Geoffrey Kirk on the dubious entrepreneurial opportunities of ‘bogus’ weddings arranged for immigration purposes

Call me naive, but I first noticed what was happening when I was approached by an apparently charming black couple about a wedding. He was Nigerian and had lived in the parish for six months. She was from the Congo, with a Belgian passport. A not unusual state of affairs in cosmopolitan South London, you might say; one thing apart. The couple in question had no shared language. He spoke English and probably Yoruba; she spoke only French. I obligingly translated the one to the other and recommended a visit to the Registry Office.

That was some three years ago and since then the number of marriage applications in this parish has rocketed. We expect between a dozen and twenty. Already this year I have had fifty-five. At first I suspected a dubious agency in Brussels was marketing available francophone Africans for the Nigerian wedding market (3,000 euros and a return ticket on Eurostar). But since then, with the extension of the EU, the Eastern Europeans have got in on the racket. Probably the scam is operated by a Nigerian entrepreneur in Slough. I think I have a name.

I find it rather insulting that the Church of England is considered by these rogues to be a soft touch; but I am not surprised. There is money in matrimony, as any itinerant caterer will tell you. It is now ten years since I was approached by an enterprising Japanese, who was selling an all-in wedding package which included flights to London, a five star hotel and a suitably Gothic church for the ceremony. The canny businesswoman obligingly pointed out that I would be doing nothing strictly illegal, since the couples were already married. This time round it was only the photographs that mattered.

I must say I was tempted (on the rational grounds that photographs seem to be the motive behind many a church wedding). And having resisted, I was not a little chagrined to find that a well-known central London Roman Catholic Church had taken up the invitation.

But now comes news that an entrepreneurial south coast vicar has allegedly turned the occasional opportunity into a veritable industry, with nearly four hundred bogus weddings in a year. These he has skilfully hidden from his churchwardens. So it is not entirely clear who shopped him in the end.

It could, of course, have been as a result of a question from his archdeacon at the annual inspection. But that is unlikely since he or she will no doubt have delegated the task to a short-sighted rural dean with a clipboard and a checklist. Perhaps it was the result of a cunning question in the articles of enquiry: ‘How many bogus marriages have been conducted in the church in the last twelve months?’ (a question constructed by analogy with those cards one fills in to secure admission to the United States: ‘Have you ever committed genocide?’, or whatever it is). It is unlikely that the grass was an grateful organist, who will have pocketed the fee, failed to record it as income, and want no questions.

One is tempted to ask (from a purely ecclesiastical point of view) whether these bogus marriages really matter? Few CofE weddings in my experience have much to do with faith or religion. They are supposed to be a pastoral opportunity; but few unchurched couples prepared for matrimony actually gain in commitment or come back for anything other than a repeat performance. The recent proposals for joint wedding and baptism rites were an admission of these facts: the only reason for such an arrangement can have been to save the family the inconvenience of having to visit the church a second time. Logic dictates that we should offer a funeral in the same package (deferred until needed), at a knock- down fee, and on the same principles.

Some, I am sure, would even argue that to conduct ‘bogus’ marriages for those denied admission to the United Kingdom is an act of Christian charity. Every compassionate citizen, they would claim, has a duty to circumvent our draconian immigration restrictions in the interests of racial equality.

There is, of course, the small matter of marital fidelity. The couples will have promised to be faithful until death subvenes. But we need to ask – divorce rates being what they are, and divorced bishops soon to be introduced – whether we can reasonably expect life-long fidelity of anybody (or at least whether we can ever be sure, at the time, that that is what they intend).

The exchange of money for nationality, with an agreement to separate or divorce after an arranged period, is surely little more than a special case of a pre-nuptial agreement. To call it fraudulent is to presume to know what marriage is and what it is for. No one, surely, can do that, when relationships and expectations are so fluid, and cannot be defined in terms of outmoded precepts and standards?

There is a part of me, to be honest, which thinks that the Church of England should get out of the marriage business altogether. A civil ceremony for all followed by a Church wedding for the baptized and communicant would be simpler, clearer and more honest. It would also be less susceptible to fraud, manipulation and insincerity. It would leave the responsibility for policing immigration policy precisely where it should be: with the Home Office. ND