Embracing a faith of uncertainties: On Eremos’ Beginnings and Hopes for the Future
23rd May 2022
Eremos turning 40 provides an opportunity to explore its foundations and the people and their aspirations at the time. And so we share excerpts from John Foulcher’s interviews with Colin Alcock and Don Meadows, two of Eremos’ “founding fathers”.
This article includes excerpts from those interviews as well as reflections by John from the April 2021 EREMOS magazine. The full published interviews and John’s editorial are attached to this post. We note that at the time of writing the interview, the third in the triumvirate of Eremos founders, Bruce Wilson, was gravely ill and was unable to be interviewed. Bruce died on 20th March 2021. Both Don and Colin acknowledged the enormous debt Eremos owes to Bruce.
In this significant milestone of 40 years, Eremos acknowledges the many individuals, named and unnamed, who played important roles in the founding and shaping of Eremos as it stands today. We invite you, the reader, to reflect upon the spirit of innovation, exploration, integrity and inclusivity that initiated Eremos and partner with us as we consider where this impulse is leading us now.
Introduction by John Foulcher (from his editorial, EREMOS April 2021)
“Next year, (Eremos turns) forty. Over that period of time, church attendances have plummeted in western, ‘Christian’ societies, and belief in God has fallen away at an unprecedented rate. Many religions have doubled down in reaction to the creeping tide of scepticism – they’ve become more dogmatic, less accepting of change, more convinced that they need to return to the fundamentals of their sacred texts. They’ve mined their bridges and built walls to keep this increasingly threatening world out.
“Eremos has chosen another way. We’ve embraced a faith of uncertainties, a faith that asks the right questions rather than providing half-baked answers. Eremos follows Jesus into the wilderness and sits with him there. Eremos recognises the limits of our knowledge and our tendencies to anthropomorphise the universe. We wait in humility and gratitude. We listen for God’s voice in the whirlwind (the static, perhaps) and don’t pretend to completely understand it when it blows about us.
“Eremos began as a reaction to a stultifying environment, a context where questioning one’s faith often led to a kind of ‘shunning’ by many in various churches. It’s sustained many who felt themselves on the edges of faith over the years, and helped many to conclude the edge is actually at the very heart of the spiritual journey. Do not be afraid. The desert is welcoming.”
Excerpts from the interview with Colin Alcock
“Eremos began as a result of friendships connected with St George’s Paddington and St Stephen’s Newtown: Bruce Wilson, Don Meadows, myself and the late Jacquie Pryor, alongside a coterie of enthusiastic people including (in alphabetical Colin Alcock, Margaret Ackland, Eileen Baldry, Vic Branson, Patricia and Rob Brennan, Annalise Fairfax, Jane and John Foulcher, Lindy Karsen, Anna Saminsky, Janet Stacey, Linda Turton, Wendy Williams, and many others. These people took hold of a vision of spirituality that stood out as authentic, exploratory and profound. They worked hard in those early days. This was in the stifling context of Sydney Anglican evangelicalism. I think it was largely Bruce’s reading and reflection that formed the vision supplemented by Don’s deep pastoral and intellectual depth and Jacqui’s voracious reading. All this was in the context of the dry conservatism of their Moore Theological College training, against which both Bruce and Don rebelled. They were literary, educated explorers of ideas and the world. They were what I eventually aspired to be – people with a broad and deep grasp of this world and my role in it. There seemed to be no boundaries they feared crossing.
“Soon after we all met, Bruce suggested a few of us go away for a weekend retreat. Leslie and Jack Hazlitt, parishioners of St George’s Paddington, kindly offered us the use of their holiday house at MacMasters Beach on the NSW Central Coast. Here we practised times of silence and solitude, combined with reflective group discussions, solitary walks and celebratory meals.
“Excitement about this initiative soon captured the imagination of other parishioners at St George’s and St Stephen’s. This included anonymous people keen to donate money toward employing me under the lofty title of ‘Executive Director’. I held this position for eight years from 1982. It was my responsibility to build the membership base, manage a team of volunteers, edit the Eremos newsletter, facilitate weekend retreats and workshops, organise public 8 EREMOS lectures and seminars. I worked closely with Jacquie Pryor who established a bookshop in the vestry of St Stephen’s aimed at encouraging members to catch up on ancient and contemporary thinking on Christian spirituality which extends beyond the privacy of our solitary prayer to constructive engagement with our social and political context.
“Eremos put all of us into a position where we were suddenly listening very intimately to the personal lives of others who were struggling with their faith and with their ways of living. It was an intimate, personal and trusting context – that was rare. I hadn’t experienced that before. Christians talk of ‘fellowship’ but it’s much deeper than that. It’s real communion with each other around our most personal and difficult areas.
John asked: “Do you have any advice for Eremos now? What might take it forward?”
“Regular acknowledgement of our roots (by that, I don’t mean the history of Eremos; I mean the deep wells of those who are there now), drawing on the capabilities and energies of those around us, acknowledgement of failings and mistakes, regular attention to our need for connection with our inner selves, with those around us, and with the mystery beyond.”
Excerpts from the interview with Don Meadows
“Eremos began with Bruce Wilson. He and Zandra were given the opportunity by one of the congregation at St George’s Anglican Church in Paddington to visit the United Kingdom. They were looking there at different forms of church, other things that might be done besides conducting services – retreats, for instance. They came back quite excited about the possibilities.
“There was real interest among people in Bruce’s congregation – the Pryors, for instance, were significant people at that time, as were Colin Alcock and Janet Stacey. (At this time) I was the rector at St Stephen’s Anglican Church in Newtown, and some of my parishioners there became very involved as well. So many people wanted to explore a form of faith which offered more than reliance on an infallible Bible, an approach that engaged feeling as well as thought, drawing on the arts as well as the sciences.
“We all went to Anglican churches when we were younger, and they weren’t all bad by any means. Bruce went to church as a kid and had a lot of respect for the rector in the suburb where he lived. Same with me – growing up, I went to church in Kingsford and had a lot of time for the rector there. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with our experiences in church, but there was something wrong with the hardliners in the Anglican church who took over at that time. It became very clear that those attending our retreats were looking for something more than they found in their churches. They had experienced the ‘hard line’ and found it wanting.
“We had our roots in Anglicanism but people from other styles of Christianity were always welcome, and it’s been great to see the way in which the organisation has broadened.
“Two main items featured in the creation of Eremos. One was the Newsletter, which later became the EREMOS Magazine, with its opening up of issues such as the roles of women, the church’s attitude to homosexuality, and the importance of the arts in contemporary theology.
“Colin had got the newsletter in motion, and when I took it on we had really solid input. More people came into contact with Eremos through the retreats or various guest speakers we hosted.
“I would emphasise to the present crew the value they offer to people looking for an informed and generous understanding of reality from a spiritual view. We should never underestimate that. I came across this saying, paraphrasing Meister Eckhardt, in a book decades ago: ‘When God and truth seem to go in opposite directions, follow after truth and let your idea of God catch up when it can.’ It resonated with me then and it still does. God is bigger than we can imagine, God is impossible to grasp.”
Read both interviews here: Eremos 151 Don and Colin Interview
You may also be interested to read The Eremos Story and Tribute to Bruce Wilson