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From: The Sunday Times Sunday 5th April 1998

Peculiar passions


Anger is running high at Westminster Abbey, the principal 'royal peculiar' of the Anglican church, where the prime minister's wife has been drawn into a row that overshadows relations between the state and the clergy, Christopher Morgan reports Frank Field did not mince his words when he confronted Wesley Carr, the dean, as the early morning eucharist was ending at Westminster Abbey. "I feared you were a bully," Field told him. "Now I know you are a bully." To Field's astonishment, Carr did not even blink.

For Field, a high churchman and minister for welfare reform, Carr's blank response was confirmation that he was dealing with a man of stone. It was not as if Field was looking for a quarrel. He had enough on his hands that day, Thursday, March 26, without wanting a public spat with the man who effectively runs the church where English sovereigns have been crowned for 1,000 years. Trollope, the Victorian master of church-and-state drama, could not have created a richer plot.

Its real-life cast includes the prime minister, the prime minister's wife, an ambitious prelate, a much-loved cathedral organist and a powerful but little-known Downing Street official. What happens in the next few days could influence the future of the Church of England.

For Field, March 26 was the biggest day of his political career. At last, his ideas on the welfare state were to be unveiled in a green paper. He was to present it to parliament that afternoon, a rare honour for a non-cabinet minister, signifying his privileged status in Tony Blair's eyes. But he could wait no longer to tell Carr what he thought of him. For Carr, installed as Dean of Westsminster only last summer - in time to be seen by a worldwide audience of hundreds of millions presiding over the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales - had suspended Martin Neary, the abbey's renowned organist and choirmaster. Field was incensed.

The details of Neary's alleged offence are obscure but concerned his financial management. Field, supported by Neary's many other admirers, believes the affair should have been resolved without his being humiliated and barred from his duties. But Carr, one year Field's senior at 56, shows no sign of budging. As dean he is, in effect, the abbey's chief executive, responsible for running the Anglican communion's most historic shrine. Its links with the monarchy - it is legally defined as a "royal peculiar" - make him a royal cleric. When the Queen and other royals come to state services, he greets them and says goodbye. Known before he came to Westminster as a determined man intent on getting his way with the minimum of debate, in disciplinary matters he holds all the cards. Or does he?

Field and others are determined to challenge him. Cherie Booth QC, the prime minister's wife, is Neary's counsel. There are murmurs about raised eyebrows at Buckingham Palace. To complicate matters further, the row coincides with a move by the Church of England to increase the power of deans in the running of cathedrals. This needs parliamentary approval, which may well be less easily forthcoming in the light of the abbey row. It also overlaps with reports that Blair, a regular attender at Anglican and Roman Catholic services, is unhappy with the advice he receives about the appointment of bishops in the established church, which ultimately rests with him.

NEARY, an unlikely character to find at the centre of a rerun of Trollope's Barchester Towers, has been the abbey's organist for the past 10 years. The Queen decorated him for his role in Diana's funeral. Now Abbey staff are discouraged from speaking to him or his wife. The parents of his choirboys cannot understand how such a distinguished figure could be treated this way. He has received more than 200 letters of support. A circuit judge whose son is in the choir has called for an independent tribunal. Another anguished father wrote to The Times saying that parents were "inspired by his work no less than the boys whose trust he so skilfully earns. But now he and his wife have been publicly humiliated because of the dispute".

Neary heard a fortnight ago that he had been suspended from duty while internal inquiries were made. The official line is that "the dean and chapter are in dispute with Dr and Mrs Neary regarding matters of administration of the abbey's music department". The dean and canons have gone to great lengths to avoid comment; but the allegations are thought to concern a choir trip to Oslo and expenses involved. An insider claims the disputed sums are tiny. "Neary is as straight as a die. He wouldn't take a penny from anyone," he said. Neary and his wife act as agents for the abbey choir and concert fees are channelled through a business bank account separate from abbey funds. Carr is said to be incensed that the abbey did not profit from certain overseas tours.

The abbey is not short of funds, but Carr is a formidable fundraiser. Since coming to the abbey, he has imposed a £5 entrance charge for non-worshippers. His role in the row was perhaps more predictable than the organist's. He attracted controversy when he was a residentiary canon at Chelmsford Cathedral in the 1980s. Church insiders say Carr was "almost permanently at loggerheads" with John Moses, its provost and now Dean of St Paul's Cathedral. Then, during 10 years as Dean of Bristol Cathedral, Carr established a reputation for "doing things in his own way" and was regarded as abrasive and "not good with people". He was the driving force behind the Bristol chapter's decision to suspend its organist, Malcolm Archer, in 1989. Archer, a distinguished composer and choir director, was eventually asked to resign and now runs the choir at Wells Cathedral. One former member of the Bristol chapter said: "There was no discussion. We just did as we were told."

