the Magnificat and the shopping centre

To prepare for Advent this year I read the Magnificat, that famous song of Mary that is recorded in Luke’s gospel. Soon after that I went to Broomhill, an area of Sheffield almost halfway between where we live and the city centre. I hadn’t been for a few weeks and I was shocked by the changes I found.

Together, the two experiences combined to convince me (and I know I’ve been slow) that it’s impossible to take Advent seriously and continue to shop like a typical Western consumer.

This is what I found in Broomhill.

on a roll

This used to be an independent sandwich shop.

Blackwells

This was a bookshop.

Williamsons

This is an excellent hardware store which has been trading in Sheffield for fifty years. It’s moving to the bookshop premises because they are smaller. Not because it is short of things to sell but because the landlord refused to renew their lease, preferring to hand it to Sainsbury’s instead. (I do not know why Broomhill needs a Sainsbury’s only a few doors away from Eurospar in one direction and Tesco in the other but that is what it will get.)

Cream

This was a coffee shop.  It had, a seasonal menu that changed regularly and it stocked local food, such as the excellent Our Cow Molly ice cream.

Our Cow Molly is part of a family-run dairy farm that was set up in 1947 and now numbers eighty cows, which graze on top of one of Sheffield’s famous seven hills. When the current owner’s grandfather started the business sixty years ago, a bottle of milk had the same value as a loaf of bread or a bottle of beer. Now the big traders have forced the price of milk so low that hundreds of dairy farmers are going out of business. ‘We didn’t want to be next so Our Cow Molly dairy ice cream was born!’ explains their website.

The owner of Cream has sold the lease to Costa Coffee, a global chain that already has several branches in Sheffield, each serving an identical menu. Just to be sure, I emailed Costa and asked them whether individual branches were allowed to stock locally sourced food. They replied: ‘The store will have to stock the same products as the rest of our stores in line with our company policy.’

This globalised, one-size-fits-all way of doing business is wrecking our world. It’s destroying individuality, creativity and local resilience. It places power in the hands of a few and forces the rest of us to do things their way. The global food industry in particular is one that screams injustice, whether that’s in the treatment of small scale producers, the conditions in which animals are kept to ensure low prices or the terrible havoc wreaked on the land by large scale agricultural practices.*

In the Magnificat, a pregnant teenager sings of themes that recur throughout the Bible: of justice and equality and of God overthrowing the power structures of the world. ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly,’ cries Mary. ‘He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.’ **

When I read the Magnificat this year, I felt more than ever the dissonance between joining in Mary’s celebration and continuing to spend money without thinking about where it is going. I buy more stuff in December than at any other time. I don’t want my money to contribute to wrecking the environment and putting more power in the hands of people who have too much already.

So as a family we have drawn up some criteria for our shopping and present-giving this month. As far as possible, we will try to buy and give things that meet at least one of the following criteria, things that are:

:: locally produced, or
:: recycled, or
:: sold by an independent retailer, or
:: organic, or
:: fairly traded or
:: hand made originals

We won’t be shopping at big retailers that shirk their responsibility to pay corporation tax. In general I won’t be shopping at supermarkets but I’m making an exception for our local Co-op. That’s partly because the Co-op sells more fairly traded goods than any other supermarket, and also because there’s a small branch only five minutes’ walk from our house. I’m absolutely convinced that if it went out of business we’d get Tesco or Sainsbury’s moving in and tightening still further the grip they have on our buying choices.

I know this isn’t perfect. I know to my shame that we’ll probably still consume more in one month that some families in other countries do in a year. I know loads of people of all faiths and none have been doing this kind of thing for ages and we have been slow to get going. But it’s a start. It’s only by beginning that we’ll find out where to go next.

Joanna Blythman’s books are especially helpful for understanding more about the food industry.
** Tom Wright’s Luke for Everyone really helped me understand the revolutionary nature of Mary’s song.

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11 comments

  1. Joanna I couldn’t agree with you more. We support local shops and it is a pleasure to do so. I’m also a big fan of handmade gifts. It gives me a chance to indulge my creative side and folk seem to like it. This year I’m tackling knitting and felting and I love it. You raise serious points here and I think now, more than ever, it is so important to support our local businesses because, as you highlight, if we don’t we loose them. It may not matter so much to some people that the wee coffee shop they used to pop into every now and then isn’t there because there is, lets face it, always somewhere else to go. However behind every closed door with a sign saying, sorry….. there are folks without jobs looking for new ways to move forward in life and pay the rent/mortgage, electricity bills etc. I agree with you wholeheartedly. We need to be smart, ethical shoppers and prioritise our loyalty to local shops and businesses.

    1. That’s exactly it, Jacqueline. One of the things I really like about buying local and independent is that it restores that sense of connection between what I buy and some of the real people behind it.

  2. Excellent article Jo. We have chosen the Magnificat as our Advent theme this year at our church and I was privileged to write the Advent Tree liturgy entitled, Can we sing the Song of Mary? I too was struck by the message about justice and equality. It is so powerful a theme and kind of slaps you in the face! This year I am going to make the few gifts I plan to give (being unemployed has its advantages!) and we did buy one or two from a craft fair where we met the people who had designed and made the gifts. Keep telling the story, we need to hear it.

  3. Yes, I agree Carolyn – slap in the face is a very good description! It’s interesting that you mention your extra time. This is something that challenges me – the time it takes to shop like this. But I’m realising that the investment of time is more than repaid in terms of increased enjoyment and a sense of connection that you just don’t get with the superstores.

  4. Hear hear. If God Incarnate went local (so local he was undistinguishable from his fellow townsfolk), why can’t we shop in really local places? Not just near to home, but truly in sync with the community?

    1. Thanks Julio – I love ‘God Incarnate went local’. Brilliant. It reminds me of The Message translation of John 1:14 – ‘the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighbourhood.’

  5. I find the excess of this time of year very difficult to deal with and think it is important to rein in and think about what is important. Since hearing and reading it as a child, I’ve admired the Magnificat and I like the way it has informed your approach to present giving.

    I’ve been thinking recently about the current interpretation of “charity’ and how that too might relate to the local community.

    1. Thank you Colleen. I would be really interested to know how you are thinking about ‘charity’ and localism – maybe you should write a blog post once your Advent marathon (which I am enjoying very much) is over!

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