... and the bride wore handcuffs

St John the Baptist Church, Tilbury, Essex. If you had arrived some weeks ago you would have seen something unusual: 20 officers of the law filing briskly out of the vicarage, through the back garden and into the vestry. They wore stab jackets and carried pepper spray and handcuffs. Two churchwardens gave them tea and biscuits, then went nervously into the main part of the church where a marriage was due to take place.

At the appointed time the wedding party arrived: the bride, Roqsilmar Marti, 28, the groom, Gafar Makanjuola, 32, two witnesses and some young children. Another man stayed outside. Tim Codling, the priest, urged him to come in but he said he needed to make some phone calls. “So I went back inside and did what I had to do.”

Father Codling told the bride and groom to stand before the altar and asked the witnesses to come forward. When they did, he observed that it was a wet, dark day. Perhaps he might turn on some lights? He walked towards the switch on the wall by the door leading to the vestry. After turning on the lights he opened the door — and that was the cue for the police.

To live, work and claim benefits in Britain it is not necessary to be born here or even to marry somebody British. Any European Union citizen will do. (Note: this was correct at the time of writing.)

For this reason, sham weddings are a commonplace event — and were positively frequent until 2005, when the government clamped down, requiring non-EU nationals to obtain a certificate of approval from the Home Office. Illegal immigrants could not apply and the number of suspected sham marriages reported by registrars fell from 3,578 in 2004 to 452 in 2005.

The new system applied only to register offices; the Church of England was allowed to carry on as before. As a result its clergy have been taken advantage of. Some have been arrested and one, the Rev Alex Brown, was sentenced last year to four years in prison after carrying out 360 sham weddings at his church in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex.

Last week — against the news that nearly one in eight people living in Britain was born abroad — the church introduced strict guidelines for marriages involving foreign migrants.

From now on the House of Bishops encourages vicars to report suspicions to the police or the UK Border Agency.

Clerics will be urged not simply to read the traditional wedding banns before church ceremonies involving migrants but also to send couples to apply for a “common licence” to be signed off by a bishop. Henceforth, there will be rigorous checks of documentation and home visits from vicars.

The Rev William Campbell-Taylor of St Thomas’s, in Stamford Hill, north London, who has himself encountered questionable couples, says clergy must be “prepared to tell applicants to bugger off” if they raise suspicions.

People who know little about sham weddings can have a romantic view of them, says Sam Bullimore of the UK Border Agency. That’s down to comedies such as Green Card, in which a Frenchman played by Gérard Depardieu struggles to get residence in America, or a storyline in Coronation Street, in which a woman encouraged her boyfriend to marry a Chinese woman desperate to avoid deportation. “I’ve never seen anything like the way it’s portrayed in Coronation Street,” says Bullimore. “The cases we see involve organised criminals making a significant amount of money.”

Fixers typically charge as much as £15,000 to arrange a wedding. “Many are involved in other crime,” Bullimore adds, “including people trafficking. We have seen women who think they are coming to make a bit of money but are then raped and put to work in a brothel.” If the EU nationals are British, they are usually drug addicts.

“At first, when the foreign couples started to come, we felt sorry for them,” says Jenny Codling, the vicar’s wife in Tilbury. “They had no flowers and no music. So I went to Tesco and bought some. I said: you can’t go down the aisle without flowers or music, it would be awful! And this woman looked at me as if I was off my trolley.”

When people come to be married, Father Codling always asks them in for a chat. “The Church of England wants us to prepare people, because the love between man and wife is one of the means by which people experience God’s grace. Tied in with that is the legal aspect: marriage is good for the wider community because it provides stability in relationships,” he says.

However, he sometimes found it difficult to get both people together. “I would say: why don’t you bring your fiancé? There were always excuses. A common theme was that someone had gone abroad because a relative was ill or had died.”

To marry at St John, people had to establish a necessary “qualifying connection” with the parish — to show they lived nearby. Not all were successful. “One time,” says Jenny, “we were booking somebody in and Brenda [Walker, a churchwarden] said, ‘Are you sure you live at this address?’ He said yes. And she said, ‘That’s funny, that is my brother-in-law’s house. He never told me he had a lodger’.” If couples got a licence from the diocese in Chelmsford, however, Codling had to marry them whether he liked it or not. He often reported suspicions, but it made no difference. One bank holiday weekend he had three weddings to do on the Monday. The first bride was three hours late, so the second couple went first.

“In the course of that one,” says Codling, “I watched what was going on at the back. The woman who was late burst in and went to the far side of the church and stripped to her bra and knickers and rummaged in a black bin bag for an outfit. Her groom was over to my left but he didn’t seem to to recognise his bride. She was a very small woman, must have been a size 10, and the dress was about size 18.”

He threw them out. “I said: I’m sorry but I’m not convinced that this is a proper marriage.” He refused to perform the third marriage as well. “I said: none of you is giving the church the respect it deserves.”

That’s when it became unpleasant. Walker was alone in the church when a group started banging on the door. They were people Codling had declined to marry, one wearing a bride’s dress. “I said: Father Tim isn’t here,” says Walker. “You’re not coming in, no way.” The banging went on for another 10 minutes.

Early last year Codling told the diocese he was no longer willing to carry out weddings he didn’t feel right about. This didn’t go down well. Vicars can’t refuse to marry somebody who has a certificate of approval. He was visited by the archdeacon, who explained the legal position. On the other hand, if Codling carried on marrying suspicious couples he might be arrested: two clergy from his own diocese had been arrested on suspicion of arranging sham marriages last April.

There seemed to be no end in sight until a would-be groom gave contradictory details about himself. This time, when the Codlings reported their suspicions to the diocese, they were advised to call the UK Border Agency. “I got off the telephone and thought, hallelujah!” says Jenny.

Two police officers came and told them stories about prostitution, drug running and organised crime. “We were dealing with very menacing people,” Jenny realised, “and Tim was stopping marriages that someone paid a lot of money for. I think the church was very lucky they didn’t have a dead vicar on their hands.”

The Codlings gave details of 63 weddings they felt uneasy about, going back over many months. The Border Agency took note of those old cases, says Bullimore: “But it’s not easy to find the people involved. The EU nationals have usually gone abroad and the people who have secured residency don’t tend to stay in one place. They may also have more than one identity. They’ll be involved in fraud with mortgages and benefit claims.”

The Border Agency told the Codlings it would like to carry out a sting — to catch the suspicious would-be groom, Makanjuola, in the act of marrying. It’s tempting to imagine the moment the law enforcement officers burst in as blood-chillingly dramatic, a bit like the assault on Thomas Becket. In fact, the arrests went smoothly. The Nigerian groom and the Dutch bride were put in handcuffs at the altar. A woman from the Border Agency took the children into the vestry, while the two witnesses to the wedding were also arrested.

Codling told officers about the man on the telephone outside — the fixer, presumably — who ran away as soon as he spotted them. The man, Abdallah Magezi, was convicted last week at Basildon crown court of conspiring to facilitate a breach of immigration law and sentenced to three years in prison.

The “couple” have been convicted. Marti claimed she met Makanjuola through the internet and they fell in love. But later that evening it emerged that Marti had been in a relationship with a woman in Holland for eight years. Her girlfriend in Holland rang the police in Tilbury to say she was worried: Marti had gone to Britain, the woman said, and might be involved in something dodgy. “We were able to reassure her that she was safe,” says Bullimore. “In a cell.”

© Times Newspapers Ltd.