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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Sunday Trading: a human right?

Sunday trading is back in the news again.  The coalition Government promised that the current relaxation of the Sunday trading laws would be ‘for the Olympics only’.  Now, it seems, they are considering rescinding the legislation for good. 

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.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

How was it for you?

So how was it for you?  Have you had a good Olympics?  Have we? 

Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes -
Some have got broken -- and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school.

W. H. Auden in post-Christmas doldrums.  I wonder whether the week after the Olympics will be a bit like that: somewhat forlorn and empty, holidays nearly over, the news reverting to its normal catalogue of woe, nights drawing in, the sense of clicking back into ordinary time once more. 

I think the Christmas analogy is worth pursuing.  Every Christmas we hope (and if we are religious we pray) that somehow our celebrations may make a difference to the world, with ‘peace on earth’ not just a dream but maybe – just maybe – coming true.  Well, the test of a ‘good’ Christmas is whether it has at least made a difference to us: our attitudes, our relationships, our resolve to live better lives and bring what wholesomeness and redemption we can into the lives of others.

We can be proud that in Britain we’ve had a very good Olympics. Maybe we’ve surprised ourselves, seen a side to this nation that we hadn’t quite glimpsed before.  Of course, it’s been exciting to win medals and come out near the top of the league table: excellence is always something to celebrate and we congratulate athletes who have put heart and soul into the Games. 

But what has made these Games so good has been the spirit of them, the warmth of the welcome people from all over the world have experienced in our country, the knowledge that we have brought people together from every corner of the planet and had a thoroughly good time. I want to use the theological language of ‘re-creation’ and ‘joy’ to talk about it: somehow, nothing less than this does justice to the past 17 days. We have had seen world’s peoples being together in peace and harmony. You could say that it is a glimpse of the Old Testament prophet’s vision that swords would one day be turned into ploughshares and spears into pruning-hooks.  You could even say that it has hinted at the kingdom of God. 

We have heard a lot about ‘legacy’ in recent days. But legacy should mean much more than the Games leaving behind them splendid sporting facilities, urban regeneration and new housing, important though these are. The best legacy would be a ‘better, kínder, more Christlike kind of world’ as Provost Howard said after the bombing of Coventry in 1940.  And when we look back to this golden summer of the London Olympics, we must not let go of the memory of people of every race, background, creed and political conviction competing together for the sheer love of sport. This huge common endeavour of recreational play symbolises what reconciliation and friendship should mean.  And a symbol is not an empty gesture at an impossible vision.  What we have experienced has been real.  The task is to keep the memory alive, allow its life-giving anamnesis to flow into every corner of the life of our broken, divided planet.   

Towards the end of his poem, Auden speaks about temptation and evil in an allusion to the Lord’s Prayer.  He says: 

                        They will come, all right, don't worry; probably in a form
                        That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
                         More dreadful than we can imagine. 

No doubt we shall have to face ordeals enough in the months that lie ahead.  The economic crisis afflicting Europe, conflict in Syria and Afghanistan, the threats of climate change and all the cruelties human beings go on inflicting on one another: it is all still there.  But I believe that celebration makes a difference to how we respond to them.  It makes us care more because we glimpse a bigger vision of how the world could be, and how we ourselves could be.  Every time we come together at the Christian eucharist we play-act a world that is different, transformed, healed.  If we can hold the Olympics in our minds as a cherished piece of God-given play-acting, who knows what difference it could make? It really could 'inspire a generation'.  It really must.

And now we have the Paralympics to look forward to....