Thought for the Month (April 2016)

Dear Friends,

Firstly can I wish everyone a very Happy Easter. Unlike Christmas, which can fall on any day of the week, we know that Easter always falls on a Sunday. I hope as many people as possible can enjoy some time off on Easter Sunday.

Recently the Government's plan to allow local authorities control over Sunday trading hours in their areas (with the assumption, obviously, that they would extend them) was defeated in the Commons. Some rebel MPs voted against their own party. I was pleased at the news. What do you think about it? I find the whole issue a very difficult one, when I try to look at it in any depth.

Some people may be thinking "Oh no! Politics! We don't want that in our pastoral letter!" But the commandment about keeping Sunday as a special day is there and deserves consideration. When you consider that the commandment comes out of the exact same stable, as it were, as weighty rules we all agree on, such as "Thou Shalt Do No Murder"; is it so easy to dismiss? How likely is it that we get nine commandments that make perfect sense and one weedy, feeble one that doesn't matter? To me, that seems odd. Either God really is concerned with the minutiae of our daily existence, and our need for rest, or He isn't! We can't have it both ways. And Jesus did say "the Sabbath was made for Man", not the other way round. That implies we really need it, all of us, church goers or not. Jesus just said "Man", not "Religious Man". To me that is significant. It is apparent to me that we all need a pattern for our existence, and the week with its well-known and reassuring shape lends stability to our lives.

What is the future for the commandment for us in the 21st century? We have got to live in the world as it is and admit that times have changed radically. Should we be re-looking at the commandment about the Sabbath day in a way fitting for this century, or should we disregard it completely; or should we try to go back in time and pretend we are living in the time of Jesus? I think the latter would be impossible; the second one risks throwing the baby away with the bathwater.

We already have Sunday trading, and have done for many years. What is not so often remembered is that reform, also, is relatively new. At the height of the industrial revolution, factories were working full pelt on a Sunday, till enlightened legislation put a stop to it. These days, so far have we come, that Saturday is a day off too for many people. Surely, you might say, people get plenty of breaks? But there are a number of things about the apparent push to make Sunday effectively just like any other day of the week as far as the retail trade is concerned that really do bother me a lot. First, all the pressure to work Sundays is already on people in jobs which already operate on Saturdays and evenings, whilst at the same time, the 9 to 5 Monday to Friday week appears a preserved fixture for so many other types of employment. How fair is that? Secondly, those in low-paid work seem to be the ones whose job is apparently so essential that they are needed all hours. Then they are worth paying more, surely? The Bible says "The labourer is worthy of his hire" and also "Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn". Some people have such low status at work that they are effectively muzzled, in my view.

Certainly, some people have to work unsocial hours and we depend on the fact that they do, for our welfare and safety. Time was, when people were paid a bonus for this. No more, these payments are being stealthily done away with, which is a root cause of much industrial unrest, including in the NHS. This, I feel, is part of the reason behind the push to make Sunday like every other day: to remove the need for paying any extra. I simply do not believe those who say we must have longer shopping hours because the consumer demands it. This particular consumer does not, at any rate. If those in power care so much about me as a Consumer, there are other things I would like far sooner than the right extended Sunday trading hours.

The churches have a lot to say about family life, and are not slow to deplore the fact that it is apparently in a bad way. In my view, too much shopping doesn't improve family harmony! Take a look at families on a joint shopping trip ... does not at least one person look extremely fed up?

Although you won't find me with a banner outside Sainsbury's protesting about trading hours, I do think Christians need to look at the whole employment issue much more deeply. We need to make things right in the 21st century, by considering the thinking behind it the commandment in question. Maybe we can no longer all enjoy the same day off, but we can still respect the right to proper time off without constant interruption for everyone. We need to look around us and be aware of the conditions some people work under. We thought slavery had been abolished. Not so! Sadly, our changing times and the influx of different cultures into our midst have set the clock back very seriously. Shocking stories appear every week of people trapped in bonded labour or trying to repay impossible debts to their own fellow countrymen who have arranged their passage to the UK.

Jesus said "...the night cometh, when no man can work". True enough in first century Palestine. But that was before the days of electricity and electronic communication. Nature put an end to most work at sunset in those times. No more! So don't we need to look at this question even more urgently, not less, in order to have a fair society, where people have time for rest, worship and reflection? It is for our general welfare. We may not feel up to wading into a debate about the Sabbath, but maybe we can start by respecting each other's time off, sharing household chores, not expecting an instant answer to every email, supporting the Living Wage, and resisting the 24-hour culture? It is certain that this issue will not go away and will be in the news again at some time.

May God bless us all,

Mary Nolze (Secretary and Elder, Rusthall URC)

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Tunbridge Wells United Reformed Church