A Working Group of the Role of the Church Committee
There has been a marked increase in the number of shops and stores which open for business on Sundays over the past two decades. There is no recent legislation regarding Sunday trading. It is regulated by the Shops (Hours of Trading) Act 1938.
This Act confers on the responsible minister the right to control trading. The Act also lays down certain types of business which are exempt, i.e. types of business can open on Sundays, but only for the sale of certain items. However, effective enforcement of the 1938 Act has proved impossible. It could be argued that from both a religious standpoint and from a social perspective there is a need for a day that is different - whether that be for worship or for the strengthening through relaxation of individual or family life.
The Church of Ireland in common with other churches has made it clear that Sunday should be distinctive from the other six days of the week. Traditionally, Sunday has a quality of calm, which encourages several agreeable non-workday activities of which church going is one. Sunday trading adversely affects this.
Everyone needs rest and if the need is concentrated on a single day of rest, so much the better. Sunday is widely accepted as a day when all the family can come together, and open shops upset this because certain members of the family could be obliged to work.
It is noted that major supermarket chains open their branches throughout the Republic on Sundays usually from 10:00 to 19:00 hours in the larger cities and from 12 noon to 18:00 hours in the smaller centres. There are various incentives for people to work on Sundays - normal rates plus 50% and indeed 100% are common. The Department of Social Issues at the Irish Inter-Church Meeting put forward a proposal to the United Kingdom Government in relation to Northern Ireland that shops over 280 square metres would not be allowed to open. They made the case that if smaller shops under this size have freedom on Sunday, it will supply the public needs. The opening of the larger outlets has had an adverse effect on the "Corner" Shop, e.g. selling cigarettes, light groceries, newspapers etc., and many of these have gone out of business due to the competition from the larger stores.
A point can be made that the vulnerable, the poor and the elderly without transport will suffer without these smaller outlets as they are unable to get to the larger Shopping Centres.
Adversely it must be said that the opening of particularly Supermarkets on Sunday gives extended service to the public. Many families, particularly in rural areas, do their weekly shopping on a Sunday afternoon in cities and towns and it is an outing for parents and children together, which is not always possible during the week.
New legislation in relation to Sunday trading in Northern Ireland came into operation in December 1997 but it is too soon to take a view of its effectiveness.
The Church of Ireland, together with the other churches, naturally wishes to preserve the opportunity for its people to attend Sunday worship and would say that there should be no opening of larger outlets until at least after 12 noon.
In Germany legislation provides for larger stores to close at 16:00 hours on Saturday afternoons and remain closed on Sundays. The regulations there permit smaller stores adjacent to transport units, viz. Railway Stations, Bus Stations, Airports etc., to remain open through Saturday evenings and Sundays.
It has now been accepted as traditional that larger stores, particularly in the cities and bigger towns open for business on the five Sundays prior to Christmas Day. There is no knowledge that this has had an adverse effect on church attendance in the Season of Advent.
It is very difficult for the Churches to make a realistic attempt to stop Sunday trading. This will only come by preventative legislation. This is unlikely to be a reality at this stage of the development of the European Union of which Ireland forms part and perhaps damage limitation by later Sunday opening hours might be more realistic.