Gay rights groups celebrated while conservative and evangelical bodies criticized the first wave of civil unions that took place across the United Kingdom this week. However, for the Anglican Communion, a global body already struggling over internal divides over homosexuality, the legal recognition of gay relationships is bringing on new challenges on how to handle the question of gay clergy.
The Anglican Communion, like most other church bodies around the world, prohibits the ordination of sexually active gay ministers and forbids its leaders from partaking in or overseeing gay marriage ceremonies. But according to figures from the Rev. Andrew Linzey, editor of the book Gays and the Future of Anglicanism, nearly one third of all employees of the Church of England are gay.
Many of these gay ministers, who under church law are required to remain celibate, are expected to join the tide of gay and lesbian couples in tying the knot and confirming their union before the state.
One such minister is the Rev. David Page, head of an Anglican congregation in south London. The 57-year-old vicar will legalize his relationship with his male partner in a civil ceremony in just a few weeks, according to the Boston Globe.
While he is allowed to enter into such a partnership, Page will still be expected to abstain from having sexual relations. Furthermore, under a new Church of England law, bishops could ask him whether he is abiding by the standards.
''I wouldn't give any assurances to anybody about that," said Page, when asked by the Boston Globe on what he would say if his bishop were to ask him if he was following church guidelines. ''But I don't expect to be asked."
Homosexuality has divided the Anglican Communion for decades, but the ordination of an openly gay priest as bishop of the diocese of New Hampshire in 2003 catapulted the issue to the fore. Following an immediate explosion of criticism from the more conservative Anglicans in the Southern hemisphere, the global body issued a study that scolded the Episcopal Church USA for its actions.
In England, which is the seedbed of Anglicanism, the House of Bishops released a separate statement on civil partnerships. The July statement said that gay clergy should be prepared to give assurances that they would abide by the standards enlisted in a document entitled Human Sexuality, which affirms that sexual activity should only take place within heterosexual marriage.
According to Linzey, not all bishops will be following through with the directive, leaving the denomination in a vexing situation.
''The big problem with the statement on civil unions is that the bishops are now supposed to ask," he said to the Boston Globe. ''Bishops are going to find it very uncomfortable asking clergy what they do in bed."