The Church of England has lifted a ban on gay male clergy who live with their partners from becoming bishops on the condition they pledge to stay celibate, threatening to reignite an issue that splits the 80-million-strong global Anglican community.
One of the church's most senior bodies, the House of Bishops, said on Friday it had ended an 18-month moratorium on the appointment of gays in civil partnerships as bishops.
"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," Graham James, the Bishop of Norwich, said.
The decision was made in late December but received little attention until the church confirmed it on Friday.
"The House believed it would be unjust to exclude from consideration for the episcopate anyone seeking to live fully in conformity with the Church's teaching on sexual ethics or other areas of personal life and discipline," he added in a statement on behalf of the House of Bishops.
The issue of homosexuality has driven a rift between Western and African Anglicans since a Canadian diocese approved blessings for same-sex couples in 2002 and US Anglicans in the Episcopal Church appointed an openly gay man as bishop in 2003.
Gay clergy in civil partnerships would be eligible for the episcopate - the position of bishop - if they make the pledge to remain celibate, as is already the case for gay deacons and priests.
The Church of England, struggling to remain relevant in modern Britain despite falling numbers of believers, is already under pressure after voting narrowly last November to maintain a ban on women becoming bishops.
The church teaches that couples can only have sex within marriage, and that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.
Britain legalised civil partnerships in 2005, forcing the church to consider how to treat clergy living in same-sex unions.
The church ruled that a civil partnership was not a bar to clerical position, provided the clergy remained celibate, but failed to specifically address the issue of when the appointment was a bishop until Friday.