Clergyman swaps one aisle for another

SPIRITUAL enlightenment may not be what you are expecting to find in a local supermarket aisle, but an army of local clergy has taken to tending their flock from the shop floor.

SPIRITUAL enlightenment may not be what you are expecting to find in a local supermarket aisle, but an army of local clergy has taken to tending their flock from the shop floor.

For three years now Father Paul Bourner has been looking after the spiritual welfare of shoppers in search of something more than a tin of baked beans at Asda superstore in Goddard Road, Ipswich.

He is one of around 160 clergy of all faiths who has been recruited by the supermarket giants at stores up and down the country to provide a listening ear for shoppers and staff seeking pastoral guidance.

The recruitment of the supermarket chaplains has been very much a gradual, grass-roots exercise, and started at a store in Bexley Heath seven years ago, the company explained.

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“It's not religion being rammed down your throat - it's quite the reverse really,” explained Asda spokesperson Ed Watson.

“It's actually putting something back into the community itself really, so that's basically why the stores have started to adopt chaplains.”

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The presence of a chaplain gives customers a chance to talk about everything from personal problems, to concerns about items in the news such as the war in Iraq, he said.

Around 13 million shoppers pass through Asda's doors nationwide every week, and the recruitment had “grown organically”, he said.

“The feedback we get is very, very positive indeed,” he said.

Father Paul, who was one of around 60 superstore chaplains to meet with Asda's chief executive at a special gathering at the stores HQ in Leeds last month , is available to shoppers and staff for a couple of hours every Sunday afternoon.

He sees it as a way of reaching people who are reluctant to cross the threshold of a church.

His church, St Thomas's, lies “just around the corner” in Bramford Lane, but he felt the need to make himself available at the supermarket.

He is given a desk near the cafeteria, and shoppers are informed of his presence over the tannoy system.

“The church is as much there as in my church,” he said. “I think the mission of the church is not confined to a building which we worship in on a Sunday.”

Staff and regulars knew him and shoppers responded well to his presence, he said.

“I think it's fringe ministry,” he said. “You can't go in there guns blazing and say: 'I'm the priest.'”

He has personal conversations with some shoppers and staff which were ongoing, and sees his role there as “a Christian presence”.

“I think most commonly people say, good for you, because you are here because the traditional church leaves most people out in the cold,” he said. “The church is a difficult building to enter into and become part of.”

And yes, occasionally he is asked where the frozen peas are.

“I think you've got to grit your teeth and say aisle 14 or whatever,” he said.

Although it is difficult to gauge what impact his presence has, the store's events co-ordinator Lorraine Bolt felt the initiative had gone “really well”.

“He's there if anyone wants to have a chat or whatever,” she said. “He's like part of the furniture now.”

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