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Remembering Phyllis Tickle: As Prophet and Portable Pastor

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Phyllis Tickle would have been 82 on March 12. Instead, we are almost six months out from the day she died at home in Tennessee. By most accounts, Phyllis was one of the most important figures in the history of late twentieth century Christian spirituality.
An event in November 2007 best captures the impact of her life. She was then 73, and standing at a podium. She wouldn't remain behind it for long, however. She never did, but moved around a dais, taking it as her responsibility to make the most of the moment she'd been given. She learned that from her father.
She was dressed in a worn, dark, wool skirt, a plain, nondescript blouse, and an old, gray wool jacket. Back in the 1990s at Publishers Weekly, where she founded the religion department, her boss once said as they sat together in the downtown Manhattan offices, "That's the fourth time I've seen you wear that. You need to buy some new clothes." Phyllis did, then, but she was from east Tennessee. She began as a poet, a mother of seven, the wife of a rural country doctor, an academic, and a playwright. When not in the media spotlight (or even when she was) her clothes were usually designed to go unnoticed.
On that day in November '07 she was giving "the talk," as it was known for years, about seventy minutes in length: "What Is Emergence?" This was before the punctuality, polish, and fussiness of TED talks. People didn't come to hear precision from Phyllis. They came for wide-ranging analysis, a global take on what was going on in the religious world, including her entertaining digressions, which were often as well-rehearsed as the core content. She was the Sunday general session speaker at the National Youth Workers Convention, sponsored by evangelical-leaning Youth Specialties, in the Atlanta Convention Center. The roster was strong that year, what with Shane Claiborne and Rob Bell on the docket, as well. Herself a left-leaning Episcopalian, Phyllis seemed to fit comfortably in most any crowd of religiously sincere people.
In the talk, she ranged from new science to ancient philosophy to the latest fads in social media, to elaborate, explain, and exemplify the radical speed with which First World Christians were experiencing Emergence. She made it clear that any religious professional within earshot should not only realize the sea-changes they're trying to stand in, but the responsibility they have to help others navigate the same. The Holy Spirit was surrounding them, she explained, in the midst of what often felt disruptive and chaotic. The future was awaiting creative, inspired responses to essential change. For a decade after leaving Publishers Weekly, which she did in 2004, Phyllis lectured to more people than any other woman in North America, with the possible exceptions of Sisters Helen Prejean and Joan Chittister.
In her audience that night were thousands of youth leaders, clergy, and church professionals. Many of them experienced revelatory moments. Some explained hearing Phyllis as like a puzzle being put together to explain what had already happened in their lives or their church. Many used words like "awestruck" and "beautiful" to express what this septuagenarian had to say about faith. Phyllis was a couple months away from turning her final manuscript in for what would then become her magnum opus on the subject, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why.
From the moment The Great Emergence was published, in 2008, it infuriated academics. One simply cannot distill that much history, philosophy, and theology into 160 pages, let alone make it that entertaining! they quietly stewed. But readers were grateful.
Fifteen years earlier, as a journalist, she'd reported on how books were becoming "portable pastors" to help explain the rise of popularity of the spirituality category in publishing--and, by unfortunate converse, the drop in annual church attendance. Her own series, The Divine Hours, made the fixed-hour prayer of the church accessible and popular to hundreds of thousands of people within a few years' time, providing evidence to the theory. So did her work as popular historian and sometimes evangelist of the Emerging church.
On this occasion in Atlanta, Phyllis explained that the days of scriptural authority as the guiding principle for churches were behind us. The faith is more complicated than ever before. Martin Luther's sola scriptura resulted in 40,000 denominations and the "every man and his Bible" principle, dear to evangelicals, simply no longer holds. The future is looking for new foundations. To some, this was unsettling, to others, it was deeply upsetting.
So enraged was one middle aged man that as Phyllis left the stage to a standing ovation, he jumped from his front row seat. In itself, this wasn't unusual; many in the room had seen Phyllis speak before and she was always engaged with audience members after a talk. She had "fans" and no one was better at Q&A. Also, she was the author of many books and many people carried them to her talks to get them signed.
This night was different. As people were standing and cheering, and Christian rock music began throbbing through large speakers for transition, few actually heard the exchange between Phyllis and the unidentified man.
"Shame on you for denying the authority of scripture!" he yelled at her. He pointed a finger in her face and it looked for a moment as if he might pick her up and throw her to one side. He was also intentionally blocking her exit.
Phyllis responded with a conciliatory Southern cool, "Oh, no sir. If you didn't hear me support the authority of the Bible in all of this, I'm afraid I miscommunicated."
But he grabbed her arm, and shouted again.
She had two designated "handlers" that day. It was their job to ensure people didn't impede her too much in making it from event to another, and to get her back to the airport for her flight out of Hartsfield International. They both jumped to their feet. One of them pulled the man away from Phyllis, while the other body-shielded her down the aisle toward a rapid exit. Later, one of them wrote on his blog, "I told the guy, 'Didn't your mom ever teach you anything?!'"
Phyllis had struck a nerve that day. This would happen often, but never again quite so physically. Millions of Christians were unprepared to hear that Christendom was falling, or had fallen, and were trying still to speak with their old authority and hegemony from the rubble. With wisdom, wit, humor, and humility she encouraged Christians of all denominational backgrounds to understand the past and face the future.
Phyllis died on Tuesday, September 22, at 81. Diagnosed with stage four lung cancer several months earlier, she had entered hospice in early September. A memorial service took place a month later, but there was really no need for a funeral, since she and her husband, Sam, who had died at the beginning of that year, donated their bodies to medical research. Wasn't that so like her, that there was nothing left to inter?

-Jon M. Sweeney compiled Phyllis Tickle: Essential Spiritual Writings (Orbis), and is currently writing Phyllis Tickle, her biography, to be published in 2017.

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