Monday, December 23, 2013

postgraduate affirmation with TEQSA accreditation

Big news for us at ACD/Uniting College:  TEQSA (Tertiary Education Qualifications Standards Authority) in Australia has accredited our post-graduate courses for another 7 years, with no conditions attached.

That’s like getting A+ for an exam, the best result possible.

TEQSA ensure quality control for all universities and higher education providers in Australia. On a regular basis, they audit courses, asking for extensive evidence of what we are providing and the quality standards we are working toward.

This is followed by a site visit (ours was held in October) before review by an independent panel of academics from three other providers, before a report is provided to their Commission. It is an ardurous process, one that has taken a huge amount of time and energy over the 2013 year.

In making our application for ongoing accreditation, we also decided as a College to take the opportunity to innovate, proposing a number of significant changes. In no particular order

  • we created a Graduate Diploma in Ministry, a one year (full-time equivalent) offering, including an entry point for those who have not done theology study before. This arose out of a desire to provide pathways for lay training, particularly those who want to focus on ministry in all spheres of life
  • we standardised the former 1, 3 and 6 credit point structure of our post-graduate programmes into 4.5 credits. This makes our postgraduate offerings consistent with our undergraduate offerings and with Flinders University, allowing smoother cross-crediting pathways for students
  • we clarified the research focus of our Doctor of Ministry. Recently TEQSA announced changes to ensure that professional doctorates across all education spheres maintain a research focus. They wanted to see a professional doctorate as a research degree of excellence. We welcomed these changes, as they fit with our ethos, a practical theology that seeks a rigour of action and theory reflection. While other Christian theology providers have responded by moving out of the DMin arena, we argued to TEQSA that our existing structures, with a few modifications and clarifications, met these research standards. We’re delighted that TEQSA agree with us and that we can continue to offer a DMin with a high quality research focus on ministry practice
  • at the same time, we wanted to maintain and underline our collegial approach to post-graduate ministry. The student working alone on an extended project is in sharp contrast to the realities of ministry, which require peer learning. So in making our application to TEQSA, we proposed a pathway which will ensure all our post-graduate (Diploma, Master and Doctor) form a regular peer learning community, in which they gain encouragement and peer review. We believe this will lift standards, enhance the experience of participation in a learning community, in a way consistent with the collegial nature of ministry. In other words, degrees to serve the church in ministry and mission, through high quality, creatively rigorous practical theology.

The response by TEQSA – 7 years accreditation and no conditions – we take as a huge endorsement of our direction, our standards and the research community with the focus on a high quality practical theology we are creating.

And a great Christmas present to ACD, Uniting College and our post-graduate community.

Posted by steve at 08:04 AM

Saturday, December 21, 2013

An excellent writing week

I’ve had an excellent writing week, holed up in our shack/bach, no wireless, a flock of black swans for company and inspiration.

I’ve got my head back into the emerging 10 years on research project, which I’ve not been able to engage since Dad died. I’ve written three frames for analysing various aspects of the data. I’ve now got four almost complete chapters, with good work on another three. I’ve now written 40,000 words in relation to the 20 UK interviews.

Key moments this week included

  • Finding a way to link the local stories with the recent World Council of Churches statement on mission and evangelism
  • Finding five layers of church in Philippians
  • Framing the local stories around images of God, patterns of growth, understandings of mission
  • Realising again how rich the data set is
  • Loving the humanity of each fresh expression story – like the moment when one community moved the photo of Rowan Williams to make way for their data projector screen!

It feels like a book.

Posted by steve at 02:17 PM

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

working with the New Zealand Presbyterians

Sitting on an outdoor bench at the bach/shack yesterday, it was lovely to be interviewed by Angela Singer from the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand communications department.

Angela wanted to chat, following up an invitation to me to be the key note speaker at the next General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand. The Assembly happens every two years, for five days, from October 3rd to 7th 2014. I’ve been asked to offer three key note sessions, engaging with the theme of Inspiring Mission.

So we talked – about why me, about what I might say, about my knowledge of the Presbyterian church in New Zealand and about whether a new initiative, a move to table group format, would help or hinder my communication style.

I’ve also said yes to being part of Offspring. This will another new thing for the Assembly. It will involve a stream, open to anyone in the church, offering resourcing in mission. It is planned to run alongside the business sessions on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. (What a choice – business or mission resourcing?) It will have a similar format to what I was part of in October earlier this year, with a theme of story telling – learning from local stories about mission and innovation.

Posted by steve at 09:04 AM

Saturday, December 14, 2013

flood damage

We headed out to our family holiday home today. It had been hit by floods in June and today was the first time we’ve seen it since. It’s been a place of much happiness and family memory creation, so there was a certain trepidation, wondering what we would find.

