Marriage of illegal immigrants in the church.

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.

About neilrobbie

I am a 6'6" formerly ginger Scot, in a cross cultural marriage to my lovely Londoner wife. We've lived in SE Asia and since 2005, I have served as an Anglican minister in Wolverhampton and West Bromwich.
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5 Responses to Marriage of illegal immigrants in the church.

  1. Charlie Peer says:

    … and lose thousands of evangelistic opportunites every year. I’d be happy to forego the fees but very reluctant to lose the contact with young couples that weddings bring to our church here. As you say, how this looks does depend on where you’re looking at it from.

    • neilrobbie says:

      Hi Charlie, welcome to TG. That’s the thing, the issue is entirely perspectival. There must be a way to solve the problem which keeps people coming to church to get married but solves the anomaly with respect to illegal immigrants. Neil

  2. Ed says:

    This is not the time fir disestablishment, because this is a major goal of radical militant atheists and secularists. I sorry you find yourself in this position, which has come about due to the open-doors immigration policy.

    • neilrobbie says:

      Hi Ed, thanks for your comment and welcome to TG. I tried to be careful to qualify disestablishment by adding “in all things matrimonial”. I don’t think it would do much harm to the Church of England to move the state registration of marriages to the state as all other religious organisations in this country already do. Neil

  3. D says:

    I can certainly understand and appreciate the situation, as it’s now one I’ve found myself in.

    Being Australian but currently in Poland, I’ve ended up staying beyond the terms of my visa in order to be with my Polish fiance. The overstay wasn’t planned, I don’t work within Poland, and neither of us claim any assistance.

    Before moving here, we looked into different visa options and were basically given the option of being married to obtain the easiest visa. We didn’t want this because we don’t want such aspects of our relationship to be determined by such factors. It was only more recently we became engaged, at a time we felt was right for us and our relationship.

    I managed to maintain proper visa status for my first year here, however, soon after that our situation was more difficult. My fiance’s family were struggling in various ways and we were doing what we could to help them. I wasn’t able to maintain a current visa whilst remaining with my other half so without too much thought and only going with the heart we let the visa lapse whilst we remained together.

    Now the situation is simply that we’re engaged and wish to be married in her local family church (Catholic, though I am Anglican), where her parents and her brother wed. We do not wish for this as any sort of solution for my visa status here, only to show that our relationship has moved to another level with marriage within the Church.

    This is starting to prove difficult and we’re now waiting on the priest to discuss the situation with their lawyers to see if we can have a Church-only wedding, without the legal recognition.

    Extremely stressful as we hadn’t expected government to have any involvement in such matters and we can accept a marriage that government may not recognise though we would as would those close to us.

    I have arranged for my family to come here for this from Australia but now am left seeing if the Church feels it is able to perform the ceremony or if it feels it can’t and we have to cancel our arrangements.

    It really has surprised me to find that in something I’d thought could be a ‘Church-only’ event that government can have such involvement.

    With hope I will soon be married to the one I love and have chosen to spend my life with.

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