THE Church of England has dropped its controversial ban on gay clergy becoming bishops, leading to warnings of major divisions among its members.
The announcement, from the Church’s House of Bishops, would allow gay clergy in civil partnerships to become bishops if they promise to be celibate.
However, conservative evangelical Anglicans have said they intend to fight the move in the Church’s ruling General Synod and have warned they would be willing to bring in bishops from overseas to avoid serving under a gay bishop.
Gay-rights group Stonewall said it was “perplexed” as to how the initiative would be policed by the Church. Campaigners also expressed disappointment that lesbians would still be unable to become bishops.
The decision was made before Christmas but was announced yesterday in the Church Times newspaper.
A summary of business conducted by the House of Bishops, when it met last month, included the lifting of a moratorium on the appointment of clergy in civil partnerships as bishops – as long as they are celibate.
The move comes after the General Synod controversially rejected proposals to allow women bishops in November.
This follows recent controversy in Scotland over the Kirk’s General Assembly vote in 2011 to accept gay clergy, and proposed legislation by the Scottish Government to introduce gay marriage. St George’s Tron Kirk in Glasgow became the first to split from the Church of Scotland over the Kirk’s decision.
Both the Church of Scotland and the Roman Catholic Church oppose Scottish Government draft proposals which say religious and belief bodies would need to “opt-in” to perform same-sex marriages.
The Church of England has already agreed to allow those in civil partnerships to become clergy, provided they promised they would remain celibate and repent for active homosexuality in the past.
The issue has split the Church of England since 2003, when openly gay cleric Jeffrey John was nominated to the post of Bishop of Reading.
Dr John, now Dean of St Albans, was forced to withdraw from the role shortly after accepting it, following protests from traditionalists.
He was also a candidate for Bishop of Southwark in 2010 but was rejected. Evidence emerged that this was due to his sexual orientation.
Dr John, the most senior openly gay Church of England cleric, entered a civil partnership in 2006 but is understood to live a celibate life.
Rod Thomas, chairman of the evangelical group Reform, said the idea of appointing people in civil partnerships as bishops had not been agreed or debated by the wider Church.
“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.”
He said there would be great divisions in the Church if clergy in civil partnerships were appointed as bishops.
The Rev Thomas added: “It would be far better for the Church just to be clear that if you are in a civil partnership then being a leader in a church is not appropriate for you because the Church has to uphold its moral teaching on marriage.
“If the Church doesn’t uphold that then it’s difficult to know what the Church is in business to do.”
Ruth Hunt, director of public affairs for 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.
“I’m sure celibate gay men will be thrilled by this exciting new job opportunity, if perhaps somewhat perplexed as to how it will be policed by the Church.”
But the Rt Rev Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, speaking on behalf of the House of Bishops, said it would be “unjust” to exclude anyone for consideration for the role of bishop who was “seeking to live fully in conformity with the Church’s teaching on sexual ethics or other areas of personal life and discipline”.
“All candidates for the episcopate undergo a searching examination of personal and family circumstances, given the level of public scrutiny associated with being a bishop in the Church of England,” he said.
“But these, along with the candidate’s suitability for any particular role for which he is being considered, are for those responsible for the selection process to consider in each case.”
Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: “The announcement that gay clergy in civil partnerships will no longer be barred from appointment as bishops is a welcome move towards greater equality within the Church.
“However, the restriction that they can be only appointed if they remain celibate is continued discrimination.“The Church should welcome love, fidelity and commitment, regardless of whether its bishops are heterosexual or homosexual.”