Leading article: The bishop is embracing a lost cause

Ear-splitting rows are part of the warp and woof of the Church of England – the price paid for a Church that has always claimed to be national and inclusive rather than dogmatic.

Claims that the Bishop of Rochester's dramatic call for homosexuals to "repent" marks a milestone towards a formal divorce in the Church between liberals and evangelicals, therefore, must be approached with caution. In many ways, the battle fought in the Church today over same-sex relations is still far more decorous and charitable than most of the Anglicans' earlier feuds.

In the 19th century, evangelicals engaged in pitched battles with High Church "ritualist" opponents in London churches, using stones and cudgels. There is no sign yet of Dr Nazir-Ali or his supporters resorting to such tactics with gay or outspokenly pro-gay vicars.

History suggests that almost every generation throws up a symbolic issue that conservative Christians then seize on as the ultimate challenge to tradition and orthodoxy. "No pasaran!" they declare: "They shall not pass!"

Yet even the most conservative Anglicans today would probably be embarrassed to revisit those lost battles. How many want to maintain now, as did their ancestors, that the world was created in seven days or the Pope was the anti-Christ? Little more than a century ago such beliefs were perfectly normal in the Church of England. Now they appear ludicrous.

Some conservative Christians no doubt believe they are on safer ground in sounding the tocsin against the monstrous regiment of homosexuals, partly because a large proportion of society remains homophobic. They know that many socially conservative people who would not dream of going to church will, nevertheless, lend noisy approval to such a campaign.

They need to be careful. Society is changing fast in its understanding of the workings of the human heart. "Out" gay cabinet ministers would have been inconceivable a few years ago, as would the presence of a prime minister's wife at Gay Pride. Conservative Christians like Dr Nazir-Ali, in other words, need to think twice before embracing a cause that only embarrasses future generations of believers.