From my position in a multicultural parish it seems obvious that the Church of England needs to be disestablished, separated from the state in all matters matrimonial. I need to stop acting on behalf of the state and only on behalf of Christ. Anyone who approaches me to marry them should do so because of the distinct nature of Christian marriage and their desire to glorify Christ as the head of his bride the church. Immigration matters must not be allowed to confuse the choice to marry in church.
The problem is the marriage act of 1753 needs to be repealed. In the years before the act, John Calvin had united church and state in Geneva and Britain followed hot on his heels. The 1753 marriage act sought to prevent clandestine marriages by Anglican vicars. Now, it seems, that this act has the opposite effect as vicars are exposed to clandestine practices of some who seek to establish permanence in the UK by a route which the government sought to close but didn’t quite.
I suspect that if separation of church and state were proposed there will be resistance from the Church itself. The vast majority of marriages in the CofE are in rural parishes between those who’d count themselves as CofE and for whom there are no immigration issues. If the Church of England lost its privileged position and became like all other religious bodies it might also lose further vital fee income to the already booming secular matrimonial industry.