Sunday under threat (again)

Michael Clark, March 2006
Major retailers like Next, Asda and Tesco are pressing for extended Sunday trading hours. Are 150 hours each week (out of 168) not enough? (REUTERS/Toby Melville)

For the first time in 12 years, Sunday trading is again a key topic in the media. Numerous phone-in and discussion programmes have already looked at the key questions. Why? The government, under pressure from a number of large supermarket groups, has announced its intention to review the existing Sunday Trading Act, which was introduced in 1994 and allows Sunday trading by large shops for up to six hours.

Those advocating change want to extend opening to nine hours or to eliminate restrictions on Sunday trading altogether. The Government have appointed assessors to look at the issue, but their terms of reference are narrowly focused on economic questions. To balance this, the Relationships Foundation has invited a cross-party panel of MPs, under the chairmanship of Lord Anderson, to examine the social consequences of weekend working, with a particular focus on the impact of extended Sunday trading hours.

Keep Sunday Special are vigorously opposing this change and are seeking to mobilise widespread opposition to such a move, not only among Christians but more widely in society.

So why should you support the campaign against extending Sunday opening hours? To answer this question we need to address two others: what should be the Christian’s attitude to Sunday in the light of the Bible’s teaching? And should Christians be concerned about what happens on a Sunday in an increasingly secular society? [1]

A Christian view of Sundays

OLD TESTAMENT SABBATH TEACHING By studying God’s purposes and intentions behind the fourth commandment, we can begin to understand the mind of God. In the Old Testament, the Sabbath occupied a very special place; over and over again it is spoken of as a ‘sign of the covenant’. It symbolised that special relationship which God has with Israel (e.g. Exodus 31:12–18, Ezekiel 20:12). There are four key lessons we can learn from Old Testament teaching.

First, a weekly day of rest is a creation ordinance (Genesis 2:2–3). It falls into the same category as marriage. These are not presented as commands which must be obeyed, but as statements of how the creation was ordered by God and operates most effectively . A day of rest is part of God’s blueprint for human life. Jesus did not say: ‘The Sabbath is just for the Jews’. He said: ‘The Sabbath was made for man’ (Mark 2:27; cf Matthew 4:4). This means all men. Everybody needs a weekly day of rest; we ignore it to our cost.

Second, it seems the Sabbath was designed to help people give priority in their use of time to God. ‘The seventh day is a Sabbath to the L ord your God .’ (Deuteronomy 5:14). Meeting for worship on the Sabbath was clearly part of Jewish life. Similarly, in one of the parables, Jesus describes how people refuse the King’s invitation to the banquet because they were too busy. Shopping and family responsibilities left no time for God (Luke 14:15–24). The same is true today; God often gets just the ‘fag ends’ of our time.

Third, the Sabbath was a weekly family festival. All members of the household had to take time off together (Exodus 20:8–11). Sundays today are vital for family life as they ensure there is at least one day of the week when family members are all at home at the same time.

A fourth objective of the Sabbath seems to have been to provide legal protection to low-income workers who could otherwise be forced to work seven days a week under exploitative conditions (Deuteronomy 5:15). Restrictions on Sunday trading today should serve the same purpose.

JESUS AND THE SABBATH Jesus used to go to the synagogue regularly on the Sabbath; Luke speaks of him going ‘as was his custom’ (Luke 4:16). Often Jesus used opportunities in the synagogue on a Sabbath as part of his teaching ministry (e.g. Luke 4:31; Mark 1:21). We read of the controversy surrounding Jesus and his disciples walking through the fields and picking the ears of corn (Mark 2:23–28). Perhaps the aspect of his use of the Sabbath which is most frequently noted is his healing of the sick (e.g. Mark 1:21–25; Luke 6:6–11; John 5:1–15). The Pharisees were highly critical, and wondered why he couldn’t do it the next day. Jesus’ response was to emphasise the purpose of keeping one day special for God – as an opportunity to show love for God and love for neighbour and to ‘do good’ (Mark 3:1–6).

THE EARLY CHURCH It is nowhere commanded by the Apostles that Christians should keep one day in seven as a day of rest, but it is right to assume they did, given their habit of Sabbath observance as Jews. It does appear, however, that keeping Sunday special (not Saturday) became part of their way of life as it was their preferred day for meeting together. After the Crucifixion, Jesus’ first appearance to the eleven was on a Sunday evening, ‘the first day of the week’ (John 20:19). A week later, on another Sunday evening, the Apostles were meeting again when Jesus appeared and silenced Thomas’ doubts (John 20:26). In Acts, Paul spent seven days at Troas, but it was on the first day of the week that the Christians in Troas met together to break bread (Acts 20:7).

Sundays for everyone?

Even in our secular society should we seek to protect Sundays for everyone? Our answer to this question is a resounding ‘Yes!’

GOD’S PLAN FOR ALL PEOPLE Setting Sunday apart helps to ensure we make time in the week to rest. As noted above, this is relevant to all of creation and so to every person. Moreover, God cares deeply about family and community life. A day in the week when almost everybody is free from work is an important way to help family life and friendships flourish because it gives people time to spend together. Protecting this time for everyone, seeking to create a society that is ‘in tune’ with the way things are created, is part of what it means to love our neighbour.

BATTLE ALREADY LOST? The passing of the Sunday Trading Act in 1994 was certainly a very sad day and many of the predictions we made at the time have been fulfilled. Whilst we would love to see large parts of the 1994 Act repealed or set aside, our current objective is to prevent Sunday trading being further liberalised. It is well worth protecting what remains of a special attitude towards Sundays in our society.

MORE IMPORTANT ISSUES? There are other important issues, yes, but please don’t underestimate the importance of this one. For instance, responsible parenting and the effect on children of not having quality time with their parents are crucial issues, which the Government seem to be recognising. Preserving time for relationships between couples, for community life and for the renewal of social capital generally, as well as preserving religious liberty, are also involved in the debate on Sunday trading.

ARE WE IMPOSING OUR VIEWS? We have no right to impose, but as much right as anyone else in a democracy to put our point of view, particularly where we believe, and can support this with evidence, that such a change would not be for the common good. It is not only our right but our Christian duty to seek to persuade others.

What you can do about it

1   Log-on to Keep Sunday Special’s website to sign our petition against extended trading hours, and use our ‘e-card’ to tell others about it. Also see the website for up-to-date information and to

2   Write to your MP asking him or her to support the House of Commons motion against further liberalisation (if they have not done so already) and to vote against any extension of Sunday trading.

3   Raise the issue in your community, perhaps by writing to your local paper, phoning in to your local radio, and by supporting and using local shops and traders as much as you can.

4   Support, and pray for, Christians and others known to you who currently have to work Sundays on a regular basis, that they will find adequate time for family, for worship, for fellowship and for rest.


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Category: News and Reviews

March, 2006

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