The Church of England (COfE) has dropped its prohibition on gay clergy becoming bishops, so long as they are in celibate or in celibate civil partnerships.

The announcement, from the church’s House of Bishops, would allow clergy in civil partnerships to become bishops if they promised to be celibate.

The decision to allow bishops in civil partnerships was actually made on 20 December 2012 – but has only now been reported.

A Church of England spokesman told PinkNews.co.uk: “There technically has never been a ban on gay bishops, what there was an issue on was bishops in civil partnerships.”

He explained that it was only when clergy entered into civil partnerships that their sexuality becomes a public issue. Single gay bishops must also be celibate.

When civil partnerships were introduced in 2005, the Church of England said that it would allow clergy to enter into partnerships because they were explicitly not termed marriages.

By not being marriages, gay clergy would not be allowed to have sexual intercourse with their partner, as sex outside of marriage is against church teachings.

In a statement at the time, the church said that civil partnerships were “not predicated on the intention to engage in a sexual relationship.”

It went on to say: “The House of Bishops does not regard entering into civil partnership as intrinsically incompatible with holy orders, provided the person concerned is willing to give assurances to his or her bishop that the relationship is consistent with the standards for the clergy set out in Issues in Human Sexuality.”

In 2005, no mention was made of bishops and one candidate to be a bishop, the dean of St Albans, Dr Jeffrey John – a gay man in a celibate civil partnership – has been twice in line to become a bishop only to see his appointment repeatedly rejected amid outrage from social conservatives. He is reported to have considered legal action against the church.

But in 2011, the House of Bishops ruled that no further candidates in civil partnerships for the post of bishop should be considered while a review of the position was made.

Late last December, the House of Bishops met and said that the 2005 position of allowing clergy to be in celibate civil partnerships would apply to bishops too.

In November, the Bishop of Durham Justin Welby, appointed to succeed Dr Rowan Williams as the new Archbishop of Canterbury, said the Church of England must have “no truck with any form of homophobia”.

Although Dr Welby has previously stated his opposition to equal marriage and the ordination of gay bishops, in a speech made at Lambeth Palace, Dr Welby signalled that he was willing to engage on LGBT issues.

In July of last year, Dr John talked of his sadness in an Out4Marriage video at the COfE’s refusal to support the government’s position on marriage equality.

PinkNews.co.uk has been told that Dr John’s office has been “inundated” with calls from the media.

However, he cannot issue a comment because Dr John is currently on holiday.

Reverend Colin Coward, of Changing Attitudes, that campaigns for gay people’s rights in the church told the Huffington Post UK, there may not be “serious intent” in the announcement.

“It’s nominally good news but I don’t trust it,” he said. “I don’t believe that there is serious intent in the announcement and I won’t until the moment when somebody who is in a civil partnership is appointed as a bishop.

“The good news could be that there is positive intent and it is designed to enable Jeffery John to be appointed. But my overall impression is that there has been deliberate obstruction in the announcement.”

The human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: “”The announcement that gay clergy in civil partnerships will no longer be barred from appointment as bishops is a welcome move towards greater equality within the church. However, the restriction that they can be only appointed if they remain celibate is continued discrimination. Many are in loving, stable, long-term same-sex relationships that are akin to marriage. The church should welcome love, fidelity and commitment, regardless of whether its bishops are heterosexual or homosexual.

“This new policy did not exist when Jeffrey John was barred from becoming a bishop. Hopefully, the way is now clear for his appointment. His exclusion was a grave injustice against an outstanding theologian,” said Mr Tatchell.”