A 65-year-old vicar has stunned church bosses by announcing plans to marry – his 25-year-old Nigerian male model boyfriend.
Gay Reverend Colin Coward, a priest at St John the Baptist church in Devizes, Wilts., is entering into a civil partnership with his boyfriend Bobby Egbele.
But the marriage has caused a stir among Christians because the couple plan to receive a ‘blessing’ service in church after tying the knot.
Rev Coward has also refused to confirm that he will remain celibate following the union, which is a requirement the Church of England asks of its ordained gay clergy.
Yesterday Rev Coward, who lives with Bobby in Marston, near Devizes, revealed that he hopes his union sets a ”visible example” to other gay people within the church.
He said: ”My goal is for everyone within the church to feel comfortable with the situation because at the moment the majority of gay Christians marry secretly.
”It is a taboo subject but the church is now under huge pressure to change its stance and that pressure will only increase in the future.
”Clearly the blessing is going to be quite a sensitive issue. I know that many people will see it and view it with horror.
”But we are both deeply committed Christians so it would be unthinkable for me not to do it in church and not to do it with the congregation and with all of our friends.
”I hope my wedding will inspire others and set a visible example to the church that we are not afraid.”
Reverend Coward realised he was gay as a teenager and was ordained as a priest in 1976 after giving up his job as an architect.
He came out openly as a gay vicar in 1991 before setting up the international gay and lesbian campaign group Changing Attitudes in 1995.
Rev Coward met Bobby in 2007 at a Christian conference in Togo, West Africa, and the pair fell in love before getting engaged earlier this year.
Fashion designer and model Bobby, whose full name is Bobby Ikekhuame Egbele, grew up in Nigeria and runs an online clothing shop Bobafrique, where he models the clothes.
The pair are set to marry on October 9 at the Register Office in Devizes before having a service at St John the Baptist church.
However, the ceremony will be a Communion Eucharist service rather then a blessing, which is forbidden for homosexual couples.
Rev Coward said: ”Churches are not supposed to bless civil partnerships. It can bless almost anything else animals, bombs, battleships, armies going to war but gay couples? No.
”So our church blessing has to be carefully-worded in so far as it does not use the word blessing in the context of the two of us in relationship.”
Rev Coward’s boss, the Right Reverend Stephen David Conway, who is the Bishop of Ramsbury, is also expected to ask him to remain celibate – a request he plans to refuse.
Under Church of England laws sex is only permitted for married couples and same-sex civil partnerships are not officially regarded as marriage.
Rev Coward said: ”I have big doubts whether he will ask me that because it’s a very intrusive question. It’s a ridiculous situation and a real mess.
”What we’re allowed to do, as a gay couple, is what this all about and certainly those in ordained ministry are not supposed to be sexually active.
”But in practice, some bishops absolutely will give their approval knowing that a couple is in a civil partnership and that they are sharing the same bed, and will encourage them to do that.”
A spokesman for the Diocese of Salisbury confirmed they have permitted the service to go ahead but described it as ”separate” from the civil ceremony.
He said: ”A Eucharistic service celebrating friendship is what has been sanctioned in this case. This is entirely separate from any civil partnership ceremony.”
Tony Green, spokesman for the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, believes the uncertain situation is a ”typically Anglican fudge”.
He said: ”The Bishops of the Church of England clearly did not want to be seen denying their priests something which is a legal right.
”Yet at the same time they had to uphold the official teaching of the Church of England concerning gay priests needing to be celibate
”So for Bishops who oppose gay relationships, it is perhaps not surprising if they insist on the priests reaffirming their commitment to the Church’s teaching.”