Marketing the Religious Moment

Phyllis Tickle: A Life
By Jon M. Sweeney
Church Publishing. Pp. 274. $26.95

By Phoebe Pettingell

I first encountered Phyllis Tickle (1934-2015) in the 1990s through her religion column in Publishers Weekly. Books about religion had hitherto been a niche market, hard to order through one’s local small bookstore. But with the advent of Barnes & Noble, Borders, and similar superstores, it suddenly became possible to acquire small-press volumes, even self-published ones, or find them on the shelves. Recognizing a changing market, PW (as it is known in the trade) brought on Tickle, who had managed small religious and regional presses in her home state of Tennessee.

As Jon Sweeney writes, “Her talent was the ability to prophetically see what was coming, and then explain it in attractive detail.” She played a similar role for emergence Christianity, which she adapted from a biology term that describes a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The movement began in the 1970s among evangelicals of various stripes attempting to come to terms with modernity. And, thanks to her three Divine Hours volumes, she introduced thousands of readers to a usable form of hours of prayer — demonstrating the shape of these liturgies to those as yet too inexperienced to manage a breviary or construct a usable office from the Book of Common Prayer.

Sweeney is admirably suited to write about Tickle. In the last year of her life, when her health was failing, he acted as her coauthor. He too had become an Episcopalian after an evangelical childhood, although he subsequently joined the Roman Catholic Church. As he admits, Tickle is not an easy subject. She came from a Southern culture that made a tight distinction between public and private life. Not only did she hold her feelings inside herself, including those concerning significant problems with her marriage, but even her autobiographical writings are singularly impersonal. Her spiritual life remained private, as well. She had a developed inner life of prayer of which even those closest to her caught only an occasional glimpse.

Although raised a conservative Presbyterian, Tickle was temperamentally a liberal in most ways. She easily absorbed new ideas and was an enthusiast for most kinds of learning. At the same time, however, she saw no reason why embracing new certainties required abandoning everything connected with the old. She was neither a scholar — despite her wide reading — nor a systematic thinker. Rather, she synthesized knowledge into an appealing presentation, albeit with some mind-boggling assertions, such as that Martin Luther stood as a bookend, beginning an era that thinkers like Marcus Borg and John Shelby Spong were bringing to an end.

Loosely adapting a concept of 12th-century mystic Joachim of Fiore, she liked to say that Judaism had been the Age of the Father; the coming of Christ ushered in the Age of the Son, which continued through the Protestant Reformation and what followed; and that contemporary Christianity was entering the Age of the Spirit, in which “uncertainty was now the only authentic expression of what we called faith.” As this formulation implies, Tickle was staunchly anti-hierarchical. Sweeney thinks her anti-Catholicism was a relic of her Presbyterian dispensationalism.  The only two bishops she seems to have admired were Spong and Desmond Tutu. Similarly, despite her devotion to the Canonical Hours of Prayer, she remained firmly at the Protestant end of the Anglican spectrum, having little use for “ritualism.”

Nonetheless, she never considered herself post-Christian, and after joining the Episcopal Church, she remained faithful and active. Her husband, a doctor, fit less well into a denominational mold. Beginning as an Appalachian conservative, he gradually morphed into a faith even Tickle (who was married to him for 53 years) confessed she could not understand. At some point during the most turbulent years of debates on sexuality (Sweeney is sometime vague about dates), the couple attended a non-denominational parish, Holy Trinity, in downtown Memphis, because it was gay-friendly, as the Diocese of West Tennessee was not.

Unbeknownst to many, Samuel Tickle had come out to his wife, claiming he needed men as well as her. However, she refused to join Trinity formally because it would have meant giving up not only membership in the Episcopal Church but her positions as a lay reader and eucharistic minister. She hoped that Trinity would eventually be accepted into her diocese, but when the congregation joined the United Church of Christ the Tickles left and she returned to attending an Episcopal parish without her husband.

Despite her involvement with the Emergent movement, she was never wholeheartedly sold on it. She explained in an interview, “I’m not an emergence Christian; I’m probably an Angli-mergent. … I have colleagues who are pure emergence Christians who don’t like for me to say this, but one of the things is that emergence praxis does not allow for much transcendence. It allows for transport—and there’s a difference.” Yet in other respects she also missed certain elements of spirituality because of her background. Ultimately, the canonical hours of prayer are a form of corporate worship that binds a specific community (even though some may be praying it in different venues). When she describes herself as “an uncloistered Benedictine,” her penchant for embracing paradox strains credulity.

Sweeney sees Tickle as generous to the point of overvaluing certain trends because she liked the people involved. Increasingly, it looks as though the emergent movement has proved less than the sum of its parts: a diffuse attempt on the part of some evangelicals to come to terms with modernity, in some cases merely to adapt its language to older concepts, in others to embrace liberalism. Sweeney believes her greater achievements to have been her recognition that religious publishing was reaching a wider audience, thanks to changes in marketing, and her introduction of certain ancient practices—praying at specific hours, fasting, tithing, and so forth — to Protestants whose traditions had neglected them. These are significant, if probably transitory achievements. But it may be that the quality that made Tickle seem groundbreaking to certain groups cannot be captured without her presence. What comes across, in the end, is a gifted marketer who knew how to seize a particular moment and sell it.

Phoebe Pettingell, a literary critic and liturgist, is sacristan at S. Stephen’s Church in Providence.


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