How to be Good?

A Chat with a Christian Bishop

January 25, 2021 Sarah Buckmaster Season 1 Episode 4
A Chat with a Christian Bishop
How to be Good?
More Info
How to be Good?
A Chat with a Christian Bishop
Jan 25, 2021 Season 1 Episode 4
Sarah Buckmaster

What does it mean to be a good person within Christianity?

We ask Christian Priest, Reverend Prebendary Angela Berners-Wilson to share her opinions on being 'good' according to Christian teachings.

Reverend Angela was the first woman to be ordained as a priest in the Church of England, and is now the Rector of Quantock Towers Benefice - a collection of parishes and communities in Somerset, England. In this conversation, she talks about connecting with community during a global pandemic (she provides leadership to 6 churches and their congregations), describes the importance of the New Commandment, and shares more about her experience as the first female Priest in the Church of England. 

Show Notes Transcript

What does it mean to be a good person within Christianity?

We ask Christian Priest, Reverend Prebendary Angela Berners-Wilson to share her opinions on being 'good' according to Christian teachings.

Reverend Angela was the first woman to be ordained as a priest in the Church of England, and is now the Rector of Quantock Towers Benefice - a collection of parishes and communities in Somerset, England. In this conversation, she talks about connecting with community during a global pandemic (she provides leadership to 6 churches and their congregations), describes the importance of the New Commandment, and shares more about her experience as the first female Priest in the Church of England. 

[Podcast Theme Music: upbeat electro/beats]

Sarah Buckmaster  0:03 
Hi, everyone. I'm Sarah and this is 'How to be Good?'; the podcast that explores what it means to be a good person in today's world. Today, I'm talking with Christian Priest, Reverend Prebendary Angela Berners-Wilson.

[Podcast Theme Music]

Reverend Angela Berners-Wilson  0:19 
I mean, sometimes people say "I'm not a religious person". I say, "well no, I'm not either. I'm just me and I'm doing my job and I'm a Christian".

Sarah Buckmaster  0:27 
Reverend Angela was the first woman to be ordained as a priest in the Church of England, and is now the Rector of Quantock Towers Benefice. This is a collection of parishes and communities in Somerset, England. In this role, she provides leadership to six churches and their congregations, guiding the different communities towards a vision of compassion and outreach.

Reverend Angela Berners-Wilson  0:49 
I think you know, not to hurt people. So, to be kind to people, and especially, I think, in the pandemic. A lot of us have been phoning those who are lonely, who live on their own, who may be isolated, just to have a conversation on the phone.

Sarah Buckmaster  1:03 
Reverend Angela speaks about Christianity in such approachable terms in this conversation. So without any more introduction, it's my pleasure to introduce you to Reverend Angela Berners-Wilson.

[Podcast Theme Music - comes in briefly, and fades out]

Reverend Angela Berners-Wilson  1:17 
Well, I don't think the teachings of the Church of England on goodness are probably any different to the teachings of any Christian religion. But it's more about the new commandment that Jesus gave, which superseded the 10 commandments; it didn't mean we throw the other ones out - but the new commandment that Jesus gave was to love God and love your neighbour as yourself. In other words, don't do anything to your neighbour that you wouldn't want done to you.

And that really encapsulates what's in most of the 10 commandments, which is all about don't commit adultery, don't steal your neighbor's goat, all that sort of thing. And it all starts with loving God, of course, as well. But if you really love your neighbour as yourself, then you wouldn't break any of the 10 commandments. It's the old fashioned "do as you would be done by" - there's a bit more to it in Christianity, but that's really what it's about. So, you know, I won't ignore you or be rude to you, because I wouldn't want you to ignore me or be rude to me.

Sarah Buckmaster  2:10 
Are there any examples that you can describe to us, especially with the pandemic around community, that have really struck you as goodness in the world? - any examples that you've seen?

