In a historic and controversial move, the Episcopal Church in the USA, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, has voted to remove the bar on priests in monogamous same-sex relationships from becoming bishops.
The decision has provoked jubilation in some quarters, outrage in others and dire warnings of church splits.
The resolution insisted that bishops in same-sex relationships should be “faithful, mutually respectful and loving”.
It was carried by a wide margin of support in both the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies, the Church’s two main decision-making bodies.
The vote overturns a three-year moratorium on bishops in same-sex relationships, to which the US Episcopalians agreed in an attempt to heal divisions within the Anglican Communion. Those divisions had intensified following the consecration of the openly gay Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.
However, despite the agreement, a number of Anglicans opposed to the inclusion of gay, lesbian and bisexual people in the Church have continued to campaign vigorously for Anglican Churches to take a harder line on the issue.
Critics were quick to condemn the American Episcopalians' decision. The Church of England’s Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, said that the vote “marks a clear break with the rest of the Anglican Communion”.
He rejected the notion that it was a matter of justice, saying that “Justice has never meant the right to give active expression to any and every sexual desire”.
Others were keen to point out that this is not what the US Church is endorsing.
The commentator Stephen Bates, author of A Church at War: Anglicans and Homosexuality, suggested that expressions of mutual commitment should be welcomed.
He pointed out that the Anglican Church “marries without question promiscuous heterosexuals, sometimes several times, and blesses pets and nuclear submarines without a qualm”.
However, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said “I regret the fact that there is no will to observe the moratorium in such a significant part of the church in North America”.
The Church of England itself has recently faced increased division over sexuality and inclusion, with anti-inclusion hardliners launching the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans earlier this month.