Five Things I learned from Phyllis Tickle

Five Things I learned from Phyllis Tickle September 25, 2015
Phyllis Tickle in 2009. Photo by Courtney Perr, used i accordance with Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Phyllis Tickle in 2009. Photo by Courtney Perry, used in accordance with Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

September 2015 has turned out to be a rough month, at least for awesome Anglican writers. First Kenneth Leech passed away on the 12th, and just ten days later Phyllis Tickle followed him into the silence of eternity.

That’s two authors I considered role models, both of whom warmly supported my own work. In fact, my forthcoming book Befriending Silence will feature an endorsement from Phyllis — the third time she offered praise for something I had written.

I feel like one of the elves in Middle-Earth during Frodo’s life. It’s the end of an age, and great heroes (and heroines) are departing this world.

I met Phyllis Tickle in 1997 at a book industry trade show. Over the next 18 years I never got to know her, but our paths would cross from time to time. From the first time I heard her speak, I was hooked. Her books were excellent, but her skill as a speaker was even better, mainly because she would have the audience laughing so hard that I would end up crying and my side hurting.

Although she had made a name for herself as the religion editor for Publishers Weekly and then as the author of a series of perceptive books about religion and spirituality in America today, it was in the last decade of her life that she became the merry doyenne of the “emerging church” movement, with books like The Great Emergence and Emergence Christianity detailing her sense that Christianity was on the verge of a transition to rival the Protestant Reformation of 500 years ago.

Indeed, her semi-facetious pronouncement that the church holds a “rummage sale every five hundred years” became emblematic of her work, both reporting on, but also encouraging, the roiling ferment that marks much of institutional Christianity today.

The Great Emergence
The Great Emergence

Others, who knew Phyllis better than I, have written lovely and meaningful encomia for her (see this moving piece by Jana Riess), so I will honor Phyllis by noting five lessons I learned from her, not as her friend but as someone who sat in her audiences and read her books and admired her unique presence in the religious landscape of our day.

  1. It’s okay to have fun while talking about God. I’ve already mentioned that Phyllis made her audiences howl with laughter. She was a little bit dry, a little bit kooky, a little bit crazy-grandmother. And it all worked. But she was not a comedian — rather, she skillfully used humor to illustrate some very important ideas, all related to her obvious love for the Christian faith.
  2. Spirituality is all about the Big Picture. If you’re going to write about history in five-hundred-year chunks, you’ve got to be comfortable with the big picture. Phyllis had a keen understanding that dynamics in the community of faith can take generations, if not centuries, to fully play out, and it was that understanding that gave a sense of gravitas, if not urgency, to her analysis of what was going on the church today. Granted, we live our relationship with God in intimate ways, but our local and family lives are always formed by the story of who we have been, as a people of God, for over 2,000 years now.
  3. “In with the new” does not necessarily mean “out with the old.” While Phyllis Tickle was a champion for innovative trends within the faith community (what she called “the great emergence” as a slight tweaking to the idea of the “Emergent Church” which was popular in the late ’90s and early ’00s), she always insisted that the great emergence was not about the death of old models of Christianity (like Orthodoxy, Catholicism, or Protestantism). She saw the growth of the church as guided by the Holy Spirit, with new expressions of faith existing alongside, not supplanting, all that came before. It is a gracious and welcoming way of thinking about the church.
  4. It really is possible to get better with age. Phyllis did her most significant writing after her 70th birthday. So much for the idea that the world we live in belongs to the young! Her energy and enthusiasm when speaking in public — even in the balmy heat of summer at outdoor events like the Wild Goose Festival — was proof positive that age is only a number, and the wisdom that comes with maturity really can be the springboard for a meaningful career as a thought-leader.
  5. You don’t have to have credentials to speak your mind. Well, Phyllis Tickle did have credentials; a distinguished career as a teacher, college professor, editor and publisher preceded her final act as a leading spokesperson for progressive Christianity. But she was not a clergy person, or a nun, or religious academic — in other words, her voice as a Christian writer and speaker emerged fully from her own authority as a laywoman and lover of God. I doubt Phyllis would have ever called herself a mystic, but she does share this significant quality with the great mystics (especially the women mystics): she spoke her mind, not because she had a license to, but because she realized there was something worth talking about, and no point in asking anyone’s permission in order to say it. That’s an insight that I think every writer (even the ones with all the right credentials) can benefit from.

Rest in peace, Phyllis Tickle. Thanks for your support, your insight, and your joy. I’ll listen for your laughter in the singing silence.


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