The Corner Shop
I grew up in a shop on one of the busiest thoroughfares in North Manchester. My father was a newsagent and tobacconist. Though we ourselves were literally on a corner, there were rows of shops on Moston Lane covering the sale of almost every kind of goods then available. We had two tailors, three butchers, three sweetshops, two grocers, two chemist’s shops, a cobblers and a tripe-shop within a hundred yards, Ironmongery, patisserie, greengrocery, television hire and much more were within a five-minute walk. Local people went on the bus into Manchester city to go to the department stores perhaps one Saturday a month.
Whilst I was at secondary school a small supermarket was built a few yards from our premises by putting together two shops. Then Ted Heath abolished Retail Price Maintenance. The Big Boys were in favour and the small shops gradually diminished and failed. We now live in a country where even the supermarkets are in financial trouble and enormous quantities of goods are bought unseen from suppliers who exist only as warehouses operating via the internet. It is precisely these newer operators who are employing cheap labour and offering the workforce poor terms of work. We have travelled far and in several respects have left civilisation only to find ourselves in a desert.
Those mid-twentieth century urban communities not only had shops, they had a good deal of local employment, with factories and workshops intermingled with housing. They had churches and chapels, libraries and many different sorts of clubs and institutes. Billiard halls were still to be found and the Baden Powell organisations had no shortage of members.
If this was the urban picture, the rural one was not dissimilar. Each parish had its own priest; pubs and shops did good business. It would be local people who maintained farm machinery and who cared for hedges and ditches. Plenty of farming was diverse and it was quite possible to profit from keeping a small herd of dairy cattle. Farmers would still regularly be out on foot.
What this pattern of living was much human contact and conversation was guaranteed. An overwhelming proportion of people did most of their business with people they knew, creating a natural foundation of trust. They freely discussed matters of the day as these affected their own lives. There were people around in plenty who could help a neighbour or look after children in an emergency. It was easy to lend and borrow equipment when necessary. Everybody would know many people with trade skills and long experience. There were always some ‘wide boys’ to be found, but everybody knew exactly who they were. Otherwise there was a broad foundation for trust. Security was not a major issue.
If we contrast the picture above with our present-day experience, we see that life has become very different indeed. Electronic communication reigns, especially with the young, much of it descending into ever-greater triviality. Indeed trivial and constant communication has become an addiction for many, at the cost of work and action. Nearly all buying and selling is anonymous and conversations in a queue are rare. Virtually all associative activity has declined and even families rarely eat together at a table. Individuals so often grasp at radical independence of choice and action rather than submit themselves to common family values and activities. Security has become an obsession.
Many aspects of modernity have little in common with the mind of the New Testament. Paul never tires of urging all those virtues which tend towards peace, harmony, trust and collaboration. He talks about the complementarity of gifts and their equality. Early Christians committed themselves to a life together, even sharing their property. The life of Our Lord was largely lived amongst others and for their good. It entirely lacked what we would think of as personal objectives - success, wealth, property, hobbies or interests.
Whilst religious communities attempted to model that perfect Christian life through their rule and customs, ordinary lay people throughout the Middle Ages and into more modern times sought to establish Christian virtues and standards in family and daily life together. They may often have failed, but they tried. It seems to me, that until the post WWII ‘cultural revolution’ British society took quite seriously those values we identify as Christian, whether explicitly or not, and built them into the way we lived. That era has gone.
Some readers may now be thinking that they are listening to a Luddite or another grumpy old man. There is much enthusiasm in many quarters for our new ways of living and without any doubt many good things have emerged and are still emerging from this new era. For some forward-looking Christians, virtual churches are the origin and strength of their faith. The new educational programme at St Chad’s will be located on electronic sources available to visitors via their mobile phones. Some modern churches have parted company with traditional hymns and instrumentation completely. Vestments have been replaced by t-shirts and jeans. Regular weekday groups there sustain a developing and changing Church.
Yet little that the Church has done has offered a serious rational and moral critique of modern living, nor has it offered or tried to establish alternatives. The new world is substantially shaped by media, corporations and the demands of shareholders. We can hope to have little direct impact on those.
Perhaps a large part of our current vocation is to live what we believe more consistently, happily and confidently. Early pagans had to concede how much those who were Christian loved each other. Is that obvious about us? Do we offer to the world enough occasions to share our life as a Church, and with sufficient effort and enthusiasm? I have been much heartened by the recent seasonal parties at the Vicarage organised by Fr. Mark and Emma, bringing together those who have had some brief encounter with the Church into deeper contact. If we cannot influence the Big Boys perhaps we still have the power to be personal, direct, understanding, principled and generous. Who can know what the Holy Spirit may in time accomplish through conversation and friendships?
Perhaps we might also try to influence thinking at an intermediate social level. For instance, most planning permission for new developments is given for the building of new small pockets of suburbia. In Oswestry the Civic Society has been pressing planners for the creation of communities much more like the old urban ones and the most up-to-date developments in mainland Europe, where a wide range of facilities are built into new programmes, making them in every sense more sustainable and enjoyable to live in, rather than places to reach out from.
To conclude; there’s life in the old homo sapiens yet, and our task is to enrich by all means that life in the direction of the Kingdom of God.