Lazy Sunday Afternoon: Should We Still Observe the Sabbath?

I don’t know how many people bother to read my blog, and the religious bit at the beginning of this piece might turn some people off immediately, but please stick with it if you can, skipping the bible verses if you want. It is not about religion. I’m actually thinking about what Sunday means to us, and if the shops should shut, and many associated matters. So please do have a quick look, and given it is something we all seem to feel strongly about one way or the other, express your opinion with a comment.

While wandering through Cheltenham this morning my thoughts turned, as they so often do in town, to the Reverend Frances Close. I called in to the 99p cafe for a cheap breakfast, while planning all the things I should do this week.  Half finished reviews to complete and post, a dozen writing commitments, things I NEED to do: all clustered in on this lazy Sunday afternoon.  (I almost wanted to ask Mrs Jones how’s her Bert’s lumbago?!)

I mused on how Dean Close would have disapproved, and thought – well I’m not doing any paid work today, so am I actually breaking the Sabbath?

If you are looking for Christian devotional ideas, or how to see Ozzy’s next tour, move on now. I’m reflecting on the larger meaning of the Sabbath, in my case as an Anglican Christian Sunday, and what it means to observe the Sabbath.  Do many of my friends even know what the Sabbath is? I’m going to quote the Bible quite a bit to explain what it means first, but please bear in mind this is not a Scripture lesson, and whether you are a Christian, Atheist or follower of another faith is not what I’m interested in: no conversion planned here, and if you are Jewish or Muslim you have your own traditions on these matters anyway. I’m mainly going to focus on what it could and should mean for a secular multi-cultural Britain – as you may have guessed it might all get a bit political by the end…

It all starts in Genesis, whatever view you take on that book. There we read —

Genesis Chapter 2.

And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made.

And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He had rested from all His work which God created and made.

So God rests. A very odd idea; theologically however we can assume that rest here is more than just recovering from six days of hectic work. The Sabbath is something more than mere respite from physical labour, a chance to recover from a hard week of the 9 to 5. I’m no expert on Biblical Hebrew (a rather colossal understatement, along the lines of “I’m no expert on American Football”), and I’m not going to go in to the theology of all this — just going to say our Sabbath is not about resting because our bosses have worked us in to the ground. Or it shouldn’t be.  Still perhaps for us mortals it is partly that – never forget the old motto “God gave us Sundays; the unions gave us the weekend”!

Now many of my friends would be horrified if I pointed out the were breaking one of the Ten Commandments (and others proud, and tick another box I expect) but the Sabbath is in there. Yep, really.

Exodus 20: 8-11.

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made Heaven and Earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.


In the past in England the Sabbath was a big deal, at least in theory. It gave people one day off, and the right to some free time. It is an immensely liberating idea, and a fascinating one. You might be sent by the government to work in a bargain shop on a scheme for no pay for six days a week (or labour in a dark  satanic mill in 19th century Manchester, or slave over a keyboard writing RPG supplements, or whatever form of awful labour your boss imposes upon you) but one day a week is yours, to do what you want. And I really do think it means to do what you want, because if servants and “sojourners within our gates” get it, and they are probably not of your your religion,  it seems to apply to the whole community. On Sunday you rest. What exactly that means however is what I am thinking through right now.

Now the Ancient Hebrews took this very seriously, and so does the Bible —

Exodus 31.

”‘Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it must be put to death; whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from his people. For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death.The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he abstained from work and rested’”

I’m really glad no one is actually putting to death doctors, nurses, shop staff and the ladies who served my breakfast for working this Sunday. I won’t go in to details here about how this changes, but some of you will know the stories of how David and his companions picked grain and ate it on the Sabbath, or how Jesus cured on the Sabbath, and his wise words on the matter. Instead I’ll just cite the following New Testament passage —

Colossians 2:16 -17

16 Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.

