Gay clergy will be allowed to become bishops if they are in civil partnerships and promise to be celibate, the Church of England has announced.
In a statement on behalf of the House of Bishops he said: "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 decision has provoked an angry response from traditionalists in the Church of England who say the move is "divisive" and "a worrying development".
Those in civil partnerships who promised to remain celibate are already allowed to become clergy, but the decision made by the House of Bishops last month extends this to bishops.
The issue of homosexual bishops has caused a rift in the church since 2003 after Dr Jeffrey John, who was openly in a gay relationship, was appointed Bishop of Reading.
Despite stating that his 27-year relationship with the Revd Grant Holmes was celibate, he was criticised by some in the church because it was felt he had not publicly repented his past sexual activities.
Dr John, currently Dean of St Albans, stepped down from the role after considerable pressure.
Welcoming the new announcement, Peter Tatchell, the gay human rights campaigner, said: "Any move to lift the ban on gay bishops in civil partnerships is a welcome move towards greater equality within the church."
He added: "I hope this means the way is now open for Jeffrey John to be appointed as a bishop."
Ruth Hunt, director of public affairs for gay rights campaigners Stonewall, said: "We're sure many Anglicans will be happy to hear of the Church's latest epiphany on gay clergy, although many lesbians will be disappointed that they remain unable to serve as bishops.”
But others are against the move. Rev Rod Thomas, of the Church's evangelical network, Reform, said: "If someone were to be appointed who was in a civil partnership, that would be a very divisive step, both within England and across the Anglican Communion.”
"Although the Church says they would be required to declare that they are celibate as part of their appointment, the fact is that this is unenforceable.
He said: "To appoint someone in a civil partnership as a bishop would be seen by the world at large as appointing someone who is in an active gay relationship, and undermine the Church's teaching on the exclusiveness of sex within marriage."
The decision comes after the General Synod controversially rejected proposals to allow women bishops in November.