Neil McNicholas: Failure to respect Sunday hits workers’ rights

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THE third of God’s commandments, to keep holy the Sabbath day, is one definite area in which we are not doing very well since efforts to “keep Sundays special” failed some years ago, and it is a situation highlighted by the current proposal to extend trading hours during the Olympics.

Once upon a time the roads were quiet on Sunday mornings and so were our neighbourhoods. People were “at rest”, sleeping in, enjoying the opportunity not to have to go to work. These days you would hardly know it was Sunday and that’s because, for many people, to all intents and purposes it isn’t. It’s just like any other day. The roads are just as full of commercial vehicles, contractors are working and the shops are open. Indeed there are more people at our local car boot sale than there are in our churches!

As a Catholic, keeping the Sabbath holy basically requires that I go to Sunday Mass and also that I rest from “servile works” – unnecessary work that prevents me from keeping the Sabbath and that can be done some other day. It is also a sacred day, a day for God and the things of God, a day for personal renewal and enrichment, a day for celebrating relationships with others – especially family and friends.

In addition to the basics of God’s teaching with regard to the Sabbath, again as a Catholic I would also have to bear in mind what the Church teaches about Sundays:

Sanctifying Sundays requires a common effort.

Every Christian should avoid making unnecessary demands on others that would hinder them from observing the Lord’s Day. Traditional activities (sport, restaurants, etc) and social necessities (public services, etc), require some people to work on Sundays, but everyone should still take care to set aside sufficient time for leisure. In spite of economic constraints, public authorities should ensure citizens a time intended for rest and divine worship. Employers have a similar obligation toward their employees.

All of this raises a number of issues.

It will always be necessary for some people to have to work on Sundays: nurses, emergency services, shift workers, and so on. But there should still be the opportunity for them to keep the Sunday by going to church at some point in the day if that is their practice. If Sunday itself is an absolute impossibility, then perhaps they can keep some other day as “Sunday”.

Those who work during the week and have Sundays off, should surely be able to organise themselves to do their weekly shop on an evening or on Saturdays.

There really shouldn’t be any need for supermarkets and corner shops to be open other than for purely commercial reasons and “there’s the rub” (to quote Hamlet). That’s where we lost our hold on Sundays being special when trade became more important than respect for religious observance. And whatever happened to Wednesday half-day-closing?

It must have had a purpose and a value and yet it too sank almost without trace when commercial interests became more important.

Yes, I know, not everyone is religious or church-going, so why should they be restricted by religious observance? Well, firstly, there are six other days in the week to shop and to do business, but also the current situation is yet another indicator of the extent to which Christianity in this country has been marginalised.

This is still, nominally at least, a Christian country, and if respect for the tenets of that faith required shops to be closed on Sundays, then that’s how it should be – just as that’s how it once was.

One further consideration is the fact that in order for us to shop or carry out other commercial business on Sundays, it means that others must work so those shops and businesses can be open. As a consequence, our unwillingness to respect and keep the Sabbath impinges on the freedom of others to keep it.

While there will always be workers whose personal choice is not to keep the Sabbath and so they will happily work (and possibly be paid extra for doing so), many others will feel pressured to do so, afraid of losing their jobs if they refuse. I repeat what the Church teaches in this regard: in spite of economic constraints, public authorities should ensure citizens a time intended for rest and divine worship. Employers have a similar obligation toward their employees.

It is in this regard that trade unions appear to be voicing their objections to the proposed changes to the trading laws during the Olympics – and the fear that it could become a permanent situation thereafter.

If it did, would employers respect the religious rights of their employees? Or might it be necessary to enshrine those rights in law in order to protect an employee’s choice not to work on Sundays?

* Father Neil McNicholas is a priest at St Hilda’s Parish, Whitby.