Vicar or Border Guard?

Guest post by The Reverend Michael Rose, Church of England Priest (writing in a personal capacity).

One of the many joys of being a Priest in the Anglican Church is the opportunity to engage in people’s lives at the point at which they decide to marry.  The welcome afforded couples ought to be expansive and as free from bureaucracy as possible.  The amount of form filling is minimal but the legislation governing Holy Matrimony in the Church can be daunting for couples. 


Legislation governing the rules and regulations for couples wishing to marry has changed recently with hardly any comment.  If you are from a non-EU country you may no longer marry in the Church of England by having Banns read.  Banns are the opportunity for anyone wishing to object to the proposed marriage to publicly say so. 

The ‘lawful impediments’ to marriage are few in number but very important.  Anyone making an objection can be held in surety of £16,000 if it turns out that the ‘impediment’ they allege isn’t a ‘lawful impediment’.  Someone alleging that their ex is a nightmare could find themselves £16,000 poorer on top of action the bride and groom might take against them.  If the UK Border Agency turned up at a wedding and objected to the wedding they too would be held in surety if they made a false allegation.  To prevent that the government has decided disallow non EU citizens having Banns read which puts the onus on the Minister conducting the wedding to ‘report’ any ‘suspicious’ couple to the Diocesan Registrar.

Non EU citizens or an EU citizen wishing to marry a non EU citizen will now have to apply for a ‘Common Licence’. If one of the couples doesn’t have indefinite leave to remain or is not ‘entitled’ to reside in the UK officiating ministers now have to refer the couple to a Registrar or Chancellor (legal officers of the Church) for ‘investigation’.  If the couple qualify for marriage by Common Licence they have to provide a great deal of documentary evidence which British couples do not have to provide. 


Common Licences were an instrument intended to ensure that the country from which one or both of the couples were registered as a citizen will recognise their marriage according to the rites of the Church of England.  They are now to be used in a different way…as an instrument to assist the UK Borders Agency in its function as a border guard.  I for one am not keen to act in this way.  Of course the justification for all of this is to prevent ‘sham marriages’ and to ensure that Ministers do not marry those whose intentions are not bona fide.

Recently the Labour government’s attempt to make couples get a Home Office ‘certificate of approval’ for their marriage was trampled upon by the House of Lords.   The new rules (or ‘guidance’ as it is being described) are the Coalition government’s way around this.  By using Ministers who officiate at weddings in the Church of England as surrogate UK Border Agency workers they appear to have driven a wedding coach and horses through the concept of an equal right to marry.

If you were wondering to which non EU nationals the new rules refer we are helpfully provided with ‘background’ information and ‘context’ on African criminals (see BBC ‘reports’ (a.k.a. UK Border Agency press releases) ad infinitum.  And also the recent high profile case of a Vicar sentenced to 4 years imprisonment for ‘conspiracy to evade immigration rules’, and, (irony of ironies) ‘failure to read the Banns of Marriage’ (for which he got an extra six months concurrent term of imprisonment).  It’s unclear whether this priest intends to appeal.


As the current economic climate bites hard (not for the rich though…) the usual immigration scare stories are being wound up.  The UK Border Agency has played fast and loose with the numbers involved over this issue.  If you ask them how many people have been convicted of being involved in a sham marriage they have so far failed to tell us.  They will tell us though how many arrests they have made. I much prefer to wait for a jury to reach its verdict in these sorts of cases than to rely on the UK Borders Agency.

Where the government failed to persuade the judicial committee of the House of Lords they have had great success with the Lords Spiritual.  On the radio recently the Church of England spokesperson helpfully clarified the situation…he was asked the scale of the ‘problem’, “Do we have any idea of the numbers”.  “I haven’t got any numbers because there aren’t any numbers”

The truth is that this ‘problem’ is acutely marginal.  We now discriminate against any person from outside of the EU by preventing them having Banns read.  A right afforded other citizens.

Finally though, what ought a Vicar to look out for to confirm his or her suspicions?  Apparently if the couple don’t know each other very well my suspicion alarm ought to blare out.  I expect this applies to thousands of couples but, like the UK borders agency, I don’t know the numbers.

About jcwi

Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants is a key campaigning voice in the field of immigration, asylum and nationality law and policy. It is completely independent from government funding, remaining entirely free from government influence. View all posts by jcwi

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