LONDON — THE English Sunday is under attack.
In defiance of the law, several giant supermarket chains, their profits pinched by recession, have decided to stay open in 1992 seven days a week.
Their challenge promises to transform Sunday from being a day of rest and relaxation for many workers. It is being resisted by church leaders and denounced by trade unions, but the British government has apparently decided not to intervene.
Unlike the United States, where Sunday shopping for food and other necessities is widespread, citizens in England and Wales have long been denied access to supermarkets and department stores on Sundays.
The Shops Act, framed 42 years ago to cater to a population thought in those days to want to devote Sunday to church-going and noncommercial pursuits, allows only small stores to stay open for defined periods. The act is riddled with anomalies. It is, for example, illegal to sell dried milk for babies on Sunday, but lawful to sell gin.
The big supermarket chains, in any case, have decided to ignore it. Early in December, Sainsbury, Asda, Tesco, Safeway, and other companies announced that they would stay open on the Sundays leading up to Christmas. Claiming that opinion polls showed seven out of 10 Britons wanted them to do so, they ignored Sir Patrick Mayhew, the attorney general, who said they would be breaking the law.
After three Sundays of what a Sainsbury spokesman called "brisk trading," the supermarkets grew bolder. They declared they would remain open seven days a week in the new year - indefinitely.
Church leaders have condemned the move. But Prime Minister John Major has said nothing can be done pending resolution of a Sunday-trading case before the European Court of Justice.
Then the Church Estates Commissioners who administer the British pounds2.5 billion ($4.65 billion) investment portfolio of the Church of England hinted they might withdraw funds from supermarket chains flouting the law. Most supermarket bosses, however, were unimpressed, and as the new year arrived, about 400 supermarket branches were preparing for Sunday business.
Elsewhere in Europe attitudes to Sunday trading vary widely. In Germany it is illegal and the law is strictly enforced. In the Netherlands Sunday opening is permitted only four times a year. Provisions of the Shops Act do not extend to Scotland, even though Sunday church-going there is more common than in England.
Successive governments have tried to change the law, but each time members of parliament have been lobbied by a coalition of small shopkeepers, union officials and church activists - all opposed to Sunday trading for various reasons.
Among their arguments has been the claim that the English Sunday has already been eroded enough by commercial sporting fixtures and the opening of cinemas and other places of entertainment.
When the government tried to repeal the Shops Act in 1986, Margaret Thatcher's own backbenchers rebelled, and she suffered her only House of Commons defeat in 10 years as prime minister. Matters might have rested there had it not been for two new factors.
Throughout 1991, the economic recession began biting. Also, two local government attempts to prosecute illegal Sunday traders last May were dismissed by the Court of Appeal which drew attention to the case pending before the European Court. The supermarkets saw an opening.
But not all of them decided to flout the law. Two of the largest - Marks and Spencer and Waitrose - advised customers they would be obeying the law. Yet with the statute so widely ignored, defense of the English Sunday is falling to churches and to the "Keep Sunday Special Campaign."
KSSC claims a growing membership around the country. David Blackmore, its director of operations, regards the supermarkets' attitude as irresponsible.
"It will undoubtedly cost jobs, put more duress on shopworkers and their families, and ruin the peace and quiet of Sundays," Mr. Blackmore said. "It will also drive thousands of small businesses to the wall."
KSSC plans renewed lobbying of MPs in early 1992. Reports from The Hague, seat of the European Court, suggest that there will be no ruling on Sunday trading until the end of 1992, by which time English supermarket bosses hope the practice will be firmly entrenched.