The Sunday Sermon: Karen Armstrong

Alice Gribbin joins a secular congregation at prayer, and leaves with a warm glow.

Alice Gribbin joins a secular congregation at prayer, and leaves with a warm glow.

The Sunday Sermon: Karen Armstrong
School of Life, London WC1

Susan and Heather are perturbed by a seven-foot devil-man sauntering up the aisle. "He's so fluid!" Susan whispers as the man gyrates, somehow modestly, to the theme song from Friends. Susan and Heather from Belfast have travelled here specially to hear Karen Armstrong, the former Roman Catholic nun-turned-author on comparative religion, deliver this secular Sunday Sermon. One of them had read a book by Alain de Botton, googled him and found out about the School of Life. Today, Susan and Heather are missing church.

The Sunday Sermons take place in Conway Hall, a 1920s auditorium of panelled dance-hall art deco that is home to the humanist South Place Ethical Society. Entering the hall, the audience of 400 passed tables of bespoke Compassionate Cookies, baked in the shape of an outstretched hand with icing nails and a heart in the palm. When we got to our seats we found the School of Life's Parish Newsletter, a folded-page booklet with simple, 1950s-style graphics printed on recycled paper. Today's "hymns" would be the Beatles' "A Little Help from My Friends" and Bill Withers's "Lean on Me". The devil walked along the hardwood floor to "Bridge Over Troubled Water", and Armstrong ascended to the modest oak pulpit.

Compassion, Armstrong says, is a word that has been "stampeded from our consciousness". For an hour, she offered definitions of the Golden Rule (among the most striking: "Look out for the practical interests of your enemy") and quoted freely from the Bible, the Quran and the Torah, as well as Socrates, Life of Brian and Gandhi. Our thoughtless ways of speaking ("The problem with her is . . .") betray hidden prejudices that deny the mystery of others' characters, she argued. And until we take responsibility for ourselves, we cannot expect our governments to be peace-loving.

If I make Armstrong sound like a preacher, she certainly is not. She is a captivating narrator, describing Priam and Achilles weeping together over Hector's body; Guildenstern playing on Hamlet like a pipe.

In the question-and-answer session that followed, Armstrong turned political, speaking of dictatorships, corporate greed and fundamentalism; of Pakistan, Iran and America. The rhetoric of Congress in the US is a gift to extremists and the British, too, are culpable: a veteran BBC broadcaster's snub of the "silly" Charter for Compassion (based on the Golden Rule and funded by Armstrong's 2008 TED Prize) exemplified Britain's social and political apathy.

Before the sermon, I found many of her books on sale. One of the latest, Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, takes both its title and method from Alcoholics Anonymous. Our "pet prejudices" - judgements that manifest in a biting word and deliver to those uttering them a hit of bruising pleasure - are an addiction, Armstrong writes, off which we can wean ourselves only in stages.

This may be an allusion too far, however. AA, after all, requires its members to define themselves as alcoholics, trumping other aspects of the self in the process. But does this not attenuate the variousness of the human spirit just as surely as do phrases such as "The problem with her is . . ."? Or should we reserve our scorn for the book's cover, which has unfortunate overtones of evangelism?

Nonetheless, leaving the hall, I experienced the kind of candle-warmth towards the other parishioners that you feel as a political rally disperses, or when you stumble with strangers out of a sweaty concert, or even - so I assume - as one rises with fellow worshippers after a sermon at the local church.

Armstrong has been accused of preaching to the choir in her writing on compassion but, she said, "The choir is no longer singing." And, as the lusty rendition of "Lean on Me" reminded us, we're much the worse off for it.

Conway Hall:

Alice Gribbin is a Teaching-Writing Fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop. She was formerly the editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The rise of the muslim brotherhood