Neil McNicholas: Store selling its birthright with Sunday trading

Sunday trading continues to divide opinion.
Sunday trading continues to divide opinion.
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THE noise you may be able to hear in the background is the sound of William Barker, grandfather of the current managing director of Barker’s department store in Northallerton, spinning in his grave at the news that the family business is going to open on Sundays, from May 28 onwards, for the first time in its 135-year history. And well he might.

The current Mr Barker justifies the decision on the grounds that Sundays in the town are becoming busier and it is expected that shops and stores will be open. It’s not the shoppers, though is it? The incentive is the risk of losing business if he sticks to his grandfather’s principles that Sundays were, and still are, for church-going, not for trading.

The problem is, as we all know, that Sunday is no longer regarded as special. Indeed the thought crossed my mind last Sunday as I woke at 7am to the sound of heavy machinery running.

Looking out of my window I spied a BT truck parked across the street and workmen doing some kind of work in one of
their cable trenches. Why does BT need to be working on a Sunday, and why at seven in the morning?

But we have sown the seeds of disregard years ago and are now increasingly reaping the harvest.

Okay, so some may argue that they don’t believe in God and therefore the Sunday Sabbath means nothing to them, but we are still supposed to be a Christian country and Sunday was, and should still be, special to those of us who do believe.

I’ve heard people claim that they have a right to shop on Sundays, but that totally disregards the equal right of shop assistants and others not to have to work on Sundays if they don’t want to. With supermarkets open for 12 or 14 hours a day, some all day and all night, there is surely ample opportunity to get our food shopping done without people having to work on Sundays to accommodate our failure to have shopped on some other day.

When Sunday trading restrictions were lifted in 1994, so was the lid to Pandora’s Box. Professional football matches were scheduled, restaurants opened, petrol stations were expected to be open, and shop after shop on our high streets opened paranoid that they might lose business to their competitors. Post Offices and banks were the exception and that was in the days before automatic teller machines. The problem was, workers were afraid to stand their ground by refusing to work in case they’d be sacked.

From the Church’s point of view, or rather from God’s, the basic principle is the need to keep the Sabbath holy. This means going to church, resting from servile or unnecessary work, and keeping Sundays special by spending quality time with the family.

Just last Sunday two of my altar servers were missing having been to a cub scouts weekend camp. The organisers will have made no effort whatsoever to ensure that church-going cubs (and their leaders) had the opportunity to go to church.

Why do they create such conflicts of interest for youngsters – as schools and sports organisers do as well? Children shouldn’t have to refuse to take part in such activities, but they shouldn’t be put in the position of having to do so in the first place.

Meanwhile, in Northallerton, a spokesman for the business community is quoted as saying that Barker’s opening is great news and that it will attract more people to the town which will benefit other shops.

I have to say that here in
Yarm there are quite a number
of high-street businesses and shops that remain closed on Sundays – whether on principle or because they can’t afford to pay their staff to work I don’t know – but more power to them. There may well be good numbers of Sunday visitors, but it would be nice to think they come to enjoy a walk along the High Street anyway whether the
shops are open or not. The
cafés and restaurants usually
are.

Figuratively (and literally) the ringing of church bells is being drowned out by the ringing of cash registers and everyone seems content with such a situation. Yet again we have sold out to the high street, in this case by not fighting our corner vigorously enough when Sunday trading laws were under threat 20-plus years ago.

Those changes can probably never be reined in again, but we can at least try to salvage what is left of the keeping Sundays special by not permitting any further erosion and, on principle, taking a personal stand in observing Sundays as a day special to God by not contributing to the lemming-like rush over the cliff edge of complacency and commercialism.

Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.