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Clergy in front line of battle against sham marriages

08 September 2010

by Ed Beavan & Ed Thornton

THE Revd Tim Codling, Rector of St John the Baptist, Tilbury Docks, in Essex, has said his church has been “violated” by fraudsters targeting it for sham marriages. The diocese has admitted that the problem has become “unmanageable”.

Mr Codling has referred 64 marriages in the past three years to the police and immigration author­ities, after he became suspicious about the high number of weddings between African and EU nationals. Once they are married, non-European nationals can apply for British citizenship.

Mr Codling said last week that he has undoubtedly married bogus couples, and on four occasions he interrupted wedding ceremonies and escorted couples from the building, after being convinced of their inauthenticity.

On one occasion he inserted the names of railway stations into the vows to catch out a bride. She failed to notice the interpolation. Another bride turned up with a wedding dress three sizes too big for her, and wedding rings that did not fit, sug­gesting that they had been borrowed.

Last week, police and immigration authorities carried out a raid on the church, arresting a Nigerian man and a Dutch woman.

Mr Codling said that his church may have been targeted because of its good links to Stansted and London City airports. “When a couple come with a bishop’s licence you’re in a difficult position. You assume everything is in order, but then it becomes obvious that everything is not as it should be.”

Mr Codling said that a rising number of Africans were moving to the area. “The really sad thing is that we’ve got a lot of very faithful, honest Nigerians who are an active part of the church. But, sadly, indi­vid­uals with criminal intent have used and abused the system. It’s a huge problem for the Church of England.

“For the last three years we feel we’ve been violated, and our sacred space has been violated.”

Mr Codling was critical of the diocese of Chelmsford. “We’ve had very little support from the diocese. It’s very, very disappointing.”

Responding to the criticism, the Bishop of Bradwell, Dr Laurie Green, said that the diocesan registrar had told all clergy to seek his advice when in doubt about a couple, and had been “in constant contact” with Tilbury parish. “Despite all this, the major burden of initial interviewing of applicants, checking papers and addresses, and some­times dealing with significant pressure or even intimidation, falls unfairly upon the clergy, and some are finding that strain unbearable,” Dr Green said. “The Archdeacons and Bishops are seeking to be along­side wherever possible, al­though the situation has now reached un­manageable propor­tions.”

Dr Green said that the diocese of Chelmsford has for some months been in contact with the police authorities and the UK Border Agency, but that, in some cases, when an application for marriage had been found to be fraudulent, “the authorities have told us they are too overwhelmed, and that the matter will have to be handled personally by the local vicar.

“They, like us, simply don’t have the resources. This, however, can put an individual clergyperson and their family in great danger if it turns out that a sham marriage is being orchestrated by a criminal gang.”

Correction. The Revd Brian Shipsides, Priest-in-Charge of All Saints’ with St Edmund’s, Forest Gate, in the East End of London, and the Revd Elwon John, Associate Minister in the same benefice, were arrested last month on suspicion of conspiracy to breach immigration law, and other offences. They have been bailed until late October. Contrary to an earlier story, they have not been charged. Mr John is of Pakistani origin, not Nigerian, as stated earlier. We apologise for the error.

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