Asylum seekers and marriage

It has only cropped up once in my three years as pastor and I’m not sure it ever came up during the tenure of my predecessor. Nonetheless, crop up it did. The issue in question was whether we would consider blessing the union of two asylum seekers who believed at the time that they were disbarred from marriage in the UK. In short, they were asking would we conduct a ceremony, recognise them as married and treat them as such even though the state would not.

To be frank, it was not a question I had ever considered before it arose. It led to some prolonged discussions within our eldership. I also sought some outside counsel from other ministers. Reflecting the discussion within our eldership, the outside counsel yielded mixed results. Some said yes, the law is unfair and we should recognise them as married in the sight of God and invoked 1 Cor 7:9. Others said no, for marriage is not a church sacrament but a public good administered by the state. Others still said yes but with caveats.

Added to our deliberations were the obvious issues of unwed couples living together. If the church has taken a stand on such issues in the past (and it had), how could we differentiate an asylum seeking couple living together from a British couple doing the same? How would we make clear that one was acceptable in the sight of God and the other unacceptable? There wasn’t any obvious way to demarcate motives and desire for marriage.

The question was happily resolved for us. As noted in the extract from a solicitors letter we received below, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled that to deny marriage to asylum seekers is unlawful pursuant to their human rights.

By denying our client to give his notice of marriage and requesting documents that he cannot provide and refusing to accept documents that are in his possession, you are denying our client his fundamental Human Rights. Article 12 guarantees the right to marry to men and women of marriageable age and the right to found a family, according to UK law.

We would like to take the opportunity to remind you that Certificate of Approval for Marriage was abolished and the scheme was no longer in place since 11 May 2011 following the House of Lords judgement in Baiai (30th July 2008).

The House of Lord, in the aforementioned case, found that the scheme was an unlawful interference with the fundamental right to marry as it did not provide for or envisage any investigation at all into whether the proposed marriage was actually genuine or not and thus imposed blanket prohibition on the exercise of the right to marry.

For us, this meant our discussion became moot. Whether the church could bless a union against the recognition of the state became irrelevant when it was clear that the state and the church could happily marry the couple.

Following this letter from their solicitor, my friends duly went back to the registry office and successfully gave their notice to marry. The church were able to conduct the marriage with a registrar on site and the couple are happily married and recently had the joy of giving birth to twin girls.

Over at the faithroots blog, Dave Williams has also commented on this issue (see here and here). He argued the case that churches should not bless asylum seeker unions that were not recognised by the state. The same argument, in an entirely different context, has been argued by Jonathan Leeman at 9Marks (see Q2 here in relation to state involvement and Q1 here in respect to officiating non-Christian weddings). Leeman argues it is the state who authorises weddings and they delegate the power to conduct them to churches. There is no Biblical mandate for ministers to conduct weddings.

Whilst I would tend toward Leeman’s view – particularly his ‘wisdom’ advice of only marrying couples where at least one person is a member of the church –  the questions raised by Dave Williams at faithroots in respect to asylum seeker marriage did, indeed, become moot. If only the state can legitimise marriage, and marriage is only marriage when recognised by the state, that UK law now clearly permits asylum seekers to be married means the question of blessing unions that are not state recognised is obvious. We cannot do so because the individuals would not, in any sense, be married. We would be blessing co-habitation. If church-sanctioned blessings are legitimate apart from state recognition, the question remains why would you carry one out without the recognition of the state or, indeed, any other state and potentially any other church? That would seem to be perversely going against a clearly permissive and helpful law.

Dave argues that the question isn’t moot because how we answer it will affect our view of Same-Sex Marriage (SSM) and what we do in respect to asylum seekers working when the law doesn’t permit them to do so. However, I do not believe these question follow from the way we answer asylum seeker marriage questions.

First, we are saying in respect to asylum seeker marriage that the law permits them to marry thus the church may marry them too. The question for asylum seeker marriages was thus: could we recognise what the state would not recognise? It also follows here that, in the eyes of the state, this would be co-habitation (even if the church saw it as marriage) and thus not illegal as a living setup.