Remember that verse, and enjoy your Sunday how you please.  This is NOT a Bible lesson despite all the quotes: if you want to know what the Church says, or the theological positions on it, try a priest, vicar or Wikipedia 😀 Now we’ve had the heavy stuff, it’s time for afternoon maniac ranting!

So what does Sunday mean to you? A very few of my friends go to Church, others go to garden centres, watch DVDs, play roleplaying or boardgames or just chill out. For many it is a family day: a time for the whole brood to gather and spend time together. Some people love Sundays, and many people I know hate them, mainly because everything they want to do on one of their two days off is deeply restricted because a lot of businesses, call centres and attractions are shut. They are not going to settle in for a day of devotional reading, or eat a hearty roast dinner with a gravy advert beaming family, they are going to sit on their own, be thoroughly bored, put out, and irritated that even in the 21st century a lot of things stop dead on Sunday. What if my mouse fails? Lucky that Wilko’s is open so I can finish this post!

Now Sundays for me as a child were even bleaker than those faced by people today. Until I was 25 (1994), pretty much everything as I recall was closed, barring hospitals, railway stations, ports and airports, chemists and the occasional newsagents.  At least that is how I recall it: and the Sunday Trading Laws were utterly ridiculous, the classic example often cited being one could legally buy a pornographic magazine on a Sunday, but not a Bible, and that Fish & Chip shops could open as long as they did not sell any fish. 😀

In fact I’m old enough to remember Early Closing Day, Wednesday afternoons I think in Bury St. Edmunds, which was a midweek version of Sunday, an afternoon for prim shopgirls to go on saucy dates with jaunty clerks, don’t you know? All the shops shut, and discarded newspapers blew like tumbleweed through deserted streets. Oh nostalgia! It was pretty awful, but part of life then — I thought it always would be.


A ghastly business. Yet is there a secular case for observing Sunday? Today most of my friends as I often cynically note are NOT being worked to death – in reality the problem they face is finding enough hours paid work to pay their rents or mortgages, and earn a liveable wage. So surely it would be insane to place further restrictions on trading hours, especially as we live now in a 24/7 world, where everything rushes on at a frenetic pace. I have to link an xkcd cartoon here. 😀

Well the Lord’s Day Observance Society still campaigns on the issue, from a Christian perspective.  If you actually have a religious belief that means you can not work in good conscience on Sundays, you are not protected by law and can it seems be fired.   I actually have a serious issues with this, as I would if the religious observance of any other faith was impeded by legislation.  Mr Justice Langstaff ruled that observing the Sabbath was not a “core component” of Christian belief. So the Ten Commandments are not core components of Christian belief? That is rather surprising news to me.  In fact in this case, where the health needs of others depended upon the lady working Sunday’s I think Langstaff could have argued that her Christian duty was to make herself available as required, using the healing on the Sabbath analogy, and I don’t object to the ruling in this circumstance particularly, but the precedent is certainly worrying. I was also not aware British Courts had jurisdiction over theological matters and what constitutes a core aspect of Christian belief, but now I know different! A chap who worked in a quarry was dismissed for refusing Sunday working. That is a nonsense, especially given the Flexible Working Time regulations. In Scotland, the The Sunday Working (Scotland) Act 2003 (c 18) gave Scottish workers the legal right to refuse to work Sundays – something the Sunday Trading Act 1994 supposedly guarantees English and Welsh workers?

I’m pretty hot on rights of conscience, as the liberal I am, but you may well disagree strongly. The question I put though is it good for families at least to have a day when everyone can gather together and not have to work, unless in a “reserved occupation” like pharmacy, medicine or essential services? Is it bad for couples to not have a single day they can count on to do things together, without the risk one of them may be expected to work?  Even the singles among my friend need some time to relax and play games with friends, but how easy is it to schedule sports or a long running Call of Cthulhu or Ars Magica campaign when half the players may suffer enforced absence? (You may subtly detect my personal biases here!) Should a secular society still respect the Sabbath?

