Obituary: Rev Dennis Cooke was cross-community pioneer of peace

Rev Dr Dennis Cooke
Rev Dr Dennis Cooke

Born on the Caribbean island of Grenada, the Rev Dr Dennis Cooke went on to become one of the most influential Methodists in the whole Irish church.

The son of missionary parents who had gone to preach in the West Indies, he returned with them to Ulster when he was aged about seven.

As well as following them into a life of theology, he also went on to become a writer whose work included a book on the Rev Ian Paisley.

Called Persecuting Zeal and published in 1996, it was described by one contemporary as an attempt to understand Paisley’s unyielding religious outlook – something which clashed harshly with the author’s own.

Both before and during the Troubles, Dennis Cooke devoted much of his energy to trying to overcome religious differences in the Province; something which began early in his career.

According to his eulogy, as a mere 21-year-old curate in Castlederg he had made a point of inviting Catholic counterpart Eddie Daly (later the bishop of Derry) for a cup of tea.

This seemingly innocuous gesture was said to have produced quite some upset among fellow Methodists, and shortly afterwards he was moved to Enniskillen.

Despite criticism for his ecumenical stance, he was undeterred.

Among the initiatives he went on to found were an inter-church action group in Portstewart during the late 1960s and early 70s, which provided holidays on the north coast for both Catholic and Protestant children from disadvantaged areas of Belfast.

He became interested in the Corrymeela project, a cross-community retreat based in Ballycastle, and went on to help found the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation, a similar enterprise, which is located in Co Wicklow.

He married Joan Edwards, a nurse, in 1968, and later attained a doctorate in church history.

In July 1980 he was appointed Senior Tutor at Edgehill College – the institution in Belfast for training Methodist clergy – becoming its principal four years later.

It was a post he then held for 20 years, making him the longest-serving principal in its history.

The college’s tribute upon his retirement in 2004 hailed his “faithful and distinguished service”, adding that its members owe his wife Joan a “deep debt of gratitude” too.

A former student of Methodist College, the 75-year-old had also been a school governor for 14 years.

In 2005 he published another book – this time about a man closer to his own heart than the Rev Paisley.

Focussing on the life of a fellow Ulster Methodist leader, it was titled Peacemaker: The Life and Work of Eric Gallagher.

In around 2007 he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Although he had retired in 2004, and despite his advancing disease, he went on to preach a final sermon on the morning of Sunday, July 10, 2011.

His friend and colleague the Rev Robin Roddie recalled that, despite his advancing illness, he delivered the reading from the Book of Job with power and clarity.

Born on December 3, 1938, Dennis Cooke died on March 13 at the Ulster Hospital.

His funeral was on Wednesday, March 19 at Knock Methodist Church, east Belfast. He was cremated.

At time of his death he had lived in east Belfast. He is survived by his wife Joan, three children, Jacqueline, Stephen and Peter, and grandchildren.