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The Church of England has announced that it is open to appointing gay men in civil partnerships as bishops, as long as their gay union is “celibate.” The decision came on the heels of an equally controversial decision in November 2012 that the church would not approve women as bishops. The worldwide Anglican communion has struggled with the issue of homosexuality for a decade, starting with the 2003 election of the openly gay priest Gene Robinson as the bishop of New Hampshire.
Observers see England’s new policy as a response to the case of Rev. Jeffrey John, a gay priest also nominated in 2003 to serve as the Bishop of Reading. John withdrew his candidacy because of the controversy his appointment created. In 2006, John and his longtime partner entered a civil union, although John has maintained that their relationship is not sexual. As reported by The Guardian, John said of the new policy that “if it is genuinely true that all levels of ordained ministry are now more open to gay people than they were before, then this is a very good thing.” But Rev. Colin Coward, director of Changing Attitude, a group that advocates for inclusion of gays in the Anglican Church, is not convinced, saying that he could not envision any homosexual, aside perhaps from Jeffrey John, actually becoming a bishop. “I would only believe they are serious when it happens,” Coward says.
Traditional Anglicans within Britain and elsewhere expressed outrage at the decision, arguing that it represents yet another departure from biblical teaching by the church. Nicholas Okoh, archbishop of the Anglican Church of Nigeria, says this move “could very well shatter whatever hopes we had for healing and reconciliation within our beloved communion.” Approving bishops who are in “at best, morally ambiguous partnerships,” undercuts their ability to serve as moral examples, Okoh contends. He characterizes the compromise on celibacy as “unworkable and unenforceable,” noting that the policy makes Nigeria’s final separation from the English church more likely. With about 21 million active members, the fast-growing Church of Nigeria is the largest section of the Anglican communion worldwide. By contrast, the Church of England has just over 1 million practicing members.
Another religious controversy in England concerns future royal weddings, and whether members of the royal family can marry Catholics. A 1701 law banned such marriages, but now Prime Minister David Cameron wants to change the rule, as well as one which stipulates that even if a female is first in line to the throne, she has to yield to any male siblings. The succession issue has come to the fore with Prince William and Kate Middleton expecting their first child this summer.
In the religiously charged environment following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Britain prohibited royals from marrying Catholics in order to keep the throne in Protestant hands. But such rules seem antiquated to critics in the increasingly secular nation. Nevertheless, the Church of England remains established by law, and among the monarch’s largely ceremonial duties is serving as the “Supreme Governor” of the church. Therefore, the king or queen of England has to be an Anglican. But if a future royal marries a Catholic, the couple must raise their children as Catholics, too, according to that church’s teaching.
Prince Charles, in line to succeed the 86-year-old Queen Elizabeth II, has made it clear that he opposes the change, because it could eventually create a constitutional crisis in which a Catholic would become king or queen—and the head of the national church.