Church of England in 'sham marriage' crackdown

The Church of England is to tighten scrutiny of applications to wed in an effort to prevent sham marriages, it was announced today.

New guidance will be issued to clergy and legal officers in the Church of England by the House of Bishops agreed with the UK Border Agency (UKBA) and with the backing of Immigration Minister Damian Green.

Clergy are being advised not to offer to publish banns - where a couple's intention to marry is read out on three Sundays in church - for marriages involving non-European Economic Area (EEA) nationals.

These couples will have to apply for a "common licence" where they have to swear affidavits, give proof of identity and address, be visited by the vicar and attend wedding preparation classes.

If a vicar is not satisfied that an intended marriage is genuine, he or she will have to make this clear to the diocesan legal office responsible for granting the licence.

Clergy will have to report a couple "immediately" to diocesan legal officers if they insist on having banns read rather than applying for a common licence under the guidance.

The Church said clergy who refuse to conduct a wedding as a result of the guidance will not be considered guilty of misconduct.

Vicars have also been urged to contact the police immediately should they feel they are being threatened or pressured to carry out a marriage.

The Rt Rev John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, said: "The House of Bishops is clear 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 licences is, therefore, to prevent the contracting of sham marriages in the Church of England."

Mr Green said: "The UKBA 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 UK."

The guidance comes after the Rev Alex Brown, 61, was jailed last September for four years for his part in Britain's biggest sham marriage fraud to help hundreds of illegal immigrants stay in Britain.

The Rev Brown abused his position to marry hundreds of African men to Eastern European women at the Church of St Peter and St Paul in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex.

A Church of England spokesman said no more than a "handful" of clergy were currently suspended pending police investigations into alleged sham marriages.

"The vast majority of the 155 arrests mentioned by the immigration minister are of couples and their facilitators," he said.

The Right Reverend John Packer, the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, said cases where clergymen had colluded in sham marriages were "very rare" but they were in danger of being conned by bogus couples.

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "Because we take marriage seriously, we do want to ensure that people are actually genuine in their marriage and we are not being used to con clergy.

"It comes from clergy who have in some cases been very suspicious of a particular couple and haven't been quite sure what to do about that.

"In many cases, they have done exactly what we are encouraging them to do now and looked to a registrar, a lawyer in the diocese, for a licence. We are making that more general in order to seek to prevent sham marriages."

He added: "Some clergy, in some parishes, in cities are being asked on a fairly frequent basis (to conduct sham marriages) and therefore they need a way to help distinguish between sham marriages and genuine ones."

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