Of course it is the prerogative of the current age to be arrogant about everything that has gone before. But the seemingly minor and snap decision to drop the existing barriers on Sunday trading needs more thought, particularly as no-one seems to believe the line that this is only a temporary arrangement. The argument to ‘keep Sunday special’ isn’t particularly about Christianity, it’s about humanity.
In his book The Dignity of Difference, the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, explains that the world’s great philosophies and religions emerged from a pivotal context in human flourishing, as the people of the world moved from a scattered and nomadic existence towards a more consciously societal one, that needed frameworks for organisation. Over time, because of their supernatural content, the religions in particular have remained ‘sticky’ as ways of explaining humanity to itself, and of encoding ways of living that, in the main, have served communities well for over four thousand years. And while modernity has rightly developed a degree of scepticism about the suitability of some of this guidance, given the way the world has changed, the world’s wisdom traditions still have much to teach us. One feature of the monotheistic religions in particular is the idea of a day of rest. Because of its Christian heritage, in the UK this day falls on a Sunday, but the Sabbath for Jews lasts from Friday sundown to ‘the appearance of three stars in the sky on Saturday night’, and for Muslims it is Friday prayer and rest. Indeed, rest-days appear in most religious traditions, for ‘cleansing the mind’ or just to make time for the contemplation of the meaning of life within a given tradition. The notion also crops up in academia and in some other walks of life as the less frequent but all-important ‘sabbatical’, which aims to structure in periods of enforced reflection to improve a person’s professional practice.
The idea of a day of rest for the whole community is a concept worth protecting, even if we can’t row back to where we once were. Having just one day that feels a bit different protects family time and creates space for leisure and reflection – or just time to read the Sunday papers – whether or not it includes any sort of religious observance, and Saturday has long-since ceased to have this flavour. Jesus himself said that ‘the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ but I don’t think this was meant as an encouragement for Dave to be quite so cavalier with it. I for one am rather fed up with the relentless parade of policies of late that seem only to be in the interests of commercial gain rather than human flourishing. And maybe choosing the Olympics as the time to experiment facilitates the ‘taxing’ of our visitors. But looking at it as a more general change, wasn’t it too much ‘retail’ that got us into this mess in the first place? When credit was cheap and shops started opening for longer and in more enticing formats, shopping became leisure, and the consumer borrowed up to the hilt to finance this new national hobby. I thought what we needed at the moment was for consumers to save their cash, preferably to help re-capitalise the banks, or to invest in enterprises that struggle to get bank credit. So why are we stimulating retail again at this particular moment in time? Maybe it is to boost jobs. If so, I’d like to see the argument for that, and how it has been reconciled with Cameron’s promise to make the UK the most family-friendly county in Europe.
As Albert Schweitzer once said: ‘do not let Sunday be taken from you. If your soul has no Sunday, it becomes an orphan.’