We could have had a look in August, when we came back for dad’s funeral. But we had enough grief to cope with at that time and I couldn’t face looking at the bach.

The floods had certainly taken their toll, with over a foot of water through the entire house. Good friends and the insurance company have been hard at work in our absence. Carpet has been lifted and taken away, damaged walls have been cut out, repaired and then painted, new kitchen cupboards installed.

Today was about getting everything outside and sorting. Belongings too damaged in the tip pile, bedding to be washed in another. Every single dish and cultery washed, to remove silt and dried.

We did enough work today that we can move in tomorrow. The day was warm, perfect for drying. It’s hard to believe that six months ago, the entire place was inaccessible, with flood waters over two feet high over the entire village.

We’ve lost a lot of belongings. But we’re glad of insurance. And friends and family, who’ve done so much in our absence. And sunshine and gentle winds, which are so good at airing bedding.

Posted by steve at 06:07 PM

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

pioneer processes workshop

Part of a letter sent today …

A key signpost for us at Uniting College is to grow pioneers in innovation and invigoration. We’ve been blessed to see a number of pioneers – at least eight I can think of – sense God’s call to train with us over the last few years. This has raised new questions, posed fresh challenges for us as a College.

Pioneer processes – selection, training, placement, sustaining workshop
Tuesday 21 January 2014, 9:30 am – 3:45 pm, at UCLT

This pioneer processes workshop, is designed to help us process what we’re learning. To ensure a pioneer flavour, we’ll have Ben Edson, a Fresh Expressions missioner from the UK, with many years experience, join us.

For more information, see the information here …

Posted by steve at 05:09 PM

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

the advent donkey waits

Outside a disused church building,
In the noon day heat,
In outback Australia,
the donkey waits.

Nearby, Joseph sips a coldie
yarning with the innkeeper,
Channel 9 blarring,
another slow cricket crucifixion.

Across the street, Mary serves at the local cafe
collecting sandwich scripts
clearing the crumbs
left over, from passing tourists

Three kings
with tales of shiny stars
arising from the Eastern States
slowly emerge from the hovering haze

A languid fly
drooping with heat
to wait, another outback Advent

Posted by steve at 08:02 AM

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Broken Hill bound: updated 1st communion

I’m off to Broken Hill for the weekend. It’s a town of some 18,000 people, some 520 kilometres from Adelaide.

I’m going for the Ordination of one of our Uniting College Candidates, Jo Smalbil. Three years ago, Jo embarked on an experiment with us. After discussion with her Presbytery, she crossed the border (Broken Hill is in New South Wales, not South Australia). She spent the first year with us in Adelaide.

But for the last two years, she has been studying with us from Broken Hill. In sum, after some initial relational building, she’s down 2/3rds of her training in her local context.

Study wise, she comes down for our intensives and does the rest by distance. Relational wise, we pay for her to travel 9 times a year, to our monthly Leadership Formation Days, up and back in a day. This gives her a sense of connection with candidates. Fieldwork wise she has worked in her local church and participated in Frontier patrol work.

It’s a fascinating, and in Jo’s case, effective experiment, the fruit of which is evident over the weekend.

The only down side is that the only flight for Broken Hill leaves at 6:45 am Saturday, and returns 7 pm Sunday. It makes for an early start and a long weekend.

Posted by steve at 06:11 AM

Friday, December 06, 2013

intuitive worship: baptism, ministry, deeper water and Psalm 42

Today we farewelled a colleague. They had expressed a desire for a ritual moment, so over a number of days, by email, among a number of folk, a service of leaving was sketched.

It’s been a hectic week at College and with one of the key folk sick, I wasn’t convinced that all the i’s were crossed or t’s were dotted. Just in case, I grabbed a Bible as I left my office – a useful tool in case of emergencies.

Sure enough, it emerged on the walk over that no-one was down to do the Bible reading. I’d suggested it, so was happy to read. Especially since I had a Bible.

It was the Psalm for today in the Lectionary, Psalm 42. It fitted really well with the opening song. The colleague loves Paul Kelly, so we’d chosen Deeper Water, a song about growth, journey, life.

Deeper water, deeper water,
Deeper water, calling them on

As the song played live, I began to wonder were to stand to read. My eyes settled on the baptismal font. Water. An intuitive link gets made in my mind.

So as the song ended, I stood and walked to the baptismal font. I introduced the Psalm as about deeper water, as about where is God in deeper water. (As a hart longs for flowing streams (v. 1); Deep calls to deep at the thunder of thy cataracts; all thy waves and thy billows have gone over me (v. 7).)