Reverend Angela Berners-Wilson  2:21 
Yes, I mean, there's been the most amazing community involvement with so many people - every level of society. And I've still continued working right through the pandemic. And it's been hard because my husband died of cancer in June, and he was only diagnosed with it in February. So that was all a terrible shock. But people have been so kind. And I've seen kindness manifest in all sorts of ways.

I'm Rector of six parishes and one of them normally has a community lunch once a month for the over 60s. And obviously, we couldn't do that anymore. So that turned into Meals on Wheels for the over 60s. So that group that were doing it (we can't now because we're in Tier four) did the lunches and then they distributed them around the people in the village and the outlying farms. There's been a huge outpouring of communal spirit. And it's not just Christians. I mean, obviously, there are churches involved but it's just ordinary people in the village which has been very heartwarming to see.

And I think certainly at the very beginning with the first lockdown, the churches had to be locked, and that did not go down well at all. We are a very rural area, with - for the most part - very tall, medieval churches. So it's not like you're stuck in a very confined space. And I was amazed how many people who, in my own village where I live, would stop me and ask why the churches were locked - people you don't normally ever see in church, maybe just for Christmas, but they really valued that building. I think in a time of crisis, people look to their faith, however latent or lost it is - and people just wanted to go and sit quietly in church, and we had to lock the churches, which seemed very, very hard. I didn't agree with it. But obviously I obey the law and I obey the rules. But that's now changed, thank goodness. I think they realised that that wasn't the best thing to do. So churches are all open. And indeed, yesterday, we had live worship in three of my churches under Zoom service.

Sarah Buckmaster  4:08 
You've been within Christianity for your whole life, how has your understanding personally of being "good" changed over that time, (if it has at all)?

Reverend Angela Berners-Wilson  4:17 
When I went to university, I was 18. And when I went to theological college, I was 23. So I wasn't totally young. But by today's standards, it's quite young from where I stand now. I grew up in the church; my father was a Priest. So I grew up with an understanding of Christianity, and obviously it's developed and matured over the years and I don't think I've thrown any of it actually out, but some things have become more important as one gets older and perhaps other things not quite so important.

Sarah Buckmaster  4:47 
In some of my other interviews, what comes up a lot is the discusson of "intention" versus "action". So you might have good intentions, but maybe the action doesn't come off to someone else that way. Within Christianity, how is that balance - or understanding - of intention versus action?

Reverend Angela Berners-Wilson  5:02 
Well, there's a lovely story in the New Testament about the brother that said he'd go and help and didn't, and the one that said he wouldn't but then did. I mean, I think actions speak louder than words. So, actions are important. Having said that, you might intend to do something and then you don't for very good reasons. So I wouldn't want someone to feel really guilty that they said they'd go and collect someone's shopping and then didn't manage to... well, actually shopping is very seriously as we all need food. But, I think it is important to do what you say you'll do. It's about having integrity, and honesty in your words.

Sarah Buckmaster  5:41 
Are there specific actions within Christianity that would make someone a bad person? Could you expand a bit on what the what the concept of bad might be within Christianity?

Reverend Angela Berners-Wilson  5:53 
Well, it's not a word that necessarily comes up like that. I mean, there's the concept of sin - so if you do wrong, if you commit a sin... but it's really about... we believe that Christ died for everybody. So, it's not about blaming people and saying "you're bad", but rather helping them to turn away from a path that's leading them in the wrong direction. But it's about, as I said at the beginning - love God, love your neighbour as yourself - that's the crux of what Christianity is about. And other faiths also subscribe to similar things as well. So, you wouldn't do anything to hurt anybody. But I think the word "bad", I slightly struggle in answering that in a theological concept. I've an understanding of what sin is, and we shouldn't sin, and I suppose sin is ultimately doing bad, but I don't use that term very often. There are bad people and there are bad things, but in the framework of practicing my faith, it's not a word I use very much.

