Waiting for the bride at the altar, Fr Tim Codling began to realise that something wasn't quite right when he saw her at the back of the church pulling her wedding dress out of a black bin-liner. In full view of everyone present, she proceeded to change into the dress. It became clear it was twice her size as she walked down the aisle, struggling not to trip over it and with the sleeves hanging down to her knees. As she stood next to the groom, there was not only an obvious lack of affection, but more alarmingly a complete lack of recognition.

"It was as if they'd never met each other before," says Fr Codling, rector of St John the Baptist in Tilbury, Essex. "Looking back now, I realise that they probably hadn't."

The wedding was one of dozens of marriages at his church that he believes were part of a scam designed to allow immigrants to gain British citizenship.

Concerned that he was being asked to perform bogus marriages, the rector informed Chelmsford's diocesan registrar of his fears. He repeatedly called to advise he would not recommend applicants be given common licences – a requirement for foreign nationals wanting to marry in church. Often, applicants could not prove the necessary "qualifying connection" with the parish and the vicar suspected that neither partner was a genuine resident. Addresses given by "couples" married at St John the Baptist, obtained from the church's marriage register, proved to be false when visited by The Sunday Telegraph.

Yet despite Fr Codling's warnings about the validity of the applicants, they returned from the registrar with the common licence, leaving him little option but to take their weddings.

In 2009, Fr Codling refused to conduct a wedding involving a Ghanian bride whose visa had expired. He told officials that any marriage would potentially be illegal as she did not have a legal right to remain in the country. However, the Rt Rev John Gladwin, then the Bishop of Chelmsford, rejected his advice and sent his chaplain, the Rev Chris Newlands, to take the ceremony.

Fr Codling says he felt that they thought he was being difficult.

Faced with having to officiate at weddings he suspected to be sham, he began to interrupt ceremonies and escort couples from the building when he was convinced they were bogus. He was verbally abused as a result and on one occasion Nigerians broke into his house and confronted his wife. She had a rape alarm installed by their front door. He called his local bishop, the Rt Rev Laurie Green, the Bishop of Bradwell, but was dismayed by the response.

"I was given the impression they were thoroughly disinterested in what I was saying. I expected a lot of support considering what we were going through, but he said he didn't have time to listen to my stories."

Instead of receiving backing from the diocese, when he finally did receive a personal visit from the Ven David Lowman, the archdeacon of Southend, he says he was threatened with disciplinary action if he continued to refuse to conduct marriages.

"It left me in a really terrible position because it meant that I had to stand in front of these couples in church conducting marriages I knew were unlikely to be genuine," he said.

Despairing at the lack of support from the Church and growing increasingly anxious that he could be arrested like other clergy caught conducting sham marriages, he turned to the UK Border Agency. In August, staff from the agency arrested a couple. Since the raid there has been a noticeable drop in applications to marry at the church.

COMMENT: I wonder how much the bishops and archdeacons would have bent over backwards to get these foreign nationals their welfare payouts if the diocese didn't take a pile of cash every time a couple gets married in one of their churches. And, I would point out, the parish priest gets nothing for conducting weddings.



  1. Dear Bishop,
    What does the leaflet detailing current charges require the vicar’s wife to charge an assailant for rape? Breaking and entering? Threatening bodily harm?

    Here in the U.S., where there is no established church, I am not required to perform any wedding. I am expected not to keep any donation a couple make to me for the service, however. I am expected to put those honoraria in my fund for the poor. The premise being, the Episcopal Church does not charge for the sacraments. Imagine that, CofE.

  2. There is something just not right about this story. Were I the vicar, after a few suspect marriages I would have contacted the Border Agency first, not the Bishop.

    I have a lot of time for John Gladwin (Retired). I wonder if there might have been some jiggery-pokery in the Registrar’s office.

    There is more to tell about this. I trust that the Registrar who issued the licenses might have his (or her) collar felt by Inspector Knacker, at least for questioning.

    As for the fees, I doubt that the number of marriage licenses this chuckleheaded registrar issued did much for the Chelmsford diocesan coffers. And the fees here normally go straight to the diocese toward the salaries of the clergy (at least here in Southwark they do). Alternatively, the priest may keep the stipends and have them deducted from his or her salary. Most clergy opt for the former.

    Fees are a big source of disagreement here. At some point in the future when we’ve stopped arguing about women bishops and the Anglican Covenant we might just take up that thorny question.

  3. Lois has this one nailed. I think it would not be too extreme for the rest of us to insist to the Church of England: “Disestablishment or Death!”

    In TEC our canon law states (and has stated for longer than I can remember, and I’m an Old Guy): I.18.4: “It shall be within the discretion of any Member of the Clergy of this Church to decline to solemnize any marriage.” I think many of us are increasingly unwilling to act as a functionary of the State in any marriage. (I.e., go sign the papers down at the County Clerk’s office, and then come here and we’ll celebrate and bless your marriage.) If you guys aren’t willing to refuse to be civil servants, then don’t complain about the ensuing crap.

  4. Disestablishment is something that almost all C of E clergy are against. They say that since the Church by law Established is present in the entire country of England, it thus serves the entire populace and disestablishment would destroy that.

    Now I’m wondering what Canon or Law says that if the Church is not established then the clergy have the right to refuse pastoral services to people who are not card-carrying members of the C of E?

    But you can’t convince the holy clergy. I think that many harbour the wish to end up as diocesan bishops and finally in the House of Lords, where they can mingle with the great, the good, and the venal. If the Church were disestablished the path to the red leather benches would be more difficult. Or am I just cynical?

    I repeat: I think there is more to this story than has come out and that further revelations about the diocesan registrar may come out of this.

  5. There’s no such thing as a ‘diocesan registrar’. The registrar is an employee of the local Council, and among their duties is to conduct civil marriages. They also register births and deaths. They’re part of the secular State and nothing to do with the Church.

    Because everyone has a right to marriage in their local parish church, and because even with the fees it’s cheaper to do so than use a secular registry office, and, most of all, because vicars are rarely as trained or rigorous as a good secular registrar at spotting fakes (the procedure for civil marriage was tightened considerably about a decade ago) the criminal gangs have twigged that it can be an easy way to contract a fake marriage.

    Priests in the CofE are legally their own registrars, which is why they can conduct marriages without the need for the presence of the secular registrar or further licence. When the priest is dubious about the genuineness of the couple, however, s/he can insist that they go to the secular registrar for a licence before the priest will marry them, which is what this vicar appears to have done. The secular registrar will, if doing their job properly, put the couple through a fairly rigorous questioning which will usually discover whether they’re genuine or not. If they turn up back at the vicar’s with a licence, then the vicar is obliged to marry them.

    My own vicar has used this process quite a lot when faced with couples she was dubious about, and has never once had them return with the licence. If anyone (other than the unsympathetic bishop) is at fault here, it is the local registrar, not the vicar, who (at face value) seems to have done all he could to check the genuineness of the couples he married.