Forced marriage is "morally and legally wrong", the Church of England's Mission and Public Affairs Council said on Monday in response to a Home Office consultation on 'marriage to partners from overseas'.
A Home Office-funded study published this week revealed that forced marriages are far more widespread in the UK than official figures suggest. The study, which looked only at Luton, found that local community organisations were dealing with 300 forced marriage cases, far exceeding the findings of a previous study which stated that the Government's forced marriage unit responds to 300 cases a year across the whole of the UK.
The Rt Rev Tom Butler, Bishop of Southwark, said, "The practice of forcing one of the partners to marry in order to be able to sponsor a marriage visa and gain immigration advantage cannot be justified and is to be strongly condemned," said the bishop.
"We support policy that is most likely to give protection to those who most need it."
The Church of England voiced its support for the study's recommendation to raise the minimum age that someone may sponsor a marriage partner from abroad or be sponsored as a spouse to 21 years.
The study also raised concerns that the substantial number of children disappearing from school registers each year is down to forced marriages.
Bishop Butler stressed that the idea of personal consent was key to the Christian understandings of marriage.
"The Christian description of marriage as a voluntary union for life between one woman and one man, to the exclusion of all others, has its roots in the early biblical stories in Genesis," he said.
"Marriage has been understood in the Christian tradition as a sign of the love between Christ and his Church, which is freely given, not forced. Therefore what essentially makes a true marriage in the Christian understanding is the couple's voluntary consent to a lifelong monogamous union."
"No one should enter into marriage lightly or selfishly but reverently and responsibly," he added.
Bishop Butler reaffirmed the Church of England's belief that good marriage preparation would detect whether or not a young person was entering into marriage voluntarily.
"There is a strong case for increased resources for marriage preparation, education and counselling for groups working with those most at risk of being exploited, particularly if there were a risk of unintended consequences," he said.
Forced marriage 'morally and legally wrong' - Church of England
Published 11 March 2008