The Government proposes to legislate to allow local authorities to relax restrictions on Sunday trading in their areas. The current law permits small shops – with less than 3000 sq ft floor space – to open any hours but larger shops are restricted to six hours. The proposal announced by the Chancellor in his Summer Budget is said to be worth £1.4 billion a year and breathe new life into high street trading.
The Churches have always campaigned to keep Sunday as a special day, for rest, recreation and religious observance but Christians are now a small minority in secular Britain and told we should not impose our values on the majority. It is not that simple. There are non-Christian reasons for the current restrictions.
USDAW, the shop workers’ union, strongly opposes the extension of Sunday shopping. Their members want time at home with their families. Family breakdown is a serious issue in Britain today, costing taxpayers £43billion a year supporting broken families and harming many children in those families.
The current law had a business rationale. Limiting the opening hours of the big supermarkets gave the small shops a modest competitive advantage on Sundays. The proposed changes could see more of them closing. If Sunday trading develops as the Government hopes it will also increase urban traffic as supermarkets will need additional deliveries.
There are also potential health issues. Everyone needs a work/life balance that includes rest. The pressures of seven day working will fall heaviest on managers who are not part-time but if Sunday is just like any other day time for community activities as well as family will be lost.
Nor should it be thought that only Christians oppose more Sunday working. Secularism challenges all faith communities. In 2006 the Hindu Forum for Britain said they would welcome one day a week set aside for spiritual reflection. Jews and Muslims will have similar concerns for their special days. Respect for religious liberty is indivisible, however much beliefs differ. Atheists don’t have to be inconvenienced by treating Sunday as a special day. There are six other days on which to shop and they need time for rest, recreation and family life too.
Ultimately the proposal is another step in privatising religion out of the public sphere. This runs counter to Article 9 of the European Convention and Article 13 of our own Human Rights Act which safeguards the right to practice religion in public and in community with others. If Christians are discriminated against by limiting their freedom to worship on Sunday in order to privilege the minority that actively want to shop and trade on Sundays, the Government will be putting the clock back so far as non-discrimination is concerned.
The proposal to devolve the decision to local authorities sends a wake-up call to people of faith in each community to persuade their councils to keep Sunday special. It will call for gracious campaigning not ignorant ranting. My last blog called for the development of a Christian counter-culture. This situation is a golden opportunity to learn how to do that. It will call for much prayer so that the fruit of the Spirit inspires the campaigning. Paul’s advice in 2 Corinthians 10:5 is very relevant.