Keep Saturday Special?

Posted on August 23, 2012

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The question of Sunday trading is in the news again. Here in Scotland, there is no difference in retail law between Sunday and other days; in England and Wales, however, there has been a limitation on trading on Sunday such that ‘large’ stores are only able to open for six hours.

This southern limitation was relaxed over the course of the Olympics, with government ministers and spokespeople lining up to assert that this was a one-off, extraordinary relaxation, not a test case for a broader relaxation. It now seems that the line-up of ministers and spokespeople was misinformed or mendacious; the government is now publicly suggesting that a permanent change in the law would be desirable.

There’s a political story here, about incompetence in managing the news agenda – who would have thought it, from our current government? The more significant issue, however, is the rightness or wrongness of the maintenance of one day in the week as somehow special, and the way this is done. To take the latter point first, it is striking that the most powerful sabbatarian cultures in Britain were and are found in parts of Scotland, where they have been maintained by custom rather than by law. This might seem attractive, except that ad hoc mechanisms for ensuring social conformity tend to be rather less professional and rather more painful than mechanisms of legal redress. Law is the method civilised societies use to enforce their norms for the reason that it is just more, well, civilised than the alternatives.

Should Sunday be kept special? I do not see that a straightforward appeal to Christian sabbatarian principles is a plausible argument: the large majority of people in the UK choose not to attend church on any given Sunday, and legislation, whilst protecting the significant interests of minorities, should generally reflect the social mores of the majority in a democracy. It is noteworthy, however, that – at least from the launch of the Keep Sunday Special Campaign in the mid-1980s – the mainstream Christian opposition to Sunday trading has not been based on a sabbatarian argument; rather it has been based on the idea that keeping one day in the week as free as possible from professional commitments for all people benefits family life, local communities, and so society as a whole. This argument has found considerable support from trade unions and other organisations concerned with workers’ rights; how theological is it?

KSS had its origins in Michael Schluter’s Jubilee Centre, which at the time was offering an interesting account of the principles underlying the law codes of Israel in the Old Testament as a model for thinking about society. My memory of going to some of their seminars 20+ years back (feeling old…) is that two things stood out: an account of multiple centres of final authority (from memory, they found six) – the king had authority over some areas of life; the priest over others; the head of clan over others again; … – and a focus on good relationships as the central issue for building a healthy society.

We might defend this focus on relationships in many ways: a doctrine of the Trinity; a theological anthropology; a reading of Scripture; an analysis of the central Christian virtue of love; … (I did it once in print via a Calvinist account of the nature of freedom!) There is little doubt, though, that a protest against forms of individualism that see human beings as atomised, in favour of accounts of the importance of good relationships to human flourishing, is a major theme of much contemporary theology. (This is usually an insult in my usage; here it is not; the instinct is there in earlier theology but did not need to be developed the way it has recently because the individualistic drive was never there. Blame Romanticism and its vision of the inviolable interiority of the self, perhaps.)

The campaign to Keep Sunday Special was an attempt to derive public policy from this theological instinct; a good – but not perfect – one, in my estimation. UK employment law recognises the need for a pattern of work and rest; indeed, this aspect of the law has been strengthened in various ways (mostly driven by Europe) in my working life. There has however been no recognition that there is social value in my patterns of work and rest being to some extent coherent with my wife’s, my children’s, my friends’, … Employment law, that is, constructs me as an atomised individual whose welfare does not depend on relationships. This is a dangerous fantasy, and needs to be named as such. The KSS campaign was good…

…but not perfect. By focusing on Sunday, they allowed themselves to be constructed by their opponents as narrow-minded sabbatarians, insistent on forcing the outdated practices of their minority religion on the whole of society. As a result (OK, this claim of causation is my analysis, but I think it is plausible), they lost the argument.

What if all the same arguments had been deployed to a different end? The theological arguments tend to the conclusion that keeping one day each week as free from work commitments as possible is a good thing for a society to do. The actual day is somewhat indifferent. So we could have run a ‘Keep Monday Special’ campaign, which would not have been susceptible to misrepresentation as sabbatarianism, and so might have enabled the arguments to be heard.

My preference, however, would be Saturday: for almost all of us in our society, the day chosen is indifferent; this is not the case for observant Jews. Anyone who has experienced the more Jewish parts of north London on the Sabbath cannot fail to have been deeply struck by the seriousness of this – cars parked seemingly at random, because traffic problems meant the driver could not reach home before the beginning of Sabbath, and so stopped the car to walk, are only the most visible sign of a deeply serious religious practice.

Theologically, on the arguments sketched above, the day chosen for a day of rest and community is not important; picking Sunday is useful for Christians, but open to misrepresentation in the political argument; it would be a magnificent expression of a truly Christian hospitality to point to the Jewish community, and say, ‘we should do this one day; it does not matter greatly which but, for the sake of these members of our society, for whom – uniquely  - the day chosen does matter, let us Keep Saturday Special.’

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