As the Psalm ended, I returned (Djed) the lyrics of the song. “Deeper water, calling you on, and you’re never alone.” I dipped my hands in the water of the baptismal font and walked across to our departing colleague and bent to make the sign of the cross on his forehead.

An intuitive moment – a mix of Paul Kelly, Psalm 42 and the Christian ritual of baptism. For it is in our baptism that we are called into ministry. So a re-affirmation of baptism as that which holds us on the ongoing journey into ministry.

A few extra seconds, wordless, in which the waters of baptism were applied. And I returned, in silence to my seat. It had felt, intuitively the right thing to do.

Creationary: a space to be creative with the lectionary (in this case, baptism, ministry and Psalm 42). For more resources go here.

Posted by steve at 06:21 AM

Thursday, December 05, 2013

gravity: an earthed theology

Monthly I publish a film review for Touchstone (the New Zealand Methodist magazine). Stretching back to 2005, some 85 plus films later, here is the review for December, of Gravity.

“Gravity” is a shooting star in the cinematic universe. From the opening sounds of silence, to the beauty possible when planet earth becomes a visual backdrop, “Gravity” blazes across our screens, a reminder of the immersive potential possible when sounds and visuals collide.

A medical researcher (Sandra Bullock as Ryan Stone) and an astronaut (George Clooney as Matt Kowalski) find themselves adrift in space, their routine mission torn apart by exploding debris. Alone, radio contact lost, they traverse space’s inky weightlessness, from shuttle to station to re-entry rocket, seeking life.

While “Gravity” is undoubtedly enhanced by the star power that is Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, it is the five year search for perfection from director, Alfonso Cuaron, that makes “Gravity” the movie of the year, if not the decade.

To make “Gravity” Cuaron had to remaster the laws of physics. The behind the scenes technological innovations are breathtaking. They include a camera fitted with 4,096 LED’s, all separately controllable, to capture the divergent sources of light in space. Further, a guitar was submerged in water to capture the vibrations emitted by a breathing body as it panics, trapped in plastic space suit. Actors were rotated like puppets, hanging in a wire rig, in order to capture the out of control spin generated by a space disaster.

Together these innovations make possible the long, complex, tracking shots, a signature motif of Alfonso Cuaron. The Mexican director has sought previously, in movies like “Children of Men” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” to generate elaborate continuous sequences over large and shifting distances. In “Gravity,” such techniques are enhanced and elongated. We spiral with Bullock as she spins out of control through a weightless space, slowly drawn ever closer to the terror scrolling across her face. As an audience we find ourselves immersed, transformed by technical innovation from observer to participant.

Space has always invited divine pondering. Perhaps it is the primal human impulse to experience mystery in the starward gaze. Or the medieval notion that God is up. Whatever the impulse, something prompted Yuri Gagarin, the first astronaut in space, to reputedly make note of his inability to find God beyond the pull of earth’s gravity.

In concert with Gagarin, some have claimed that “Gravity” is thus the perfect movie for a godless age, offering an empty universe in which the only hope is our human salvation.

Intriguingly, it is in space that Ryan Stone utters her first prayer. Her words lack a religious beginning and a holy Amen. Nevertheless, they stand as her honest, albiet stumbling, cry to the unknown. They mark a turning point. Like all prayer should, they galvanise her into a determined demand for life and ignite her reentry.

It is a heaven to earthbound trajectory that evokes Incarnation, God grounded with us. Viewed in this light, Stone’s final words, her heartfelt “Thank you” becomes a benediction. It is an affirmation of life. Through space, from the heavens above, she has learnt to pray, learnt to walk, learnt to say “Thank you” for life.

Rev Dr Steve Taylor is Principal at the Uniting College for Leadership and Theology, Adelaide. He writes widely in areas of theology and popular culture, including regularly at

Posted by steve at 06:36 AM

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

in the guise of a small child: an Advent spirituality

I’ve been offered a new way of engaging Christ – one that seems strangely relevant in this Advent Season. In the 12th century, an English mystic, Christina of Markyate, wrote of her experience of the divine:

an unheard-of-grace. For in the guise of a small child [Jesus] came to the arms of his sorely tried spouse and remained with her a whole day, not only being felt but also seen.

The experience can be found in The Life of Christina of Markyate (Oxford World’s Classics). It is fascinating, for God in Christ is encountered not as a baby (at Christmas), nor as an adult (in the gospels), but as a small child.

