Joan Cook, appointed President of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches for the year 2018-2019

At the recent General Assembly Meetings in Daventry, Joan Cook, was appointed as President of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches for the year 2018-2019. Readers will know that Joan is our Lay Celebrant and Lay Preacher. Another St Mark’s Member, our Convener of the Management Committee, Ann Sinclair, seconded the motion. The text of her speech appears on this page.

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Mr President, Fellow Unitarians
Ann Sinclair, Edinburgh and Associate Member

I’m delighted to be seconding this motion. Joan and I have each been members of St Mark’s in Edinburgh for a long time. My first memory is of her sitting in one of the side pews, with firstly her daughter, Hannah, and later with her son, Adam too. Needless to say, she was soon involved with the children’s programme.


Often on these occasions we hear reminiscences of growing up in Unitarian Sunday schools, May queens, youth groups, but not for Joan. She is one of those of us who came across the Unitarians, or perhaps the Unitarians found her.


Joan has always been based in Edinburgh, except for a time in her childhood when her family was out in Hong Kong. She was brought up as an Episcopalian [roughly speaking, that’s Scottish for Church of England]. As she grew older she had trouble accepting the doctrine, so stopped going to church. When she started to attend meetings of the local Amnesty International group, she entered the portals of St Mark’s Church and so she found the Unitarians. When the time came, she and Stan were married in St Mark’s.


As many of you know, Joan trained as a nurse. I’ve heard tell of the usual wild escapades of youth but can’t embarrass her or you because I can’t remember the details. She registered in General & Psychiatric Nursing and became a ward sister at Edinburgh’s psychiatric hospital. But as family responsibilities came, she decided she would prefer to focus on the prevention of ill-health, so she undertook training to qualify as a health visitor. In her work she focussed on maternal and infant mental health and was also area lead for dementia. And a few years later she took a degree in Psychology with the Open University.


I have never known Joan to be fazed by a practical situation. I think it is the result of her personality and her experiences in nursing. There can’t be much she hasn’t seen. In an emergency, she is there. At St Mark’s, if we have water pouring into the building during heavy rain, Joan is there finding all the mops and buckets. Or if someone is suddenly ill or has an accident, she is there offering help, suggesting appropriate action – and quietly follows up afterwards.


At St Mark’s, Joan has been Convener of our Ministry Committee, she has served on our Council of Trustees and was its Convener for five years. During her term the GA meetings were held in Edinburgh and she attended for the first time. The Anniversary service was held in St Mark’s. Joan led the children’s story and Adam lit the chalice.


As we approached the retirement of our minister of many years standing, Joan worked to become a celebrant for weddings and other rites of passage. She has subsequently completed the Advanced Level of the Worship Studies Course and become an official Lay Preacher.
About ten years ago, she and I became the St Mark’s representatives on the Executive Committee of the Scottish Unitarian Association or SUA. Currently Joan is in her second term as its President. You’ll recall that Scotland has its own legal system and it’s through the SUA that persons deemed suitable to conduct Unitarian weddings are recommended to the Registrar General for Scotland. Since the advent of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, the SUA has increasingly been involved in representing our movement at national level. Joan was active in lobbying for same-sex marriage and continues to represent our approach on matters such as assisted dying.


Joan stood for election to the Executive Committee in 2008, served the full four-year term, stood for election again and served another full term of four years. I think she is the only person with such a record. Some of her colleagues on the EC were kind enough to share their impressions of working with Joan. What came through was the person I know: someone who is well-prepared, and who has a common-sense approach to life. She says it as it is. She will be critical when she thinks it is necessary, but can use humour to defuse a difficult situation. Others have shared how supportive Joan has been over periods of personal crisis and I can identify with that too.


Scotland can seem a long way away, but please remember it is as far to travel south as it is for southerners to come north! Through her work as EC link to several districts and through leading services for a number of congregations, Joan has already visited many parts of our Unitarian domain. For a while, if meetings were in London, it was a bonus that she could also meet up with Hannah. On a holiday which took them to India, she and Stan attended the Unitarian Church in Chennai, which is regarded as a sister church by St Mark’s. There is a lovely photograph of them each wearing one of the long flower garlands bestowed by the church upon honoured guests.


Joan will be the seventh President to come from Scotland over the past forty years or so and the third woman President to come from St Mark’s.


It’s been a privilege for me to work alongside Joan and to see her develop in her various roles. Our movement can be proud of the opportunities it offers to its members and of the people nurtured by it.


Mr President, I have much pleasure and confidence in seconding the motion that Joan Cook be appointed President of the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches for the year 2018-2019.