I’m partly concerned that we have engaged in a large scale social experiment that is altering the complexion of British society without much in the way of understanding of the consequences. Does Sunday working lead to family breakdown, divorce, murder, dogs & cats living together and rains of frogs? I doubt it, but I don’t actually know. What I do know is we have given employers unprecedented power, it seems with hardly a squeak from the unions (with the honourable exception of shop workers union USDAW) .  When you sign up to the police, fire brigade, or like me many years ago nursing you know Sunday working is part of the deal. I guess the same is true for retail workers now.  Sundays may become a middle class privilege of office workers and the Scots.

Still with society changing rapidly, and may of us working far longer than ever before, answering emails on smart phones, teleconferencing at midnight and catching up on work at all kinds of odd hours (usually 3am in the morning it seems) perhaps the loss of “traditional Sundays” is no big deal, and for many of us we are just delighted we can buy sushi on a Sunday, rather than reverting to the bad old days of my childhood.  I don’t have any answer, just loads of questions. Can we compete with economies where Sundays are not observed if we suddenly decide to let people have that day off? And what about those who observe their religious day on another day, be it Wednesday for Wotanists, Thursday for Jupiter’s devotees or Saturday for Seventh Day Adventists and Jews? Why privilege Sunday rather than say Monday in a secular society?

When the 1994 Act came in USDAW achieved a concession – Sunday working should be purely voluntary. They also asked for premium pay for Sundays, something that historically was widely observed for those who had worked that day – time and a half, or even double pay. I know for a fact very few of my friends get that now, if they ever have, and in fact I recall one business I know pays normal time even on Easter and other bank holidays, or did a few years back, something I was appalled for. Yes it is necessary for some staff to work bank holidays, but surely they should be compensated better? Maybe not. What do you think? Whatever the case, both these rights seems to have been lost, and I need to go and read the Act to see what the legal framework actually says.

OK, so enough for today. Does blogging count as work? What does constitute work in a modern context? What do you think we should do about Sundays? Please, just this once, if you have read this far, do comment. I think people have strong opinions on this issue and I’m pretty open minded and would like to hear them. Until then, enjoy your Sunday.

CJ x


About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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6 Responses to Lazy Sunday Afternoon: Should We Still Observe the Sabbath?

  1. Dr Moose says:

    Thanks for this Chris. I find it encouraging and helpful to see that other people think deeply too, even if, like me they don’t always have answers. I too remember pre-1994 Sunday, but without negativity or rancour. It was simply the way things were. As a Christian Minister I know all about the principle of swapping your Sabbath to a different day, but it isn’t quite the same, and since I’ve gone to 5 day weeks as a Full-time University Chaplain I know how much difference a weekend makes instead of relentless 6 day, 60 hour weeks. Of course I write this on the back of a rare Sunday (and Saturday, and several other potions of days) sweating over a Sermon!
    I do find it notable how busy the roads in town are after church on Sunday morning, and for all the convenience of Sunday shopping, think I’d quite like to see the return of the “traditional” Sunday…

  2. DaveD says:

    Funnily enough, I was only today mourning the loss of the quiet Sunday. I’ve been making animations from old photos of the town where I live, and new photos taken by me. Unfortunately, many of the old pics were taken by photographers who thought nothing of standing in the road. To get a photo from the same place, I have to brave increased traffic, and it doesn’t seem to be any better on Sundays.
    I’ve been very specific, but I think leisure time generally is more frenetic these days. What’s wrong with relaxing quietly, and why is shopping now seemingly regarded as a hobby?

  3. >>”I’m partly concerned that we have engaged in a large scale social experiment that is altering the complexion of British society without much in the way of understanding of the consequences.”

    But the alternative is to stay in some sort of societal stasis. The taking of all hospitals into state ownership to form the NHS was also a “large scale social experiment that is altering the complexion of British society without much in the way of understanding of the consequences.” It’s only by running the experiment that you find out what the consequence are (good consequences for society viz Sunday opening, bad consequences for society viz the NHS, obviously).

