by Kilian Melloy
August 20, 2010

Bobby Egbele and the Rev. Colin Coward

The news that an Anglican vicar in England intends to wed a male model less than half his age has created a stir in the U.K.

Though legal marriage is not available to gay and lesbian families in Britain, civil partnership is. But what has caused a fuss is the intention on the part of the vicar to have his union blessed in the church.

The issues of gay clergy and the question of blessing same-sex unions have roiled the Anglican faith since 2003, when openly gay U.S. Episcopalian cleric V. Gene Robinson was made a bishop. Prior to that, the church was already under strain by the question of women being ordained as clergy. Branches of the Anglican faith in other parts of the world–most notably in Asia and Africa–objected strenuously to gays being allowed to serve as clergy, and to same-sex unions being blessed, but some Episcopalian churches in North America have proceeded with such blessings.

Robinson’s elevation was followed earlier this year by the ordination of a lesbian cleric, Mary Glasspool, to the position of suffragen bishop in Los Angeles, an ordination that ended a moratorium in North America on the election of gays and lesbians to such positions within the church.

U.K. newspaper the Daily Mail reported in an Aug. 20 article that Rev. Colin Coward, 65, intends to wed his boyfriend, 25-year-old Nigerian model Bobby Egbele. Coward, who serves as a priest in Wiltshire, further provoked controversy by declining to issue a promise that the union would be celibate–a stipulation that the Anglican Church in England requires of partnered gay and lesbian clergy.

Coward has been a clergyman since 1976. He came out as gay in 1991 and then, four years later, created the GLBT-supportive group Changing Attitude, which “work[s] for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the Anglican Communion,” according to text at the group’s website. Coward also maintains a blog at the site, where he details his work in the global Anglican community to promote greater acceptance of the GLBT faithful.

Coward acknowledged that the union would ruffle feathers, but he also expressed the hope that it would further the cause of full legal and social equality for gay and lesbian families. “Clearly the blessing is going to be quite a sensitive issue. I know that many people will see it and view it with horror,” he told the British press. “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.” Added Coward, “I hope my wedding will inspire others and set a visible example to the church that we are not afraid.”

The reverend noted that the “blessing” of his union would skirt the technical requirements of the traditional blessing offered to couples–a blessing that same-sex couples are denied in the Anglican tradition. “Churches are not supposed to bless civil partnerships,” said Coward, going on to observe that blessings could be performed for “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.”

Coward also spoke of the church’s requirement that partnered gay clergy remain celibate within their relationships. “What we’re allowed to do, as a gay couple, is what this is all about, and certainly those in ordained ministry are not supposed to be sexually active,” Coward said. “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 Eucharistic service celebrating friendship is what has been sanctioned in this case,” a church spokesperson told the media. “This is entirely separate from any civil partnership ceremony.”

The article said that the two met in Togo, West Africa, three years ago while attending a Christian event. Egbele, the article said, is the proprietor of online clothes store Bobafrique, where Egbele appears as a model in photos of the designs sold by the store.

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