Leading Article: A compromised Sabbath

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The Independent Online
SUNDAY remains unlike any other day in Britain, despite a decline in Christian observance. A common day of recreation appeals as much to secularists as to religious believers. The strictures of sabbatarianism are favoured by only a few, but most people need a day when life is calmer and they can separate one week from the next.

Today, as MPs debate the country's Sunday shopping laws, they should be keenly aware of this social landscape that refreshes mind, spirit and body. The large number of readers who responded to the Independent's questionnaire, and their overwhelming support for keeping the Christian sabbath special, demonstrates that people fear the despoliation of Sunday.

These feelings may carry little weight with those who measure value only on balance sheets. This would hardly be surprising, for the Sunday phenomenon in many ways runs counter to a culture that gives priority to commerce and consumption. But most people - though not so nave as to dismiss the importance of work and material goods - still recognise that peace and quiet have great virtue. Their tolerance of the week's pressures often hinges on Sunday's restorative qualities.

An individualistic society also retains its attachment to community values, which are reinforced when most people share recreational time. The Sunday of the Nineties encapsulates and nurtures this sense of community, as friends and family feel confident that at least one day a week offers a reliable opportunity for meetings. It is unfortunate but unavoidable that Islam and Judaism do not share the same day of rest.

Concern for the Christian sabbath is not a nostalgic wish to preserve Sunday as a social theme park. The way Sundays are spent is not stuck in the past, but has long been subject to change. No longer is it synonymous with boredom and a stifling, repressive society. Many more people work than in the past, and far fewer attend church. Sunday has long ceased to be observed with biblical rigour. It represents a compromise that defies any particular logic and will continue to change with time.

Parliament's task should be to give form and authority to this compromise. So MPs, who have been freed to vote according to their conscience, need to be more in touch with national feeling than with the special pleading of store owners and shop-workers.

Our survey finds the majority of readers in favour of allowing small shops, DIY stores and gardening centres to open, with big shops opening only on the four Sundays before Christmas. That is the solution people feel happy with now. It gives shoppers the chance to meet most of their needs while keeping high streets calm and the roads less jammed with consumers.

People may feel differently in a decade. In that case Parliament should not be embarrassed about reconsidering the matter. Meanwhile, MPs should shut their ears to Mammon and catch the spirit of the times.