LONDON — The Church of England said Friday that it will allow gay men to become bishops, putting it closer to its sister Episcopal Church in the United States but at odds with many conservatives in the worldwide Anglican Communion.
The House of Bishops put out a statement confirming that gay clergy in civil partnerships will be eligible for appointment as bishops, if they remain celibate. The announcement followed a working group’s review of Church of England rules governing civil partnerships.
In July 2011, the House of Bishops announced a review of a statement published six years earlier, which allowed for clergy to be in civil partnerships but effectively put a moratorium on gay bishops. After the review, the group of bishops decided that “clergy in civil partnerships and in accordance with the teaching of the Church on human sexuality, can be considered as candidates for the episcopate,” the Rev. Graham Jones, bishop of Norwich, said in a statement Friday.
No immediate nomination of a gay bishop is planned, Jones said in a BBC interview.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean there will be an appointment of such a priest soon because everyone undergoes a very searching examination of their personal family circumstances and the level of public scrutiny of a bishop’s life is very high,” he said.
The move is seen by many as divisive, further alienating conservative Anglicans hostile to the appointment of gay clergy. In 2003, a gay bishop, Rev. John Jeffries, who had been appointed by the outgoing archbishop of Canterbury, was forced to step down from his appointment as bishop after protests from Anglican traditionalists.
That reversal came under Archbishop Rowan Williams, who led the church from 2002 until his retirement last month. As head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, Williams also clashed with the Episcopal Church in the United States over its election of Mary Glasspool, who is openly gay, as a bishop of Los Angeles in 2009. At the time Williams said Glasspool’s election “raised very serious questions, not just for the Episcopal Church and its place in the Anglican Communion, but for the Communion as a whole.”
Justin Welby, bishop of Durham, has been named as Williams’ successor, although he has not formally taken office yet as archbishop of Canterbury.
While conservatives will be outraged by the move to seat gay bishops, progressives and many mainstream Anglicans are still angered by the failure of the recent annual Church of England Synod vote to pass a motion allowing women to become bishops. New legislation on women bishops must now be redrafted by the House of Bishops and put before the Synod in the summer.
“Problems won’t go away,” Jones acknowledged, but “what we’ve concluded is that it would be unjust not to consider someone for the episcopate who was living faithfully according to the teaching of the church.”
The celibacy issue, he said, was “an assurance that the priest is in a civil partnership according to the teaching of the church. It isn’t to do with promises of celibacy or repentance for past relationships, it’s much more to do with loyalty to the Church’s teaching.”