There is no denying that the medical research industry is a major part of the UK economy, and we are all the beneficiaries of the wealth it brings. Nevertheless, it would be wise to consider more carefully the nature and extent of those advantages, and whether they are not being won at too high a price.

Some of the research may result in medical benefits – new cures for old diseases – but this is not the principal motivation and purpose behind the Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill. Apart from ‘increasing the scope of legitimate embryo research activities’ (the official statement from the Office of the Leader of the House of Commons), it is also being put forward to ‘help maintain the UK’s position as a world leader in reproductive technologies and research’. All this is possible because of ‘technological advances and changes in public attitudes’.

The row over a free vote for Labour MPs maybe resolved in time for the next parliamentary reading in May, but even if it is – and satisfactorily – we are left with the unsettling question as to why the Government felt it to be so important to dismiss the conscientious convictions of its Christian members.

Every Member of Parliament must look to his or her conscience when voting, and many parliamentary votes will be whipped. ‘So what’s so special about this case?’ commented one Minister dismissively. There was a three-line whip for the Iraq war, so why not for embryo research? What is so special is the intensely personal nature of the understanding of a human person.

It is obvious that governments, and the parties that make up governments, have a responsibility for many areas of life that affect the human person; but party politics has, in a tolerant country such as England, held back from intruding too far into individuals’ lives, for not everything is a party issue. Until now. It is a regrettable and foolish move.

It is a matter not so much of moral principle, as of appreciation – an appreciation that it is not the role of government to make de facto judgements about the nature of the human person, and then impose that understanding upon all who share its wider political aims. Many things are proper tasks for political parties; many propositions are proper subjects for a party manifesto; but the definitions of life and personhood are not.

If Christians are to be excluded from government, because they cannot in conscience subscribe to these new definitions of human life, then this country as a whole will be the poorer for it. If men and women, guided by a rule of faith, have an appreciation of human worth that does not incorporate cross-species hybrids, even if they are wrong, their witness should neither be despised nor excluded, still less punished by exclusion from the realm of politics. The riches to be gained from maintaining ‘the UK’s position as a world leader in reproductive technologies and research’ are not worth this loss.

The relationship between the Archbishop of Canterbury and the press is proving something of a roller-coaster. After his lecture and radio comments on Sha-riah Law few, if any, journalists were prepared to defend him. He was almost universally attacked – as a ‘bearded leftie’ out of touch with public opinion.

But The Daily Telegraph, no less, recently applauded his Easter message, which condemned greed and aggressive affluence. It was, said a second leader, an example of precisely the moral and spiritual guidance which a churchman should be giving to the secular world of politics and business. The Archbishop was hailed as a man of intelligence and piety.

What are we to make of this volatility of opinion? It is surely proof, if proof were needed, that the place in our society of Christianity (and of the Church of England in particular) is fragile indeed. Most of us, Christians or otherwise, wish it were not; but know it to be so. The residual religion of Englishmen, it has been said, is that they are not Roman Catholics. This is rapidly changing.

It is not that Catholicism is becoming more acceptable, but that other Christians are becoming less so. ‘Britishness’, about which the Prime Minster is so concerned, is less and less likely to take seriously the religion from which it once derived its core values.

Small wonder, then, that the Archbishop is the whipping boy of every party, within and without the Church. There is no consensus from which he can speak, and no consensus to which he can speak. That is why Rowan -whether, at any particular point, you agree with him or not – is a person of major significance in our current dilemmas.

The Telegraph is right: his example of intelligence and piety is one that illuminates those dilemmas and renders all of us more able to face them with courage and honesty. In a world where politicians are increasingly regarded with a jaundiced cynicism he has a crucial role.