The experience was a turning point for Christina. There is more evidence of compassion, more active care for friends, more concern for the church, more peace in prayer. There is a new joy evident, a greater depth of celebration of Christmas. (According to Grace Jantzen, “The womb and the tomb,” in Wounds that Heal – Theology, Imagination and Health, edited by Jonathan Baxter, SPCK, 2007, 176)

It opened up some new imaginative space in prayer for me. What might I experience if Christ came to me, today, as a small child. What “Christology” might I encounter? I identified four things – simplicity, mindfulness, play, surrender. I realise that these are a form of reader response – that I am most likely bringing my (idealised) experiences of small children – to the encounter. But it offered a new sense for me of engaging with God. It made fresh sense of the Incarnation, that God as fully human can relate to all of life. It made me realise again the gift that is all-age, inter-generational worship, that I can encounter God in the actions, questions and questions of a child.

I also reflected on what might be the opposites of simplicity, mindfulness, play, surrender. I identified complexity, history, rationalism, suspicion. I was reminded of the sour and corrosive power of these behaviours – often the domain of adults, and perhaps adults who are academics. These became for me moments of confession, as I reflected on my last 24 hours, the email I send and receive, the conversations I have.

“In the guise of a small child”, is proving a generative Advent spirituality.

Posted by steve at 08:18 AM

Monday, December 02, 2013

what our founding stories say about our identity

One of the richness of Uniting College is the diversity of students. Over the week I’ve marked work from a class that included a school principal, a chaplain, a church planter, an Anglican priest, a multi-cultural leader, a denominational worker – all working out how their ministry experiences have shaped their understanding of the practice of ministry. I’ve read about the spirituality of dissent, children’s spirituality, pioneer imaginations, leadership metaphors and gender perspectives. It’s been so rich.

Anyhow, one of the students was exploring the relationship between church, Kingdom and ministry. They began with tradition, including the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.

Article XIX defines how we view church on a local and global level:

‘Of the Church
The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch have erred: so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.’

So what does this found story say about identity? What has got me thinking is the second paragraph. The church has erred. Does this introduce humility, that we’re a group of pilgrims who will continue to err? And so all our ongoing ceremonies, all our “fresh expressions” of living and worship and theological writings, will have the potential to err?

Or does this introduce an arrogance, that they’ve made mistakes and so we should separate ourselves from them, because we’re more pure and holy?

Both approaches have huge implications for being one, worldwide, catholic church. Either you are part of an erring community, and so will see other denominations and churches in history as humble, fellow failing pilgrims. Or you will see yourself as better than other denominations and churches in history and will remain ever eager to point out their erring, while being forever eager to maintain your own purity through separation.

I find it intriguing to then lay this alongside the founding stories of the emerging church. There are many instances of new forms of church starting because they are aware of the erring of other forms. Does this, has this, led to a humility, an acceptance of the erring of other forms of church? Or has this led to a separation, a relentless pursuit of purity?

And, finally, does this Anglican ecclesiology, have any impact today on the development of fresh expressions, which owes so much to the energy and vision of the Anglican denomination in England?

Posted by steve at 10:06 PM

Sunday, December 01, 2013

a haunted culture

The presence of Christianity continues to haunt our culture. Like above, in this 2013 poster advertising an Adelaide film festival. Or the lingering presence of “ritual” in very small type (Rewarding the ritual) in this October 2013 advertisement, fused with some fascinating reflection on male identity. Playful, irreverent, but still present.

Or this piece of theology, in a local coffee shop in June 2013, in which God is entwined with a creation narrative and mission. Once again, playful, irreverent, but still present.

Mieke Bal, the Dutch cultural theorist suggests three ways to understand these ongoing traces within western society.

  • Christianity is present, making it impossible to think about cultural analysis without acknowledging the theological underpinning of the western world (and so the visual rifting of red-robed religious beings).
  • Christianity is a cultural structure, informing the cultural imaginary whether people believe or not (and so words like ritual and worship remain)
  • Christianity is just one of the structures, it is not the only cultural structure, nor the only religious structure that underpins who we are or have come to be (and so the work that people do with “God” will vary).

I’m reading and thinking about this in a more focused way, given I’m part of teaching a topic, Bible and culture, on the Flinders University campus this summer. The course is inviting us to explain the ongoing appropriation of Christian imagery in contemporary culture, the religious presence on film posters, the Bible references in movies as bizarre as Pulp Fiction, the fascination with church in the David Bowie Next day video.

A course for which we will need some accessories – prizes for the person who finds the most pop cultural references to Psalm 137 or O come, O come Emmanuel – prizes like Pulp Fiction Ezekiel reference Tshirts, buddy Jesus fridge magnets and God is a DJ henna tattoos.

Posted by steve at 10:46 PM