Carr's appointment last year as Dean of Westminster was consequently received by some members of the abbey chapter with incredulity and dismay. Diana's funeral was Carr's first state event at Westminster Abbey. Hackles were raised by his invitation to Diana's brother, Earl Spencer, to give a eulogy that turned out to be critical of the royal family. "Who would have invited a multiple adulterer into his pulpit for such an occasion?" asked a member of the General Synod, the church's "parliament". In the ideological disputes of the church, Carr is labelled a "zealous liberal" by his critics, who cite his comments on women's ordination as evidence of his dictatorial instincts. A sensitive issue for many, he considers it settled and no longer worth debating. "I believe the Church of England is bending over backwards far too far for those who are against the ordination of women," he said in a debate.

Curbing Carr's powers cannot come too soon for the abbey's unpaid volunteers, an elderly group who oversee the abbey's flood of tourists. Carr told the over-seventies among them last week that their services were no longer required. In doing so he caused the maximum possible offence, barely mitigated when he allowed a reprieve for under-75-year-olds after being reminded that the Queen, as head of the abbey and supreme governor of the church, is nearly 72. Carr is not entirely isolated, however.

Donald Gray, who is the Speaker's chaplain in the House of Commons and an abbey canon, said last week that press reports of the Neary case were based on a misunderstanding. "It is massively inaccurate to pick off the dean," he said. "We are all together in this."

Michael Turnbull, Bishop of Durham, also believes Carr deserves his place in the church elite. Cathedral deans, he said yesterday, were "one of the nation's greatest assets - men of the highest calibre". NEVERTHELESS, Carr's determination to stamp his authority on the "royal peculiar" could misfire spectacularly, because in suspending Neary he has taken on man with sympathisers in extraordinarily high places. Soon after the notice of suspension was issued, Neary and Field approached the prime minister's wife in her legal chambers and she agreed to act as his counsel. She is, of course, a QC and one of the country's leading employment lawyers. When Neary awaited a summons to appear before the abbey's dean and chapter without knowing the detailed charges against him, she told him she would apply to a judge in chambers for an injunction preventing the proceedings. "Carr's court" was scheduled for March 26, the day of the green paper. The threat of an injunction forced him to back down and rearrange the hearing, which could come within days.

Although she is acting in her role as a lawyer, the involvement of the prime minister's wife gives the imbroglio a larger political dimension. Tony Blair not only knows what his wife is doing but for the past 11 months has taken an increasingly hands-on approach to appointments within the Church of England. Since entering Downing Street, he has become the first prime minister in modern times to take a passionate interest in his ecclesiastical responsibilities.

Little used to be known about how the Church of England decided its senior appointments of archbishops, bishops and most cathedral deans, other than that the Queen appointed them on the prime minister's advice - and that he acted on the advice of the Crown Appointments Commission. Last September, however, The Sunday Times revealed that Blair had rejected the commission's shortlist of two for the bishopric of Liverpool. The curtain was suddenly lifted and further revelations may follow. Blair is known to be alarmed at the low calibre of many senior clergy and attributes the church's present difficulties and low attendances to this.

He is believed to have rejected both Liverpool candidates because they were "Carey clones" - men cast in the grey image of George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury. Carey himself has been left in no doubt about Blair's view that the church should rethink the way it finds new bishops and end the practice of selecting "bland committee men". Carey's response, however, was to call in members of the Crown Appointments Commission for individual grillings about the Liverpool fiasco. Blair was also dissatisfied with the appointment of the new Bishop of Southwark; the mitre has gone to Tom Butler, Bishop of Leicester and a Carey favourite. Blair wanted Rowan Williams, Bishop of Monmouth and an outstanding theologian.

As long as Carey remains at Lambeth Palace, tension over senior church appointments is certain. Blair sees little evidence of a willingness to change, and the row over Carr's maladroit management at the abbey is making matters worse. Blair's circle believe Carr's unsuitability to hold such a high-profile position should have been obvious. Blair also knows that rows like the one at the abbey are far from rare. A bitter feud lasted nearly 10 years at St George's Chapel, Windsor, until Lord Hailsham personally intervened when he was lord chancellor. And St Paul's Cathedral is split over its first woman priest, Lucy Winkett. John Halliburton, the chancellor of the cathedral, stays away when she celebrates holy communion. A minor canon left and many London priests regard St Paul's as a "no-go" area because of women's ordination.

Attendances are now so low in the Church of England that full statistics will not be published this year. If the church hierarchy is not aware of the crisis of confidence in its leadership, Blair is. He wants to see men of vi sion running the church. His zeal has led him to doubt the advice of John Holroyd, his appointments secretary and linkman on church promotions. A career civil servant, Holroyd is responsible for the undercover work on crown appointments to cathedral chapters. His hand was seen in the Liverpool nominations, Carr's arrival at Westminster and other controversial appointments. Catapulted into the limelight, he is now said to be deeply uncomfortable in his post.

Those close to Blair believe the prime minister wants a new appointments secretary to look beyond the Church of England's existing hierarchy. One prominent church figure said: "The central problem is that second and third division men are recommending fourth and fifth division people and mediocrity is being perpetuated." When Donald Gray retires later this year,there will be a significant vacancy at Westminster. Blair intends to be hands-on from the start in the choice of the canon's successor. The tortuous dispute of senior clerics at Lincoln Cathedral exposed the vanity of those who are over-promoted. If peace is not quickly restored to Westminster Abbey, it may take an appeal to the Queen herself to achieve it.

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