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Terence Blacker: The new, popular Christianity

Dramatic public events can point up what was previously unnoticed, and so it has been with the sad story of Fabrice Muamba. Playing in a live, televised FA Cup quarter-final, the talented and popular 23-year-old collapsed with a cardiac arrest. At the time of writing, he remains in a critical condition.

Football is an emotional game, and Muamba's story – he came to the UK, aged 11, as a refugee from Zaire – has added poignancy to what happened last weekend. The strength of public sympathy has not been the slightest bit surprising, but the manner of it has. It has seemed that everyone who has commented – manager, players, fans – has felt the need to ask us all to pray. Coverage reflected the same message. The front-page headline in Monday's Sun read simply: "God is in control".

At a moment of crisis, an old-fashioned kind of religion has taken centre-stage. For those of us who are non-believers, this instinctive turning to the heavens is startling. It was only last month that Baroness Warsi was warning of "aggressive secularism" being imposed on Britain. We are for ever being reminded of our culture's crisis of faith, not least by the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

Members of the Crown Nomination Commission whose job it is to find a successor to Dr Williams would be wise to bear in mind the Muamba effect. It has confirmed the growing distance between the kind of Christianity embodied by the archbishop – thoughtful, politically engaged, somewhat anguished and uncertain – and that which appeals to hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of people.

For them, nothing else is certain in our world. The Labour Party loves big business. The Conservatives have abandoned the countryside. No one can be relied upon, least of all those in charge of our country, our money or our news. In this maelstrom of moral confusion, there is a yearning for certainty which is supplied not by a vague and changing sense of goodness, but by someone up in the sky, in control, looking after each of us, in a stern but just manner. It is this traditional God who is increasingly evident in the way people behave. At a football match, players cross themselves for Him as they run on to the pitch, or pray to Him when one of their number is fighting for his life.

That kind of faith offers strength precisely because it allows no room for doubt or change. It offers a strong conservative perspective on contemporary life, and is impatient with moral relativism or vapid intellectualising. In that sense, it is not unlike a tabloid newspaper.

Presumably, it was for that reason that John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, not only signed up for The Sun on Sunday, but closed his opening column with the unequivocal marketing message: "Live in hope, free from fear, and embrace every day that God puts before you with confidence. And if you can buy The Sun seven days a week, all the better!"

Scrupulous, liberal-minded types – Dr Williams, Nick Clegg, you and me – might shudder at the vulgarity of a senior cleric so eagerly promoting Mr Murdoch's wares, but it is entirely consistent with a kind of Christianity rarely articulated on Radio 4 or in the broadsheets, but much in evidence last weekend. The idea of a traditionalist such as Dr Sentamu becoming the head of the Church of England may be alarming for many of us; the US has shown the powerful and illiberal political effect that old-time religion can have. All the same, the evidence of the past few days suggests that, if the Church is to return to the centre of national life, it will be through the passion, emotion and tradition of faith, rather than through its moral relevance.