Interview with Dr R David Muir

Dr R David Muir has spent most of his life working in education.  Last year he became the first Black man to be appointed Head of Whitelands College. Founded in 1841, it is one of the oldest higher educational colleges in the UK.

Dr Muir spoke to Keep The Faith magazine about his work, life, theology and Black Lives Matter.

KEEP THE FAITH (KTF): What was your initial feeling when you found out you were to become the first Black person to be Head of Whitelands College?
DR R DAVID MUIR (DDM): I was extremely pleased when I was offered the job just a few hours after the interview. The interview took place on a Thursday morning, and candidates were advised that it was likely we would know the decision by the following Monday. I was, therefore, a little surprised that a decision was arrived at so quickly.

KTF: Whitelands is an Anglican College. What do you bring to this role, especially as your faith is rooted in the Pentecostal Church tradition?
DDM: My faith journey and theological formation have been in both Anglican and Pentecostal churches. I have taught religion and politics in Anglican and Pentecostal educational institutions, and was a consultant for the Church of England’s Council for Christian Unity and, more recently, Co-Secretary of the Anglican Pentecostal Theological Study Group (APTSG). I think I bring a wealth of experience, insight and practical wisdom to the post. I also bring an ecumenical spirituality rooted in Scripture, open to learning from other Christian traditions, and a radical commitment to social justice. 

KTF: What impact are you hoping to have on the University and students during your tenure at the College?
DDM: I was appointed as ‘Interim’ Head of College, while a review of the four constituent Colleges of Roehampton University is being conducted. This year, Whitelands College celebrates its 180th Anniversary. I will be the first Black person to occupy the role as Head of College. The University has around 64.4% BAME students, and having a Black person as Head of College is seen as significant. I want Whitelands College to be a place where students and staff from all backgrounds feel welcome, and where there is a commitment to excellence, equality, diversity, inclusion and social justice.

KTF: Why do you think it’s important for budding Christian leaders to study theology? 
DDM: Theological education is critical for anyone attempting to do ministry and mission in contemporary society. The Bible reserves a double honour for those who run their churches well, but St Paul intimates that this double honour is especially reserved for those who ‘labour in the word and doctrine’ (1 Timothy 5:17). I often remind our students on the Ministerial Theology Programme at the University of Roehampton that there is a kind of biblical and theological intelligence that comes with the study of theology. I have seen how students have grown in wisdom, grace and generosity as a result of theological education. Indeed, I do not believe that a Christian leader can effectively engage in the cultural and spiritual conversations of our age without a theological education.

KTF: You have taught at some of the UK’s most prestigious educational institutions and held influential roles, including serving as Government Adviser on policing and citizenship.  If you experienced racism in your professional life, how did you deal with it?
DDM: Very often, there is a seductive tendency to view racism through the prism of one’s own experience. Meaning? One judges its existence according to the extent to which one has been personally impacted; especially that naivety that says it does not exist because “I’ve not experienced it”.  But racism is experienced at both the individual and institutional level; and by that I mean it is embedded in institutions and practices. The reality of racism is a phenomenon that most Black people have to deal with at some point. Because racism ultimately kills, disfigures relations, and impedes the life chances and life choices of individuals, I have always followed my father’s advice: understand it, confront it, and raise your voice and intelligence against it as a sacred duty.

KTF: It’s said that Black women are more likely to pursue further education than Black men.  How can colleges like Whitelands encourage more Black men to pursue higher education? 
DDM: At Whitelands College we have a fairly equal number of Black men and women on most of the undergraduate and postgraduate programmes. However, there are several courses where women outnumber men. Although universities can do a lot more to attract more Black men, I think our churches and the wider community can do more to encourage men to undertake university courses. There also needs to be more financial and pastoral support for men studying in Higher Education.

