ENGLAND: Bishops act to tackle sham marriages

April 12, 2011

New guidance aimed at preventing sham marriages in the Church of England is being sent to clergy and legal officers by the House of Bishops. The guidance has been agreed with the U.K. Border Agency and was today approved April 12 Immigration Minister Damian Green.

"The House of Bishops is clear," said Bishop John Packer of Ripon and Leeds, "that the office of Holy Matrimony must not be misused by those who have no intention of contracting a genuine marriage but merely a sham marriage. The purpose of this guidance and direction from the bishops to the clergy and to those responsible for the grant of common licenses is, therefore, to prevent the contracting of sham marriages in the Church of England."

A sham marriage is intended to deceive public officials or society about its purpose. One of the most common reasons for such marriages is to gain immigration rights for one of the spouses.

Immigration Minister Damian Green said the U.K. Border Agency "already works very closely with the church not only to investigate and disrupt suspected sham weddings but also to provide advice and support. The new guidance being launched today by the Church of England is another step in the right direction in tackling these abuses.

"Increasing enforcement action has resulted in 155 arrests across the country and would-be fraudsters should remember that a marriage itself does not equal an automatic right to remain in the U.K."

The guidance, developed with the UKBA, advises clergy not to offer to publish banns (the public announcement in a parish church) for any intended marriage involving a non-EEA (European Economic Area) national but to direct the couple to apply for a common license, which involves greater scrutiny and the swearing of affidavits. If a member of the clergy is not satisfied that the marriage is genuine, he or she must make that clear to the person responsible for granting the license, it says.

If the couple insists on having banns read rather than applying for a common licence, the guidance says, clergy should report it immediately to diocesan legal officers and require verifiable evidence of the couple's right to marriage by banns, such as a driving licence and official correspondence in their original forms. They should verify the addresses given and visit the couple at the address in question. If there is any doubt, they should seek advice from their diocesan registrar.

Clergy have a duty to explain to all couples the church's doctrine of marriage and their obligations as married persons. If the couple declines to attend such meetings, clergy should inform them the marriage cannot take place until they do. The guidance makes clear that clergy who decline to conduct a wedding for such reasons will not be considered guilty of misconduct.

Any member of the clergy who thinks that he or she has been subjected to threats or any other improper pressure in connection with an intended marriage, the guidance says, should immediately report the matter to the police, the archdeacon and the diocesan legal officers. Each diocese will have a dedicated contact point within the U.K. Border Agency to enable information and documentation to be shared.

Clergy will also receive a U.K. Border Agency briefing on sham marriages, including factors that might arouse suspicion.

The guidance in full can be read here.

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