Obituary: PROFESSOR DAVID KERR

by
24 April 2008

Christopher Lamb writes:
DAVID KERR, who has died, aged 63, was one of the most significant figures in the contemporary encounter between Christianity and the world of Islam. After initial work with the BBC, he became an academic, and taught in Birmingham, Hartford in Connecticut, and Edinburgh, before his final post as Professor of Mission at the University of Lund, in Sweden.

In 1976, he founded the Centre for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations at the Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham — work now taken up in a slightly different form in Birmingham University.

Generations of students, both Christian and Muslim, have been grateful for his unbounded commitment to his students and his capacity to draw out of them much more than they realised was there. Almost immediately after his arrival in Sweden, he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease, and he was still supervising doctoral theses — using a voice-activated computer because his hands would no longer work — when that cruel illness brought his life to an end.

I know from personal experience, as a Ph.D. student of his, that he would neither discourage with excessive criticism nor permit inadequate and sloppy thinking. His commitment to teaching, beyond what many lecturers would consider reasonable, limited his output of publications, but extended his range of sympathy and understanding of the way in which other minds work.

  In this, he drew on his own experience as a doctoral pupil of Albert Hourani, an Arab Christian scholar who supervised his thesis on Church-state relations in Lebanon, and whom he credited with opening his mind to the way that non-Europeans think and interpret history.

At Edinburgh, he was the first Professor in the Study of Non-Western Christianity, and was supervising the academic work of many from East and West Africa, as well as others, such as Koreans, whose first language was not English, and indeed quite remote from English. Few academics have had more experience in encountering and promoting Christianity as a world, not just a Western, religion.

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David Kerr came from a family with deep roots in the Presbyterian and Congregational Churches. His father was a United Reformed Church minister. After a first degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies in London, David read theology at Oxford, and took the ordination course for URC ministers at Mansfield College, although he was never ordained, having eventually found his vocation in teaching.

After his Ph.D., he worked in the Arabic service of the BBC, developing not only his Arabic, but a way of speaking which carried personal authority, and stood him in good stead on the many subsequent occasions when government ministers, MPs, and others would seek his advice on relations with the Muslim world.

It is not yet possible properly to assess the importance of his work with the world of Islam. It lives on through his students, and through the tone that he set in all the places where he lived and worked — a sense of confidence in the Christian faith, and also an openness to all the others who live by different faiths.

The polemical style of so much Christian representation of other faiths in the past seemed to him to be false witness, an offence against the Ninth Commandment. To this search for a truer assessment of other faiths he added, following Kenneth Cragg, a hospitality of mind and a great gift for friendship.

These things he shared with his wife Gun Holmström, a Swedish-speaking nurse from Finland. They married in 1970, and had two children, Simeon and Anna. Simeon is currently following in his father’s footsteps as a journalist in the Middle East.

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