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Page last updated at 13:40 GMT, Wednesday, 18 August 2010 14:40 UK
Gay Devizes vicar to get 'married' in same-sex ceremony

By Sarah Jones
BBC Wiltshire

For openly gay vicars, in the Church of England, saying "I do" in a same-sex civil ceremony also means saying "I don't" to remaining celibate.

Rev Colin Coward
Rev Colin Coward is planning to 'marry' his 25-year-old boyfriend

Within the Anglican Church, it seems, the official guidelines are that active same-sex relationships should not be permitted among the clergy.

But that isn't stopping the Reverend Colin Coward, a 65-year-old vicar from Devizes, from heading to the registry office with his 25-year-old boyfriend this autumn.

Despite being an ordained priest, and one of the preachers at the Church of St John the Baptist, Mr Coward has no plans of giving assurances to the bishop that he'll remain sexually abstinent.

"What we're allowed to do, as a gay couple, is what this all about," he told BBC Wiltshire.

"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."

With the Bishop of Salisbury in, as Colin puts it, "the very fortunate position" of having recently retired - it falls to his replacement to ask the Devizes vicar if he has remained celibate.

In the short term, the diocese has authorised the church service between Colin and his partner.

A spokesperson for the diocese said a "Eucharistic service celebrating friendship is what has been sanctioned in this case".

The diocese added this service was "entirely separate from any civil partnership ceremony".

Church of St John the Baptist Devizes
The service will be at St John the Baptist in Devizes in October

But Colin says he has no idea what the consequences might be should he tell the bishop he is no longer upholding his vow of celibacy.

"There are many others that get kind of 'black-balled' in the church and find it very difficult to move into other ministries in any other diocese," Colin added.

He added his position as a founder and director of Changing Attitude, an international network of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and heterosexual members of the Church of England, has given him a unique insight.

"All this goes on underground - It's on the whole not public knowledge that this is happening."

It was back in 1976 that Colin was encouraged to enter the priesthood. He was 32 at the time and knew he was gay.

In fact he'd known he was gay from an early age but kept it to himself.

"I kept it a big secret because, of course, it was illegal then," said Colin. "It was pre-1967 and it was a big taboo in my church and in my family."

But, 55 years on, not only is the vicar openly gay, but openly arranging his civil ceremony and church service partnership to live-in partner Bobby.

The service is set for 9 October at Colin's church, St Johns in Devizes, the church service will be a Communion Eucharist service rather then a blessing service which is forbidden for homosexual couples.

"Churches are not supposed to bless civil partnerships," said Colin. "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."

CHURCH OF ENGLAND SAYS..
Agreed Practice, House of Bishops July 2005: "The House of Bishops does not regard entering into a civil partnership as intrinsically incompatible with holy orders, provided the person concerned is willing to give assurances to his or her bishop that the relationship is consistent with the standards for the clergy set out in Issues in Human Sexuality."
Issues in Human Sexuality: "We have, therefore, to say that in our considered judgment clergy cannot claim the liberty to enter into sexually active homophile relationships."

Despite not actually getting the blessing of the church, the couple are determined to make their commitment to each other in a Christian context.

"Clearly it's going to be quite a sensitive issue," said Colin. "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."

For Tony Green, of the UK-based Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement (LGCM), it's a "typically Anglican fudge" that the bishops have come up with.

"The Bishops of the Church of England clearly did not want to be seen denying their priests something which is a legal right," he said.

"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."




SEE ALSO
Church 'must face social issues'
14 Apr 10 |  Mid Wales
The Anglican communion "is over"
08 Feb 10 |  HARDtalk
Lords reject gay church proposal
25 Jan 10 |  Politics
No civil union for straight pair
24 Nov 09 |  London
Sweden church allows gay weddings
22 Oct 09 |  Europe


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