Thursday, 7 April 2011

Unexpected item in the bagging area

I think that what most disturbs me about supermarket self-checkout machines is that for most Anglicans, they have replaced Holy Communion as the primary routine liturgy. The self-checkout machine, like the communion rail, is to be approached meekly bending: the scanner traditionally operated in a half standing position, but at such a height that kneeling would be more feasible, were it socially acceptable.

The act of communion has always been a great leveller, both between churches and within them. The stripped pine, plain glass, jeans-and-jumpers evangelicals might turn their noses up at the incense and Gothic arches of the high church up the road; their aisles might even contain more people than candles; but even there, the chalice will be silver, not styrofoam, and nobody receives the Body and Blood of Christ sitting on a bean bag. In Sainsburys, your basket might contain quails' eggs and radicchio; mine a teetering balance of Quavers and Irn Bru; but we will get no unequal treatment from the touch sensitive screen.

Unlike the queue for the manned tills, the queue for the self-checkout machines is the place for last minute spiritual and mental reflection. Are my items in a fit state to pass before the scanner? Do I have any wayward loose vegetables that need to be accounted for on the special menu? Is my artisan loaf really what I think it is? because this, too, is a private test of honesty. The security guard won't notice if I enter a Poilâne as a Pain Rustique, but in the end, no spiritual shoplifter goes unprosecuted by the Good Shepherd. Yet as with the Blessed Sacrament, physical considerations intrude. Where is my vacant spot likely to open up? Which way will I turn to exit, and how can I do this while avoiding an embarrassing collision with those still waiting their turn?

In the busier establishments, we may be directed on our way by polite sidesmen: but when our time comes, each of us must stand, and scan, alone. Our hands and eyes move in union with the never-changing instructions, until the mystery of faith is transacted.

Please take your change
Please take your items

And it is in this season of Lent that the contrast stings the most. As we prepare for Easter, the aisle is dressed not with sackcloth but with Cadbury's Creme Eggs, already in their purples and golds. We are tempted as Christ would have been, had he spent his forty days and forty nights in the Goodge Street Tesco's.

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