LONDON (Reuters) - The Church of England has lifted a ban on gay male clergy who live with their partners from becoming bishops on condition they pledge to stay celibate, threatening to reignite an issue that splits the 80-million-strong global Anglican community.
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 U.S. Anglicans in the Episcopal Church appointed an openly gay man as a bishop in 2003.
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 said the House of Bishops, one of its most senior bodies, had ended an 18-month moratorium on the appointment of gays in civil partnerships as bishops.
The decision was made in late December but received little attention until the church confirmed it on Friday.
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 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," the Bishop of Norwich Graham James said.
"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 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 a clerical position, provided the clergy remained celibate, but failed to specifically address the issue of when the appointment was of a bishop.
In July 2011 the church launched a review to deal with this omission, at the same time imposing the moratorium on nominating gays in such partnerships as bishops while the study was conducted.
The review came a year after a gay cleric living in a civil partnership was reportedly blocked from becoming a bishop in south London.
It was the second setback for the cleric, Jeffrey John, who would already have become a bishop in 2003 but was forced to withdraw from the nomination after an outcry from church conservatives.
Rod Thomas, chairman of the conservative evangelical group Reform, said the church's move on gay bishops would provoke further dispute.
"It will be much more divisive than what we have seen over women bishops. If you thought that was a furore, wait to see what will happen the first time a bishop in a civil partnership is appointed," he told BBC television.
(Editing by Tom Pfeiffer)