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Phyllis Tickle: A life, by Jon M. Sweeney

22 June 2018

Bernice Martin reads a biography of the author Phyllis Tickle

PHYLLIS TICKLE, who died at the age of 81 in 2015, was an influential American religious journalist, a poet, and a mystic. She was brought up in the Presbyterian Church in small-town Tennessee, and formally became an Episcopalian (“Anglican”, as she insisted) only in the 1990s, when she had raised the seven children that she had with her doctor husband, Sam.

A working mother from the early years of marriage, she taught in schools and then as an academic, notably as Dean of Humanities in Memphis Academy from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. She taught poetry for Tennessee Arts Commission and was poet-in-residence at Memphis Art Museum from 1977 to 1987.

Her poetry was published in Southern magazines and with the St Luke’s Press, a publishing house that she founded with friends from the Memphis Academy and which she effectively ran. She retired when the press was absorbed into a larger publisher in 1989. This experience laid the foundation for the national prominence she attained after 1992 when she became founding religion editor for Publishers Weekly.

This introduced her to the upsurge of books on religion, which enabled her to trace trends in religious thinking and practice over the following decades. Her most important books date from this period, notably her prayer manual, The Divine Hours (2000), and her immensely influential analysis of new spiritual trends and innovations in worship, The Great Emergence (2008). These were years of ceaseless travel for conferences and public lectures, many on “Emergence Church”, when Phyllis Tickle became a national celebrity.

courtney perryPhyllis Tickle in 2014

During the years of childrearing, the Tickle family moved congregations many times, always within a broadly Evangelical ambit, usually in an attempt to still Sam’s disquiets. Phyllis, though critical of claims to clerical authority, was strongly attracted to Anglican and Catholic liturgy and prayer, and rooted herself in a version of the Benedictine prayer discipline which she maintained to the end.

In the late 1980s, she and Sam found a church that suited them both, Holy Trinity Community Church in Memphis, a hub of LGBTQ Christian practice. Sam, a pioneer in treating AIDS in the 1980s, finally admitted his own bisexual nature and habits. Though Phyllis never wavered in her commitment to him, the knowledge put an additional strain on their relationship. Only months before Phyllis, Sam died at the family farm, after years of dementia.

Jon Sweeney was a collaborator and co-author with the subject of his biography, whom he loved and admired. He offers quiet criticism of her contradictions and evasions, which saves this eminently readable “life” from becoming hagiography.

Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at the University of London.

Phyllis Tickle: A life
Jon M. Sweeney
Church Publishing Inc £20.50
Church Times Bookshop £18.45

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