Gay clergy in civil partnerships will be allowed to become bishops if they are sexually abstinent, according to new policy

The Church of England has agreed that gay clergy in civil partnerships can become bishops so long as they remain sexually abstinent, a decision that looks set to reopen one of the church's most bitter internal debates.

The decision was taken in mid-December by the House of Bishops, the section of the General Synod which is responsible for church teaching.

A summary of the meeting was placed on the church's website on 20 December but the change to policy was buried within the text.

The statement notes that House of Bishops members had considered an interim report from a group led by Sir Joseph Pilling, a retired civil servant commissioned early last year to look into the church's attitudes to sexuality.

While the bishops said they would not issue more guidance on civil partnerships before the final report, they indicated that being in a civil partnership was not necessarily a bar to becoming a bishop.

The summary read: "[The House of Bishops] confirmed that the requirements in the 2005 statement concerning the eligibility for ordination of those in civil partnerships whose relationships are consistent with the teaching of the Church of England apply equally in relation to the episcopate."

The 2005 document gave guidance for clergy, for example if they were asked to bless civil partnerships, which had come into being the previous year. It also stated that the House of Bishops did not see being in a civil partnership as "intrinsically incompatible with holy orders" provided those concerned could give assurances the relationship was not sexually active. However, the 2005 statement did not extend this to bishops.

The Rev Colin Coward, director of Changing Attitude, a group which campaigns for the church to fully accept gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, said he gave the news a "guarded welcome", in that it was significant but unlikely to see a rush of gay bishops.

"I don't trust what they have said," Coward said. "I don't believe they are serious about opening the door to someone in a civil partnership becoming a bishop. I would only believe they are serious when it happens."

© Guardian News and Media 2013