    >>”What I do know is we have given employers unprecedented power”

    How so? You can make the case that we have given the employee more opportunities to work, but simply removing the somewhat anachronistic law doesn’t give the employer any additional power over employees, AFAICT. This point is allied to your apparent belief that employers “compensate” employees for working. People voluntarily choose to work, put another way, they choose to trade leisure activities for income activities. As with all voluntary trade both the seller and buyer benefit, when the employer buys the employees labour they BOTH benefit (otherwise the transaction wouldn’t happen!). To re-cast a voluntary trade as sort of asymmetric imposition/compensation situation, simply isn’t warranted in these circumstances (IMHO!).

    Ultimately, removing any barriers to work will be most beneficial to the poorest – they have more opportunities to work. Sunday opening can therefore be seen as necessary to offset the breathtaking stupidity of the minimum wage.

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      Yes, I agree restricting opening hours is by definition a blow to those desperately seeking employment at a time when as I state hours are more crucial to some than a marginal pay increase: we have a Part Time culture, and many people can not get enough hours to meet the rent and/or mortgage. I disagree on minimum wages, as you would expect, because as I have argued before we are currently funding (over 80% of claims in my area) part time work by Housing Benefit payments. There is a structural impediment to reform: Housing Costs. I see the only solution if we are to reform HB is to introduce higher pay across the board – significantly higher pay. At the moment, large corporations (mainly retail) are subsidized by tax payers through the benefits system. The actual issue about employers power I raise is also about a specific right – freedom of conscience, and the right to not work Sundays. Ironically all vicars work Sundays, so I assume the Church has found that acceptable.

      And yes, stasis is always a risk. I am far from decided on my actual preference here, but I tend to favour liberty of individual conscience.

      cj x

  4. Pingback: Keeping Sunday Special: Why Society Still Needs One Day Free from Work | Beastrabban's Weblog

  5. Stuart says:

    CJ, firstly I’d like to say that your article upon observing the Sabbath was interesting. I only wish that I’d come across this a lot sooner, as your position may have changed somewhat?
    I have to say that from a religious perspective; I have to agree with Mr Justice Langstaff .
    You appear to have contradicted your viewpoint in that you acknowledge the New Testament teachings of Jesus and then put emphasis upon the strict adherence of the Old Testament regarding the Sabbath. Surely; we are in a different age?
    Yet, the conflicts between religious observances and capitalist ideals are real enough. Living, as we do, in a capitalist society: it is difficult to imagine how this can be resolved. As you acknowledge in your remarks regarding the reduction and gradual erosion of workers rights regarding hours and pay, the phrase: ‘Give a capitalist an inch and they’ll take a mile’ seems forever apt. I think that the reasons for the state of affairs we now experience in society; regarding housing and H/Benefits are due to three main factors. 1, The ‘Greed is Good’ culture. 2, The end of the ‘Boom-Bust’ cycle of capitalism. 3, Lack of proper control of the banks. Certainly, the decision to allow the building-societies to change into banks (in England, at least) was a catalyst for all this. In fact, this was such a short-sighted decision, that one has to consider the possibility that it was a deliberate act, ie; a conspiracy. Surely, it would have been realised that if it all went wrong, then the tax-payer would be footing the bill. At the very least, this can be viewed as a gamble that went wrong.
    I think that it is extremely improbable that a government could enforce employers to pay higher wages. Employing less staff is one loop-hole that comes to mind.
    What is needed, I think, is a return to a natural cycle of capitalism – ‘Boom and Bust’ economics,
    A huge building program to update/improve the housing stock.
    A re-emergence of building-societies and the added checks that they perform regarding mortgages.
    Once this ‘stability’ has settled in; then I think that the issue of workers rights regarding religious observances has more chance of success.
    Incidentally; I would suggest that running a Blog-site does constitute work, although, of course; voluntary !

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