What do we think about this?
When it comes to Sunday, I am not a sabbatarian. For one thing, it isn’t the sabbath (which is Saturday, the seventh day). For another, there’s no evidence from the New Testament that the early church transferred the Jewish sabbath to the first day of the week, the day of resurrection. They seemed to have believed that sabbath observance belonged to the ceremonial law of the Hebrew Bible and like circumcision, should not be imposed on gentile Christians. Strict sabbatarianism of the kind you get in the Hebrides is, I think, a misreading of the gospel.
However, I have a lot of sympathy with those who want to keep Sunday as a day of rest and recreation, and who do not want to see Sunday trading laws deregulated still further. Let me say at once that I am not thinking of the corner shop, the souvenir outlet at a leisure facility, the small-scale operation on the high-street where things are still done on a human scale. It’s the might of the megastore that concerns me, the gravitational pull of out of town shopping malls that have done so much to suck the life out of many town and city centres.
Here’s why I am against this idea.
1. It isn’t good for human life to be tramlined by the same routines day in, day out. Sunday offers a different rhythm. It’s a gift that opens up other possibilities for how we spend our time. Time for family and friendships. Time for the things we enjoy. Time to ponder and reflect. Time for relaxation and renewal. Time to give to others through volunteering and service. Time for sport, exercise or culture. And if we are Christians, time for worship, fellowship, prayer and spiritual growth.
2. Specifically, those who work in the retail industry (including many of our poorest paid workers) deserve a weekly break like anyone else. It is one thing for the legislation to protect the rights of such people. Experience shows that it can be hard for employees at the bottom of the pyramid to resist strong pressures from the top to work in their free time. The unions are right to point out that if the law is further deregulated, these pressures will increase, risking a high cost to employees’ mental and physical health, and to their relationships and quality of life.
3. Most important of all is what such a move would say about our values. It would carry the strong message that what matters most in life is the freedom to shop when we want for however long we want. This supposed public appetite for shopping is being elevated almost to the level of a human right. We should resist this vigorously. The relentless tide of consumerism is possibly the most eroding of all the forces of modern life that are eating away at our wellbeing as individuals and as a society. It says that what matters most is what can be traded, bought and sold as commodities. It proclaims that the endless quest to acquire more and still more should be endorsed. It encourages greed, and in particular, envy, possibly the most deadly sin of the seven. It says that we are in love with money and the power it gives us.As regular readers of this blog know, my wife and I spend time regularly in France. There, Sunday trading is tightly regulated. In a country that is officially far more secularised than the UK, whose mantra is laïcisme, this is not because of the influence of religious faith. It’s more to do with the strong bonds of family life and the unions’ resolve to uphold it. So Sunday is a marvellously peaceful day with its own pace of life. Families make the most of it. Sport and leisure flourish. It’s true that people do not go to church in huge numbers. It’s also true that in some towns, some smaller shops are open for business. But not the big supermarkets and megastores. So the traffic is lighter and the atmosphere less febrile. The continental Sunday, once much maligned in protestant England, has a wholesomeness about it that we have now almost lost here.
I have to say that I am gloomy about the future. By a curious act of group-think, the coalition has got itself believing that unregulated Sunday trading will encourage greater consumer spend and therefore help get the economy out of the pit in which it has been stuck for so long. I doubt this very much. At best, it will attenuate the public’s shopping habits across twelve hours rather than six. But the evidence of this economic crisis is that the public is not as naïve as the government appears to think. We are not inclined to part with more money than we can afford simply because more shopping hours are available to us. Internet shopping is available 24 hours a day, but it is not encouraging consumers to spend in ways that stimulate demand and therefore create capacity and productivity.
My concern is as much with the symbolic effect of this likely change, and for what it says about our collective understanding of what our life together in our contemporary society should be like. There is something worryingly cynical about a government that smuggles in this unwanted change under the banner of the Olympics when the original rhetoric promised otherwise. So I hope that Christians will resist it, not for spurious sabbatarian reasons, but because we care about human life and its flourishing. And because we follow a way that points the human heart to where treasure truly lies.