Canon Dr Peter Sills
Maybe things have changed, but the economics that I went to Nottingham University to study did not make much sense to me, so I switched to law. My problem with economic theory was that it was based on the so-called ‘perfect state’, which all agreed did not exist, and never could exist! Later, I came to realise that an equally basic part of the problem was the way in which the theory ignored anything that could not be assigned a monetary value. Faith, altruism, love and common concern simply don’t figure in economic reckoning. People are regarded simply as consumers; we are defined by our appetites, but in truth we are spiritual beings, defined by our values and our hopes.
After graduating I stayed on for a couple of years to do an LL.M, and then began work as an academic lawyer. My initial career was teaching constitutional and administrative law at Kingston Polytechnic (now Kingston University), during which time I was generously given partial leave of absence to read for the Bar and to undertake a pupillage. In 1977 I was called to the Bar by the Inner Temple, and had the good fortune to be pupil to Harry Woolf, then Junior Counsel the Crown in Common Law matters (aka ‘the Treasury Devil’), and who later became the Lord Chief Justice. The Treasury devil handled the common law aspects of the government’s litigation. Our staple diet was planning and immigration, but I also recall a fascinating case about passports, and another about Kruger rands. I was lucky too, as a pupil, to be involved in a three-week case in the House of Lords (the predecessor of the Supreme Court). It was a dream pupillage for a public lawyer, and although tempted to continue in that work, another calling was becoming more insistent.
In the late 1970s I was accepted as a candidate for ordination, and, after training on the Southwark Ordination Course, I was ordained in Southwark Cathedral on St Francis’ Day, 4 October 1981. After serving in three parishes – West Wimbledon, Barnes and Purley – in the south London Diocese of Southwark , in May 2000 I was appointed a Residentiary Canon at Ely Cathedral, where I was Vice-Dean from 2003 to 2008, responsible, among other things, for the events, communications and marketing aspects of the cathedral’s ministry, and also for its corps of volunteer guides – a responsibility that brought a particular pleasure.
During my time in parish ministry, economic theory assumed a new importance in British life, particularly under the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, and this reawakened my interest in economics, eventually leading to a study of the ethics of the privatisation of three natural monopoly industries (gas, water and electricity) from the perspective of Christian social teaching, for which I was awarded a PhD by the University of Kent at Canterbury in 2000. Not surprisingly, the Christian critique of economic orthodoxy is one of the main themes of my speaking and writing. Another theme is the spirituality of St Benedict. Like countless others, my interest in St Benedict was awakened by the writing of Esther de Waal, in particular Seeking God (Fount, 1984). It is remarkable that, although Benedict lived and taught over 1500 years ago, his wisdom has a very contemporary relevance, speaking directly to us across the ages. Ely Cathedral, which from the 10th–16th centuries was a Benedictine monastery, provided the right environment to develop this aspect of my ministry. Among other things I attended a course of seminars at Douai Abbey, a Benedictine monastery near Newbury, on Spirituality in the Workplace, led by Fr Dermot Tredget. This led to the formation of the Ely Business Ethics Forum, which has since morphed into the Ely Cathedral Business Group.
In the Church, as at the Polytechnic, I have seen myself principally as a teacher. As I trained for ordination, learning new things about the faith that I had professed for many years, a constant refrain in my mind was “Why haven’t I heard this before?” I am distressed by the lack of opportunity in many parishes for ordinary people to learn about their faith – the annual Lent course is simply not enough – and in my ministry I have tried to redress this situation, passing on what I have learned to others. I believe this needs three elements: Knowledge, so that faith is rooted in firm foundations; Experience, so that we learn with the heart and not just the mind; and Reflection, so that we are able to relate our faith to everyday life. I have sought to do this through creative liturgy, study courses, and leading pilgrimages, retreats and quiet days. These things continue to be the basis of my ministry. Now retired, my wife, Helen, and I live in Sussex and I assist in the Beacon Parish of Ditchling, Streat & Westmeston.