Sarah Buckmaster  6:56 
I'm also interested in the idea of forgiveness - is the concept of forgiveness something in Christianity that would come up more?

Reverend Angela Berners-Wilson  7:03 
Yes. But before you can forgive, and give forgiveness in a sacramental sense, the person would have to repent. So, in the Roman Catholic Church, people go to Priests regularly and make confession. In the Anglican Church, it's an option. Every time you have a main service, there's a communal prayer of confession and the Priest gives absolution at the end. But if someone wants to come and make a personal confession to me about something they've done, I would only give absolution if they are genuinely sorry. So if it was something to do with mistreating or abusing children, I would not give them forgiveness - I would say that they have to go to the police - I'd take them to the police station. You can't have forgiveness unless you're really sorry, and is you're really sorry then you're going to own up.

Sarah Buckmaster  7:50 
Out of interest, have you noticed in your teachings and dealings with people that there is one of the commandments - or any specific area - that people do seem to really struggle with?

Reverend Angela Berners-Wilson  8:00 
Well, everyone's different. If children come from a really difficult home background, it's very hard to honour your parents. I think, "Do Not Steal" is a very simplistic thing; if somebody maybe takes home a paperclip because they've got some paperwork they're doing at home and maybe they forget the paperclip at home, I wouldn't call that sinful or really bad. We've all done it. But if you're being really strict, I suppose you take the wretched paperclip back.

Respecting other people's property - that's important, and I think perhaps people do stray in that respect sometimes. You know, you wouldn't drop litter in your front room, so why do it out in the road? Having watched David Attenborough's amazing film last night on telly, I'm now really concerned about climate change and we all know the appalling pollution and something like - is it 80%? - of rubbish is now discarded PPE. So I think you know, pick up a bit of rubbish if you see it. It's part of what we should do if we're worried about the planet, which I think we all should be. When I used to live in London, I cycled everywhere. And I remember someone dropping something, they just lowered the car window at a junction (I was on my bike on the inside) and they just dropped something out of the window. I just picked it up and said "excuse me, I think you drop this" and put it back to the car.

Sarah Buckmaster  9:25 
Have you ever had any moments where you've doubted if you're a good person in your religious practice? Or just personally? Have you ever had those moments of doubt where you've doubted a behaviour or an action or a thought?

Reverend Angela Berners-Wilson  9:39  
Well, I wouldn't say I was a good person. I am a Christian and I try to practice the Christian faith and I try to live my life on certain principles. I wouldn't call myself "good". I hope I'm not "bad". I think Christians do good in the world, but so do lots of other people - I wouldn't want to say we're the only people who do good. Of course not, that would be ridiculous.

I mean - to give an example, I had a moral dilemma with myself just last week because when we were in the Rule of 6 [Editors note: UK Covid restrictions were allowing people to meet in groups of no more than six people], some really good friends - that my late husband and I would often spend New Year's Eve with - were going to come over. I was going to do a dinner party for 6 people; two friends in the village who had been really kind and another friend, and then this couple were going to stay because they live over in Bradford-on-Avon. And obviously, that couldn't happen. So, then we were going to meet up at Stourhead, a National Trust property, where you could still go - you just had to book your walk around and you're outside all the time. We were going to do that instead and I was really looking forward to that. And then on New Year's Eve, well midnight on the 30th of December, we went into Tier 4 [Editors Note: a more extreme Covid restriction level that prohibited all forms of meet-ups]. So I thought, I really can't do that now. I don't suppose anyone would have stopped me and we would have been outside all the time. I'm pretty certain as much as anyone can be - which we can't this wretched virus - but I'm really healthy at the moment. And it would have been lovely to see them, especially as it's been a very lonely Christmas, the first one alone without my beloved life-partner. But I just thought I can't do that, because you're not meant to travel if you're in Tier 4 to another tier; if they'd been Tier 4 as well, it might have been alright, but they were Tier 3. So I had to cancel. I had a little discussion with myself, saying that just because I can get away with it doesn't mean I should do it. And I am meant to set a good example. So I didn't, and we cancelled it.

