ROEHAMPTON, England—Rev. Mandy Beck, an Anglican priest, is on the lookout for lost souls among the loaves and frozen fish.
Bringing Christianity to the aisles of an Asda superstore, a British chain owned by Wal-Mart, isn't exactly missionary work, but it's close.
London congregation, admits she probably hasn't won any converts in the year she has been serving in Asda's store chaplaincy program.
"But I have probably had more serious religious conversations here than I have had in my church," she said. "People seem to feel comfortable here. They'll come up and start talking to you about their struggles with suffering or death."
In a country where some experts have declared Christianity to be in a state of terminal decline, Asda's 7-year-old store chaplaincy program is a rare example of the church in the public square.
Britain and America share a common culture and language, but when it comes to God and "values," the gap is wider than the ocean.
`We don't do God'
In the U.S., President Bush lets it be known that he prays regularly. When British Prime Minister Tony Blair even hints at prayer, he is taken to task. Blair's top political adviser, Alistair Campbell, once reminded him: "We don't do God."
The difference in approach is not surprising. According to post-election surveys, 63 percent of those who voted for Bush say they go to church weekly, compared with just 10 percent among Blair voters. The so-called values gap is just as wide: 69 percent of Bush voters believe there should be no legal recognition of gay marriage; only 23 percent of Blair's supporters oppose gay marriage.
In the 2001 census, 72 percent of the British population identified itself as Christian, but just 8 percent regularly attend church services.
The reason for this huge discrepancy, according to Heather Wraight of Christian Research, a London organization, is that most Britons tend to see "Christian" more as "an expression of Englishness or Britishness" rather than an expression of faith.
"People ticked the `Christian' box as a way of saying `I am white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant, and I want to affirm that,'" she said.
The Church of England, the country's largest denomination, is regarded by many as a kind of benign national joke. A retired leader, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, has likened his church to a doddering old lady "who mutters away to herself in a corner, ignored most of the time."
Britain's iconic cathedrals are now museums, ministering to tourists rather than souls. Many churches are empty and falling into disrepair--a burden on church coffers. Some have been deconsecrated and converted into apartments, pubs and, in one case, a training academy for circus performers. Critics say the Church of England is so loosey-goosey on doctrine that one scarcely has to believe in God to belong.
Today, the worldwide Anglican Communion is facing a possible schism over the election of a gay bishop by American Episcopalians--a move opposed by Anglican conservatives, especially in Third World countries.
The real crisis, however, is in the numbers. The 8 percent of British Christians who go to church is projected to fall to 2 percent by 2040, according to a new study by Christian Research. When that happens, two-thirds of the practicing Christians in Britain will be over 65 and easily outnumbered by practicing Muslims.
"Britain is showing the world how religion as we have known it can die," said Callum Brown, a historian at the University of Dundee in Scotland.
The Church of England is not alone. Mainline Protestant churches in the U.S. also are struggling with declining membership. But in the U.S., a lot of the slack has been picked up by evangelicals.
Evangelical churches in Britain are growing too, especially among minority groups, but the numbers are minuscule and not nearly sufficient to offset the losses among mainline denominations.