In respect to SSM, the church would not carry out such marriages. We would not be recognising something that the state does. Again, of itself, this is no different to the church not offering medical care. It is something the state recognises as good and promises to offer but doesn’t insist every institution must offer it. An issue only arises if the state insist all churches must carry out SSM. The question of how we resolve asylum seeker blessings does not help us here, not least now the state clearly tell us we can, if we so wish, carry out asylum seeker marriages but we aren’t obliged to do so.

There is more of an obvious link to the question of asylum seeker work. The state do not permit asylum seekers to work and yet may offer no ruling in their case for years, sometimes decades, leaving those seeking asylum on minimal support (substantially less than Job Seekers Allowance). Here, the question is thus: do we encourage what the state discourage? Do we submit to the state or do we peacefully demur on the grounds of justice and equity? In one sense, the question appears to be the same as that of asylum seeker marriage. However, it is quite different.

The question of asylum seeker marriage rests on whether marriage can be considered marriage if the state do not recognise it as such. That is, if the church choose to recognise a marriage apart from state recognition does it still constitute a marriage? Though we may want to bless the marriage on the grounds of justice, equity and grace, this actually talks past the issue. These things are only relevant if what we are doing actually amounts to a marriage. If we would be blessing something less than a marriage then we are encouraging sin, which is neither just, equitable or gracious.

However, if we come to the conclusion that blessing a marriage apart from the state is indeed marriage, we would not be encouraging anything illegal. Though the state wouldn’t recognise the marriage qua marriage, it would have no problem with the living arrangements of the couple. More to the point, given that the state do recognise asylum seeker marriage, these considerations become unnecessary because the church and state may legitimately recognise the marriage and thus there is neither an ontological nor legal problem to handle.

Compare this to the issue of asylum seeker work. There is no doubt – whether the state recognise their right to do so or not – an asylum seeker carrying out tasks for pay is working. They are simply working illegally. There is no ontological question here, so our view on the rightness or wrongness of conducting marriages apart from state recognition doesn’t help us here. The question of marriage rests on what a marriage is whereas the question of work rests on when it is and isn’t appropriate for a believer to comply with the law. Moreover, unlike the question of marriage, the issues of justice and equity are at the forefront. Is the law so unjust as to make it sinful to obey? Is the law so inequitable and stringent that Biblical imperatives override the call to submit to government? Again, how we answer the question of asylum seeker marriages isn’t particularly relevant here.

So, for those reasons, what led to some serious deliberations amongst our eldership truly did become moot questions. The other issues of SSM and asylum seeker working must be resolved according to different criteria.

3 comments

  1. Thanks Stephen, I think though that you have actually done what I suggested. My point was that the underpinning questions are around “What does God command?” “What are our obligations as churches?” “What are the obligations of the State?” “How do we respond to the Law?” In fact, in your article you have gone through those same questions. The issue I have is that at times we jump into responding to the issue in front of us without thinking systematically. That you get different answers to those questions doesn’t change that they are root/systematic issues. You have a brilliant ability to think Biblically and systematically about how we make ethical and pastoral decisions. That doesn’t always happen and so we get a “case by case” decision which really means that decisions are based on emotional attachment and whether or not people feel warm or hostile towards the state and the present administration.

    Thank you again for your help with thinking things through -and I think you have outlined how we respond to those wider issues well.

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  2. Appreciate your comment Dave.

    Particularly grateful to you putting the issue of asylum marriages on the agenda at all. It is not something I have bothered blogging about before but it is something that has, periodically, cropped up in private discussion.

    I was highly sympathetic to the ‘blessing a union’ position until I became aware of the legal position. Once the legal standing of asylum seekers to marriage was clear, it would have been perverse to ‘bless a union’ when- in the eyes of the state and the church – the couple could marry like anybody else. That just undercut any issue either side had during the discussions.

    I do think, however, the issues of how we deal with SSM and asylum working really don’t flow from the same root as the marriage question (especially given the clarity on the law re marriage).

    But I am grateful to you raising the issues. It gave me opportunity to reappraise thoughts on the issue.

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