KTF: Can you tell me a bit about your childhood? Where were you born, how many siblings do you have, and what role did faith and education play in your upbringing?
DDM: I have a large family: six brothers and four sisters – six born in the Caribbean and five in the UK. I have fond memories of a wonderfully happy childhood in Guyana. Brought up by my beloved grandmother, Ivy, up to the age of seven, I came (torn from a warm climate and a loving extended family) to the UK in the late 1960s to join my parents. My faith came from my grandmother. My family in the Caribbean were educators, but I lost interest in education when I arrived in the UK. It was not until I became a Christian that I got interested in learning – and this was mainly so that I could communicate the Gospel.

KTF: When did you become a Christian, and how has your faith in God impacted your life?
DDM: Although I grew up in a Christian home, I became a Christian at the age of seventeen. My faith in God (or should I say my Christian journey?) has been an adventure of joy, doubt and cadences of desolation. There have been periods when I believed I could move mountains, and periods of depression and the ‘dark night of the soul and spirit’ when God was absent, and I was engulfed in meaninglessness. But, on balance, I’m grateful to God for giving me an amazing family and close friends to help me on the way. My faith in God has kept me sane; it has given me balance; it is my life.

KTF: You are a husband, and father to five daughters.  Have any of them followed your footsteps into either higher education or involved in faith issues?
DDM: Parents sometimes have a seductive tendency of wanting their children to follow in their footsteps. I have tried to resist this tendency by supporting my daughters’ passions and career choices. What I’m very proud of is the fact that all our daughters are university graduates who value education. None of them have followed Pauline (she teaches Arts Management at Goldsmiths College, London University) and me into teaching (as yet), but they have worked in senior professional roles in government and in the arts and music industry. They are all passionate about their Christian faith and social justice. Our youngest daughter, Rasheeda, started a social enterprise organisation (RevolYOUtion) to support young people when she was sixteen. I have learned a great deal from all our daughters: how to be a better Christian, father and human being.

KTF: You came to faith in the Pentecostal Church, which was formerly viewed as uninterested in politics and anti-education.  Does this view still stand?
DDM: In my case, ‘coming to ‘faith’ has been an ecumenical journey: as a young boy in Guyana, my grandmother took me to a Methodist church; arriving in the UK, my parents went to a Congregational church, and in my mid and late teens, I attended a Baptist church. I later left that church to join my aunt at her new-found Pentecostal fellowship in Mitcham (South London), having flirted with Rastafarianism for a season. In my twenties, I attended St Mark’s Church in Kennington (an Anglican Charismatic church under the dynamic leadership of Canon Nicholas Rivett-Carnac). It was there that my life-long passion for social justice and my interest in the intersection of faith and politics were deepened. I have taken much of this with me into my leadership and participation in Pentecostal and evangelical churches. Most Pentecostals now see politics and social action as part of their calling and ministry.

KTF: How do you feel the Black Lives Matter marches have affected the views of Black Christians about politics, and how, in your view, will they take forward the sentiments expressed during the protests?
DDM: ‘Black Lives Matter’ is not some elegant political slogan; it is a biblical and theological imperative. For me, the marches that took place – especially after the public assassination of George Floyd – were some of the defining moments of 2020. Although I was traumatised by George Floyd’s brutal murder, I was encouraged by the interracial and intergenerational marches and protests against racism and injustice that followed. It was nothing short of a prophetic insurrection of decency against barbarism. We, not ‘they’, have to discern ‘what the Spirit is saying’ about treating all of God’s image-bearers with respect.

KTF: And lastly, what message of hope would you like to share with readers of Keep The Faith?
DDM: Actually, we must embody the title of this magazine: we have to ‘keep the faith’. We are living in troubling and uncertain times, therefore, we need to hold fast to God, our families and the relationships that are life-enhancing. There are no easy answers or ready-made formulae (and those who spout such are charlatans and false prophets) to magic us out of the crisis. Our hope must remain in God’s goodness, grace and generosity, as we try to work with each other to create a church and a society where all can flourish. I hope we can rediscover God anew in these difficult times, and revel in His inescapability and presence – even when we are baffled by events in our lives and in the world. 

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