Sarah Buckmaster  11:16 
You mention setting an example for other people in your position. And you're also the first woman to be ordained as a priest in the Church of England. Before we end this interview, I'd love to just hear some of your reflections about the challenges you faced because of that.

Reverend Angela Berners-Wilson  11:32 
I mean, some people still don't think that women should be ordained. And that's what they think and they're quite entitled to their belief. And I've got friends who think like that. I can give you an example... when I was a Chaplain at the University of Bristol, there was one particular member of staff who totally disagreed about it all. And he would actually cross the road so he wouldn't have to be on the same bit of pavement as me... but everyone is entitled to their own belief. I've never not treated someone properly just because they disagree with what I am.

Sarah Buckmaster  12:03 
Do you notice it has got better through the years?

Reverend Angela Berners-Wilson  12:07 
Oh, it is much better. I mean, for example, when I came to my present post, where I've been for 4,5 years, there was absolutely no problem with the fact I was a woman. I mean, my two predecessors had been female as well. Whereas when I was last a Parish Priest, because in-between I'd been a University Chaplain at a different university for 12 years - at my previous Parish, it was a big deal because they'd never had a woman Vicar before. One or two people were... they weren't exactly hostile, but they were very wary and I had to really earn their respect. Whereas where I am now, it's just normal. So I think it has improved, but there are certain places where it's still quite tricky for women.

Sarah Buckmaster  12:42 
And as we start approaching the end of the time, is there anything else you'd like to share around the concept of being good, or just any kind of reflections you'd like to share that we haven't covered?

Reverend Angela Berners-Wilson  12:55 
I think most people try to be good and lead their lives in ways that don't hurt others. But certainly in the whole world of corporate things and financial things, I know it's very, very complex, and there's a lot of grey areas. And I don't think Christians should be judgmental. I think we should help people to know that God loves them, and if they've done something really wrong, we can be forgiven if we're sorry,

Sarah Buckmaster  13:21 
if you could give the listeners one piece of advice as to how they could go out and do a good thing or contribute positively to the world, what would you recommend they do?

Reverend Angela Berners-Wilson  13:31 
Not drop any litter, maybe pick up one bit of someone else's plastic or PPE or facemask they just dropped. And certainly at the moment, ring someone who you know is lonely or just knock on your neighbor's door and stand back and ask if they need any shopping. Just a simple thing which makes so much difference. It might be the only conversation that person's had with a live person that day.

And I think you know, not to hurt people. Be kind to people, and especially in the pandemic - a lot of us have been phoning those who are lonely or who live on their own and may be isolated, just have a conversation on the phone. And when you go out and about, smile at people. People are lonely, they're isolated, they're frightened. Tell them a stupid joke... We just had Epiphany Sunday, when we talk about when the Magi came to Jesus and we talk about it as the light shining. Lighten people's day in whatever way you can.

[Podcast Theme Music comes in, and then gently fades so it's quietly playing in background as Sarah begins talking...]

Sarah Buckmaster  14:40 
My hugest thanks go to Reverend Angela for her time and openness during that interview. If after listening, you'd like to find out more about Reverend Angela and her congregations, you can visit the Quantock Towers Benefice website;,uk. I'll add that in the show description notes too.

And if you've enjoyed this episode and would like to hear more episodes and interviews exploring the question of what it means to be a good person in today's world, then please consider hitting the subscribe button. And, if you have time and liked what you heard, then I would love you to leave a review and share with your friends. I'm in the early stages of this podcast and very much learning as I go - any help and support is really appreciated. Thank you for listening, and if you have any questions or suggestions, please email me at any time. It's and I would love to hear from you. Thank you.

[Podcast Theme Music, fades out]

Transcribed by Sarah Buckmaster and