Book Journalism

Sermon at The School of Life

There’s a funny thing about being a television presenter – people think that you can talk in front of anyone, anytime, however big the gathering.

And the thing is, when you are presenting, news-reading, or even ad-libbing, you are doing it down a camera lens. Often, you are thinking about broadcasting to one person (they can change, but often it’s my mum, or someone who’s contacted me).

So when I’m asked to perform in public, it takes me a good deal of agonizing before I say “yes”. Seeing the whites of the audiences’ eyes looking up at me expectantly is quite terrifying. And doing it while talking about my breast cancer – while everyone’s looking at, well, my breasts! – is super scary. I worry about what to wear? How to stand? What to say?

The School of Life is an organisation based in London, which describes itself as being “devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture”. The people who run it contacted me a while ago and asked me to deliver a Sunday Sermon based on my book, Rise. The school has been holding Sunday sermons since 2008, and they are strictly secular, exploring the values we should live by today.

The school’s website describes these events as occasions when: “We ask maverick cultural figures to give us their take on the virtues to cling to or the vices to be wary of in our complex world.”

In continues: “Expect persuasive polemics, pop-song hymns and artist-made buns and biscuits.”

When I read that I thought, me – a maverick?

But I went for it. Right, I said to myself, I need to come up with a 45 minute sermon or ‘persuasive polemic’. And I’ve got to choose a pop song or two for us all to sing as the ‘hymns’.

My fee for this, by the way, is paid in biscuits.

What hymn to sing?

Rise - mighty hike Cuckmere HavenA couple of weeks ago, I thought I’d better get on with finalising my sermon. One weekend, my twin brothers and I were hiking 26.4 miles. This isn’t something we do every day – it was a charity hike to raise money for Macmillan Cancer Support, which looked after our mum when she was ill, and last year and also looked after me. The walk was across the South Downs (where, I discovered, there are also a lot of ups. The Seven Sisters hills? Ha! What a misnomer – there must be nine of them!)

The walk was a struggle, and in the darker moments, facing another hill, I told my brothers I was doing the sermon and needed to choose uplifting hymns.

My brothers are very good at music choices, so Dave suggested Brian Eno, who called himself an ‘avowed atheist’. He selected a wonderful piece called An Ending (Ascent) – perfect! Then he played it to me and we were all weeping as we climbed another hill, and he reminded me it’s played at lots of funerals.

Then he suggested U2’s One. But that lyric, “Did I disappoint you, or leave a bad taste in your mouth” – was not right.

Anyway, then Dave said, “Right, I’ve found it. Let it Be by the Beatles.”

“We can’t have that!” I said. “There’s a line in the song that says: ‘When I find myself in times of trouble Mother Mary comes to me, Speaking words of wisdom, let it be’. This is a secular, not religious sermon!”

But it turns out that Paul McCartney wrote that when he was going through a rough time with the Beatles. He felt he was “wasting his life away” with no one to turn to.

He described the inspiration for those lyrics thus: “One night during this tense time I had a dream I saw my mum, who’d been dead 10 years or so. And it was so great to see her because that’s a wonderful thing about dreams: you actually are reunited with that person for a second; there they are and you appear to both be physically together again. It was so wonderful for me and she was very reassuring.

“In the dream she said, ‘It’ll be all right.’ I’m not sure if she used the words ‘Let it be’ but that was the gist of her advice, it was, ‘Don’t worry too much, it will turn out OK’.”

It doesn’t scan as well does it, to say: “Speaking words of wisdom, don’t worry too much, it will turn out OK…” I’m glad he went for “Let it be.”

So I wrote the sermon and decided that would be the hymn. I also wanted Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles at the end.

Sermon day

Lou's snow field illustration

Lou’s snow field illustration

Let It Be set the tone for the lecture when I was standing in front of the audience, who were looking at me expectantly. Because resilience is about letting go, not holding on to anxiety, and believing it will all be ok, as long as you have heart and hang onto your integrity and your motives are pure. Let it Be.

They were lovely, the audience. They laughed in all the right places, they cried in all the sensitive bits, they got me to sign some books too and, all-in-all, the experience taught me a lot. I learnt about belief in myself and belief in the basic human goodness of others. People don’t mind your vulnerabilities, in fact, showing them you have frailties and fears might make them feel easier about their own feelings.

I was overwhelmed by the response at the end of my sermon and, buoyed up by the biscuits, I gave out my email address to a few people who really touched me. One of them was Lou. She is an illustrator and coach who sent me a picture after reading Rise as an indication of the snowy field we are all walking across – and how we need our backpack full of tools and tips to get us through. Hope you enjoy it. Talk soon xx


I delivered my sermon at the School of Life on Sunday 26 June 2016.