The Church of England has decided to drop its ban on gay clergy in civil partnerships seeking to become bishops, as long as they make a promise to remain celibate. Conservative Anglicans, however, insist celibacy would be difficult to enforce, noting that the decision undermines church doctrine on marriage.
"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. There had been a moratorium on such candidates for the past year and a half while the working party completed its task," the Right Rev. Graham James, Bishop of Norwich, said in a statement on Jan. 4 on behalf of the House of Bishops of the Church of England.
The Rev. James added that the House has deemed it would be "unjust" to exclude from consideration for the episcopate anyone who lives their lives in full accordance with the Church's teachings on sexual ethics and personal 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. 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 Bishop of Norwich affirmed.
Conservative evangelical Anglicans, however, have said that they will seek to overturn this decision in the Church's ruling general synod, BBC News shared.
The Rev. Rod Thomas, chairman of the evangelical group called Reform, said that some problems that may arise with such a decision, especially outside the U.K., concern Anglican priests who would be uncomfortable 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 Rev. Thomas said, adding 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.
Canon Chris Sugden from Anglican Mainstream also noted that a larger vote needs to be held on the issue, rather than the House of Bishops forcing the change.
"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. Otherwise it looks too much like salami-slicing away at the Church's teaching," Sugden said.
The worldwide Anglican Communion remains divided over issues relating to gays and lesbians in general. The Church of England has held firm in its opposition to U.K. government plans to change the legal definition of marriage between one man and one woman and pave the way for same-sex marriage, but it has defended the rights of gay people who remain celibate to serve in the clergy – and now even as bishops, as the House of Bishops announced. This does not sit well with Anglican churches in Africa, however, where conservative attitudes are more prevalent, and where the denomination has been experiencing growth.
In November, the Church of England narrowly rejected a motion that would have allowed women to serve as bishops in the Anglican Communion, a result that was seen as a victory for conservatives, but met with notable disappointment both by the Rev. Rowan Williams, the church's outgoing leader, and by Bishop Justin Welby, Williams' successor. A new vote on women bishops is likely to be years away, but Welby has expressed confidence that the change will come within his time as leader of the Anglican Communion.