(Photo: Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly)
The law change approved by the Church of England at the turn of the year that allows gay clergy to be considered for consecration will be put to a test by a legal briefing sent out to General Synod members that says priests in civil partnerships will have to prove to archbishops that they are not in a sexually active relationship.
"To be admitted to Holy Orders a person must be 'of virtuous conversation and good repute and such as to be a wholesome example and pattern to the flock of Christ,' the Legal Office document sent in June reads. "Once in Holy Orders a cleric must be diligent to frame and fashion his life and that of his family according to the doctrine of Christ and to make himself and them, as much as in him lies, wholesome examples and patterns to the flock of Christ."
The legal briefing reminds Church of England members that a clergy's sexual orientation is "irrelevant to their suitability for episcopal office" and that it should not be taken into account when considering nominations for the position.
However, the document points to several resolutions and statements that "make it clear that someone in a sexually active relationship outside marriage is not eligible for the episcopate or, indeed, other ordained ministry."
It also goes on to explain that before a priest in a civil partnership can be considered for episcopal nomination, "the archbishop of the province in which he is serving will wish to satisfy himself, following discussions between the diocesan bishop and the clergyman concerned, that his life is, and will remain, consistent with the teaching of the Church of England."
The decision to lift the ban on gay clergy from becoming bishops was met by strong opposition from conservative Anglicans.
The Rev. Rod Thomas, chairman of the evangelical group called Reform, argued that problems may arise in Anglican churches outside the U.K., where priests would not be comfortable serving under a bishop who is openly gay.
"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," the Thomas said, also noting that the celibacy requirement would be very hard to enforce.
"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," he added.
The Rt. Rev. Graham James, bishop of Norwich, meanwhile, argued that it would be "unjust" for the Church of England to exclude from consideration for the episcopate priests who regardless of their sexual orientation lived in full accordance to Christ's teachings.
The Telegraph noted that gay rights campaigners have also been unhappy with the policy, questioning how archbishops plan to police it and make sure that gay clergy in civil partnerships are indeed living a celibate life.