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Obituary: Phyllis Tickle

16 October 2015

Courtney Perry

Having seen the light: Phyllis Tickle addresses the Christianity 21 conference in Denver in January 2014

Having seen the light: Phyllis Tickle addresses the Christianity 21 conference in Denver in January 2014

Tony Jones writes:

Phyllis Tickle said that when she died, she wanted to be buried by a man in a dress. She died on 22 September, at her farm in Lucy, Tennessee, aged 81. She will be laid to rest on 16 October in St Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, Memphis. Officiating will be a man in priestly vestments — that is, a dress.

Into those eight decades Phyllis packed an extraordinary amount of life. Born Phyllis Alexander, she was reared as an only child by a college dean and a high-school teacher, in Johnson City, Tennessee. On graduation from East Tennessee State University in 1955, she married Sam Tickle, a medical school student, and she began teaching high-school Latin.

When Sam finished his residency, they moved to a small mining town, where he was a country doctor, and Phyllis was the hospital’s administrator. They had two children, and another was on the way when they moved back to the city. Phyllis earned a Master’s degree at Furman University and began teaching there.

By the mid-1960s, she had been appointed dean of the humanities at the Memphis Academy of Art.

In 1970, Wade, the infant son of Phyllis and Sam, died in infancy. Phyllis resigned as dean, and decided to stay at home to raise her other six children. The Tickle family resided on a 20-acre farm in Lucy, just outside Memphis, and she always signed her correspondence “From the Farm in Lucy”. Any number of rapscallion dogs and various other livestock shared the farm with Sam, Phyllis, and the children.

Not content as a homebody, Phyllis became an accomplished poet, and, by the end of the 1970s, she had launched a publishing house with some friends. The venture evolved, the publishing house was bought by a bigger house, and they made Phyllis the publisher.

She resigned (again) in 1989, determined to stay at home and write. But the estimable Publishers’ Weekly magazine chose her to launch their religion department; so, for the next decade, she commuted to New York City, and became one of the most important voices in American religion, the go-to expert in the publishing world on how and why Americans have faith.

In 2004, she resigned (yes, again), and this time the writing life stuck. She had a huge hit with the publication of The Divine Hours (Doubleday, 2000), which she called, “a kind of Book of Common Prayer, but without all the ribbons”. Then, in her seventies, she turned her attention toward the new forms of life that were bubbling up within both mainstream and Evangelical Protestantism, both in the United States and overseas.

In her bestselling book, The Great Emergence (Baker Books, 2008), she wrote about the Emerging Church movement in the US, and the “fresh expressions” movement in the UK. That book begins by positing that, every 500 years, the church holds a giant “rummage sale”, discarding much of what it has accumulated over the previous centuries to make room for new gifts of the Spirit.

That observation had great explanatory power for many church leaders who were struggling to understand the sudden downturn in church attendance and participation, and Phyllis spent much of her eighth decade on the road, speaking to groups, from bishops to the Greenbelt Festival. In the course of her travels, she became a kind of godmother to many young clerics who were trying to forge a vocation in an increasingly secular society.

Phyllis was a bit of an Anglophile. At speaking engagements, she often described herself as a Presbyterian who had seen the light and converted to Anglicanism — hence the man in a dress officiating at her funeral. But more than anything else, she was a theophile: a lover of God, a preacher of good news, and an extractor of good things from everyone she met. Hers was a life of many careers, but of a singular passion. And those of us who knew her are certain that we won’t ever meet someone like Phyllis Tickle again.

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