The Church of England at its General Synod meeting in York this week voted that the church's present policy on homosexuality was "not the last word on the subject".

The Church's current policy is expressed in a bishops' statement of 1991 that homosexual relationships are acceptable for laity but not for clergy. The ruling general synod, meeting in York this week voted heavily in favour of requesting further discussion on the issue of human sexuality by clergy and congregations across the country.

The decision was welcomed by gay rights supporters. It dismayed opponents of the ordination of practising homosexuals. Leading figures in the church, however, claimed that the vote was simply a call for further study and reflection.

During the debate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd George Carey - who spoke out against "sexual activity outside marriage" - put the issue of homosexuality centre stage in the worldwide Anglican Communion. He announced that next year's Lambeth conference - the ten yearly meeting of Anglican bishops worldwide - would be asked to set up an international commission of inquiry into human sexuality.

The general synod was not required to vote on the proposal for an international commission, but supporters of gay rights believe that it will strengthen their position inside the Church of England.

A delighted Richard Kirker, general secretary of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement, told ENI: "It's game, set and match to us. I didn't predict and wouldn't have predicted that synod would vote as it did.

"We floated the idea of an international commission two years ago. It has the seeds of being helpful, but it will need among its members self-affirming lesbians and gays, not homosexuals who play the establishment's game by denying their identity."

However, leading figures in the church maintained that the motion was simply a call for further study and reflection. The Bishop of Oxford, Richard Harries, said the motion was neither pro- nor anti-gay.

Archbishop Carey said: "I do not share the assumption that it is only a matter of time before the Church will change its mind."

He declared: "I do not find any justification, from the Bible or the entire Christian tradition, for sexual activity outside marriage. Thus, same-sex relationships in my view cannot be on a par with marriage."

After amendments by traditionalists had been lost, the core motion to refer the issue of human sexuality for further discussions in the country was passed by all three houses of the synod: bishops 44-0; clergy 186-38; laity 150-88.

Before the vote the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement released the results of a survey that claimed 19 serving or retired Church of England bishops had knowingly ordained practising homosexuals.