Faith & Reason: Saying no to the theology of the trolley

Supermarkets are not always super. Margaret Atkins argues that changes in shopping habits have made poor citizens of our children and undermined the nation's sense of community.
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Our problem is not that we live in a market economy. Markets are honest places, cheerful with the colours of produce, not of advertisements. They are straightforward places, where knowledgeable traders work hard for every modest penny. They are human places, where shoppers ponder and gossip and laugh. Our problem is that we live in a supermarket economy.

In a supermarket, I see my fellows as obstacles or rivals. I don't even notice the produce. The forest of price-tags clamours for my distracted attention: newer! bigger! cheaper! MORE! No wonder the courtesies of life evaporate. No wonder children grab and parents snap.

I was brought up in a small market town, Kirkby Lonsdale in Cumbria. We still have our weekly market; our streets still flourish with small shops. Still. But even as I write the shadow of a threatened supermarket darkens the town where I received my earliest education in public affairs.

Of course I did not know, as I ran down the hill after school, that lessons were not over. As I trotted to the sweetshop, I did not know that I was learning what would one day be called "PSE" (personal and social education) or "citizenship". But when old Mr Hastewell served me, passing the time of day as courteously as if I had been the bank manager, I was being schooled in civic friendship. And as I trailed my mother around the other shops I was discovering how grown-ups did business together: kindly and patiently, with evident mutual concern.

Later, I had to relearn the lesson consciously, when I returned each vacation from Cambridge. Before buying something, I needed to pause and remember that the curt self-absorption of supermarket manners would here be interpreted as rudeness. A few years on, I was among a group of theological students discussing the notion of community. The undergraduates seemed unanimous that communities no longer exist. I ventured to object, citing my own experience. I was met with incomprehension, and something surprisingly like hostility: what right had I to such privilege?

Communities do survive, and not only in rural Cumbria. I moved to suburban Leeds, and have settled quickly into the neighbourhood where in the local shopkeepers - the grocer's and the baker's and the newsagent's - we know and are known. That is where we learn each others' names. As neighbours we may not be intimate, but we are soon predisposed to mutual care. The local children as they shop are being incorporated into, rather than alienated from, their community. They are learning the virtues that ground community.

What is it that we value today? Nigel Biggar's excellent new book, Good Life (SPCK, pounds 12.99) reflects on the question. When we say we want self- fulfilment or freedom, what do we mean? An unlimited choice of soap-powders? Why did the murder of Jamie Bulger strike many not as anomalous, but as symbolic? What is it that we fear?

Biggar argues that all communities are based upon friendship, and that to be part of a community is to be bound to others in a relationship of trust and care. We want, desperately, to be part of such a community, and we are frightened by symptoms of its decline. But to reverse that decline requires a great deal from all of us: attentiveness, imagination, patience, courtesy, generosity and trust.

Big business tells us that what we want most of all are bargains. We act everyday as if we believe it. Each time that we succumb to the tawdry illusion, we betray our better selves. For our deepest desires are not material, but social. That is why our oldest political traditions are based on the common good. We have been called to communion, because our true vocation is friendship, with God and with our fellow-creatures. A friendship that needs to be learnt.

Mr Hastewell, God rest his soul, is long dead. His successors struggle on, our friends and teachers, as vital and as unnoticed as oxygen. We can destroy them within a generation, if so we wish: the choice is ours. Let us at least be clear what we are choosing. The next time that someone complains to you about loneliness, or insecurity, or stress, or the breakdown of society, ask just one question: where do you shop?

Faith & Reason is edited by Paul Vallely