The Church of England has dropped its opposition to gay clergymen in civil partnerships becoming bishops, provided the men concerned promise to remain celibate, it confirmed on Friday.
The announcement by the Church’s House of Bishops is likely to reignite a row which has split England’s state Church since 2003, when gay cleric Jeffrey John was forced to withdraw as bishop of Reading under pressure from traditionalists.
“The House has confirmed that clergy in civil partnerships, and living in accordance with the teaching of the Church on human sexuality, can be considered as candidates for the episcopate,” said the Bishop of Norwich, Graham James.
All women, regardless of their sexuality, remain banned from becoming bishops in the Church of England after its governing body, the General Synod, failed to vote through the change in November.
Gay men and women who are in civil partnerships - legal unions giving them similar rights to those of married couples - have been allowed to join the clergy since 2005 so long as they vow to remain celibate.
The Church has spent the past 18 months determining whether these conditions should also apply to gay clergymen who wish to become bishops.
The House of Bishops announced the change on December 20 but it was brought to light by the Church Times, an Anglican newspaper, on Friday - to a mixed reaction.
Ruth Hunt, director of public affairs for gay rights campaigners Stonewall, said: “We’re sure many Anglicans will be happy to hear of the Church’s latest epiphany on gay clergy, although many lesbians will be disappointed that they remain unable to serve as bishops.”
But the Reverend Rod Thomas, chairman of the evangelical group Reform, said the change had not been agreed or debated by the wider Church.
“It’s a very worrying development. If someone were to be appointed who was in a civil partnership, that would be a very divisive step, both within England and across the Anglican Communion,” he said.
He added to the BBC: “That would be a major change in Church doctrine and therefore not something that can be slipped out in the news, it is something that has got to be considered by the general synod.”
Critics also questioned how the celibacy rule would be enforced.
John, who as dean of St Albans is the most senior openly gay Church of England cleric, was forced to withdraw as bishop of Reading in southeast England in 2003 after his appointment caused outrage among conservatives.
The cleric, who entered a civil partnership in 2006 but is understood to be celibate, was also reportedly blocked from becoming bishop of Southwark in London in 2010.
Gay couples have had the right to enter into a civil partnership in Britain since 2005, offering them the same legal rights as married heterosexual couples on a range of issues such as inheritance, pensions and immigration.
The British government proposed last month to allow same-sex marriages in religious institutions that wish to provide them, but the established Churches of England and Wales would be exempt from the plans.
Married heterosexual clergy in the Church of England are not expected to remain celibate. Justin Welby, the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury who takes charge of the Church in March, is married with five children.