A decision by the Church of England to allow gay men in civil partnerships to become bishops has prompted criticism from both liberals and traditionalists.
The announcement would allow gay clergy to become bishops if they promise to be celibate.
Groups representing gay Anglicans have welcomed the move but conservative evangelicals have called it “divisive”.
Some critics say it is undermining church teaching about homosexuality in the hope of winning public approval.
The issue has split the church since 2003 amid a row over gay cleric Jeffrey John becoming Bishop of Reading.
Mr John, now Dean of St Albans, was forced to withdraw from the role of Bishop of Reading shortly after having initially accepted it, following protests from traditionalists.
He said: “If it is genuinely true that all levels of ordained ministry are now more open to gay people than they were before, then this is a very good thing.”
The Church of England has already agreed to allow people in civil partnerships to become clergy, provided they promised they would remain celibate.
In a statement on behalf of the House of Bishops, the Rt Rev Graham James, Bishop of Norwich said: “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 .
“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 added.
The BBC’s religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott says the latest decision to make the same provision for bishops has reignited Anglicans’ most deep-seated and destructive dispute.
The Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement said although it was a step forward, gay bishops should not have to be celibate.
Ruth Hunt, director of public affairs for gay rights campaigners Stonewall, said: “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.”
The Rev Colin Coward, director of the Changing Attitude group, which campaigns for the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people in the Church, said the statement “will be laughed at by the majority in this country,” and added that insisting on celibacy was wrong.
The Rev Ian Stubbs from Glossop, Derbyshire, cautiously welcomed the moved but said his view was “mixed”.
“I still find it strange that a group of people, about 40 men which will include some gay men, have decided that people can be in a partnership but not express their loving relationships sexually. It’s mixed for me,” he said.
The church has been split on the issue since 2003 when Dr Jeffrey John (left) sought to become Bishop of Reading
Christina Rees, a member of the Synod and the Archbishops’ Council, said it was “good news” for gay male clergy, but highlighted the continuing lack of female bishops.
‘Wisdom of the age’
Norman Russell, the Archdeacon of Berkshire, said the issue of homosexuality and the Church is part of a much wider cultural debate.
“There’s a challenge between what one might describe as the ‘wisdom of the ages’, which in our case is what comes to us from Judo-Christian tradition and on the other hand what we might describe as the passing wisdom of the age.
“The Church has clearly got to engage with the culture in which we’re set, but at the same time is has got to bear witness to a wisdom which is intergenerational,” he told the BBC.
Conservative evangelicals denounced the concession outright and insisted that few people believed clergy in civil partnerships were genuinely celibate.
In a statement, Michael Lawson, chairman of the Evangelical Council of the Church of England, a traditionalist group which promotes Church heritage, said: “At the very least [it] will spread confusion and at worst will be taken as an effort to conform to the spirit of the age.”
And the Reverend Rod Thomas, a spokesman for Reform, an evangelical network which also pushes for the Church of England to be more traditional, said: “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.
“Although the Church says they would be required to declare that they are celibate as part of their appointment, the fact is that this is unenforceable.”
Meanwhile, Canon Chris Sugden from Anglican Mainstream said: “Since a decision to move from the current position would be a grave departure from the Church’s doctrine and discipline; it should be made by Bishops in Synod not by Bishops alone.
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