Colin Coward, left, welcomes Bishop Gene Robinson in November 2005 (BBC News)

A report claiming at least 51 priests are in same-sex civil partnerships will confront the Church of England at two major upcoming meetings.

The figures, which include four lesbian priests, come from a homosexual-rights group comprised of church members called Changing Attitude, the Times of London reported.

“Civil partnerships have helped to increase the stability of same-sex relationships and reduced the social exclusion to which lesbian and gay people are often subjected,” said the group’s director, Colin Coward.

But next month, proponents of homosexuals in the clergy will face two significant challenges. Traditionalists say they will force an open debate at the General Synod meeting. And in Tanzania, Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, likely will face criticism from leaders of the worldwide Anglican Communion, to which the Church of England belongs. In the U.S., the Anglican Communion is represented by the Episcopal Church

The summit in Africa, in fact, was called to address division in the church caused by the ordination of Episcopal homosexual priest Gene Robinson as bishop of New Hampshire in 2003. The rift over homosexuality, however, has been a major issue for more than three decades, reflecting a deeper divide over biblical orthodoxy.

Church of England bishops have been criticized for not enforcing a church policy requiring homosexual clergy to be celibate before entering into any civil partnership, the Times reported.

“Many of these people have defied the guidance,” said George Curry, chairman of the Church Society, the oldest evangelical organization in the Church of England. “These are men and women who are in active sexual relationships. These figures expose the bishops’ failure of leadership.”

Among the prominent church leaders in civil partnerships is Canon Jeremy Davies, worship leader at Salisbury Cathedral, who is with an opera singer, Simon McEnery.

Paul Collier, a chaplain at Goldsmiths College, London, said he received little questioning from his bishop before entering into a civil partnership with his companion of seven years.

Collier said Christopher Chessun, bishop of Woolwich, wanted him to acknowledge the policy of the bishops but did not inquire about the nature of his relationship.

“We didn’t go into any great detail about that,” Collier said, according to the London paper.

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