The very unfortunate result of this and other dioceses having been caught out in the past by applications for what turn out to be marriages contracted simply to enable foreign nationals to gain rights of residence in this country is that local people who fall in love with foreign nationals without right of residence are still being put through quite disproportionate and even intrusive and apparently prurient processes to check up on them before a marriage licence is issued.
I have recently begun to take another couple through the process. The legal officers of the diocese required them to begin the process by submitting a form, writing a further report on themselves in answer to set enquiry questions (all couched in the third person, such as ‘For how long have they lived together?’) and writing an additional supporting letter in which they are guided to duplicate some of the factual information they would already have given in the form and the report (a sure indication that the process has not been through) but otherwise simply encouraged to give unspecified additional information which ‘they feel will assist their application’ leaving to their imagination what further hidden criteria they might need to meet or personal disclosure they might need to make. We haven’t yet got to the point where they hear whether or not they will be summoned to take time off work to travel to Lincoln to be examined further.
It is true that care in this area, among other things, helps protect the vulnerable who might be exploited by pressure to enter a sham marriage and helps prevent a marriage happening and then being broken up by the deportation of one party, but this comparatively rare truth has made those responsible for the process deceive themselves into claiming their aim is ‘not to operate a system of immigration control nor to assist the Border Agency in its oversight of who should be in the country’ despite the fact the House of Bishops’ guidance to them says the Border Agency is ‘putting arrangements in place so that each diocesan registry has a dedicated contact officer with the Agency’.
These national guidelines from the House of Bishops in 2011 make clear that those with a residential qualification might insist on their right to be married following the publication of banns rather than by applying for a licence, but the legal officers of this diocese insist that no such right exists. Worse, they have fallen for the classic legal confusion between being responsible for a process and owning the process, so the guidance to clergy in this diocese says that ‘the grant of a common licence is a privilege and not a right’ putting applicants into a supplicant position.
One of the many strange things about all this is that the Chancellor of this diocese has actually addressed the Diocesan Synod and written in the diocesan newspaper about how his personal understanding of law is about serving people in a way which does not feel legalistic; if he believed his own rhetoric then it would be easy to construct a two stage process by which the diocesan registry clears applications in which the initial information is straight forward and only asks for more when the basic information raises the possibility that greater assurance is needed. It would also be easy to construct a single form which then begins with a positive message, collects only the necessary additional information and does so only once, and doesn’t leave open questions which make those who fill in the form wonder whether they should be declaring their sexual history together to justify their supplication for the ‘privilege’ of being married in the Church of England.
Since 2011, there has been significant national Church of England investment in a ‘Wedding Project’ which has undertaken research with a whole range of couples who have experienced our ministry and come up with clear ideas about best practice. One of the simplest but clearest messages is about the importance of the initial welcome extended to couples. But this turns out only to apply to the couples in what the Church of England regards as straight forward relationships. There was already the situation when there is a previous marriage to be considered: however hard one tries, this open welcoming message has always been difficult, and from time to time couples don’t even take up my offer to meet and talk this through; we make them feel like supplicants and some appear to feel belittled or rejected by the suggestion that they need clearing in this way. It is now devastatingly clear that it isn’t the approach the legal officers want to follow when there is a foreign national to consider. And, additionally, from later this week, there will also be a whole category of people (same sex couples) who can be legally married but who the House of Bishops have written to me to tell me they would discipline me if I dared welcomed them.