The Church of England has confirmed it is dropping its ban on gay clergy in civil partnerships from becoming bishops. The Church's House of Bishops said gay clergy can rise to the role if they pledge to remain celibate.
Evangelical campaigners have described the Church of England's decision to lift the ban on gay bishops as a "very worrying development" that could prove "very divisive".
Rev Rod Thomas, a spokesman for Reform, said the demand on homosexual bishops to remain celibate in their civil partnerships was "unenforceable," adding:
To appoint someone in a civil partnership as a bishop would be seen by the world at large as appointing someone who is in an active gay relationship, and undermine the Church's teaching on the exclusiveness of sex within marriage.
Gay human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has welcomed the Church of England's lifting of a ban on gay bishops, but said the lack of an "official statement" from the House of Bishops or the Archbishop of Canterbury is "perplexing".
"If the policy has been changed, it is a significant development and should be officially confirmed by Anglican leaders," he said, adding: "I hope this means the way is now open for (Dean of St Albans) Jeffrey John to be appointed as a bishop."
The Church of England 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".
The statement, issued by the Rt Revd Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, on behalf of the Church of England's House of Bishops, added:
The House believed it would be unjust to exclude from consideration for the episcopate anyone 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 (C of E). 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.
The Church of England's lifting of its prevention of gay clergy to become bishops was announced by the House of Bishops before Christmas, but rose to public attention today in the Church Times newspaper.
The move comes after the General Synod, the church's governing body, controversially rejected proposals to allow women bishops in November.
The Church of England has confirmed a moratorium on the appointment of gay priests in civil partnerships as bishops has been lifted.
It therefore now stands behind a 2005 statement on civil partnerships, which had been the subject of a church review until today's clarification. The statement reads:
The House of Bishops does not regard entering into 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.
The Issues in Human Sexuality, which was compiled by the House of Bishops in 1991, is described by the church as its "definitive statement" on same-sex relationships.
It states that "the clergy cannot claim the liberty to enter into sexually active homophile relationships" and calls on "all clergy to live lives that respect the Church's teaching".