Church acts to stem 'sham marriages'
By Jonathan Petre, Religion Correspondent
Last Updated: 6:48am BST 24/04/2007
New marriage guidelines are being drawn up by the Church of England amid fears that its clergy may be unwittingly conducting bogus weddings.
Officials have noticed a sharp rise in the number of migrants seeking church weddings since the Government imposed a crackdown on marriages of convenience at register offices.
The Government acted in 2005 to weed out sham marriages involving foreign nationals attempting to avoid immigration controls by gaining instant British citizenship.
All non-British or European Union citizens are now required to obtain a Home Office certificate of approval to marry – a lengthy and costly process.
However, Church of England marriages are exempt from this process, and the number of applications for “common licences” – a legal preliminary for church weddings – have shot up, particularly in London.
In the diocese of Southwark, they have risen fivefold, from 90 in 2004 to 460 last year. The Home Office has rejected suggestions that churches could be used for sham marriages, saying that clergy would get to know couples too well.
Yet clergy, who are required to marry almost anyone in their parish regardless of their background or religion, admit that it can be difficult to discern the motives of couples who approach them.
Canon David Houlding, a vicar in Hampstead, north London, said he thought it was “highly likely” that clergy were being used for sham marriages, but it was very difficult to prove.
He added that he had experienced a noticeable increase in the number of common licence applications, but sometimes couples disappeared “very quickly” if asked probing questions.
“People see the Church as a soft option,” he said. “A few sob stories can melt the hearts of some clergy.”
The Rev Geoffrey Kirk, a vicar in Lewisham, south London, said that applications had nearly doubled in his parish since the new Government rules were introduced.
“It is remarkable the number of cases I have had where there was not a common language between the partners,” he said.
The Bishops of London and Southwark have now ordered officials to draw up the new guidelines, which are expected to be issued shortly.
However, the Archdeacon of Lewisham, the Ven Christine Hardman, said that she had never been asked to investigate a suspicious wedding.
And while admitting that the rise in such marriages had been “sharp”, she said that this could be explained by the growing numbers of Christian migrants.