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From The Times Newspaper

TUESDAY MARCH 06 2001

Queen to loosen grip on Abbey

BY RUTH GLEDHILL, RELIGION CORRESPONDENT

WESTMINSTER ABBEY is going to be removed from the direct control of the Queen under proposals outlined yesterday.

A Standing Commission will be set up to which the Queen would delegate her role as “visitor” to the Abbey. The advisory body will have the power to mediate in disputes such as that surrounding the sacking in 1998 of Dr Martin Neary, the Abbey organist.

The proposal, the most radical change to the Abbey’s structure since Elizabeth I drew up its Royal Charter in 1560, is part of a review of the Royal Peculiars — Anglican bodies that fall outside Church of England control and under the Queen’s direct jurisdiction.

St George’s Chapel, Windsor, and the three Chapels Royal at St James’s Palace, Hampton Court and the Tower of London will also be reformed.

The report, presented to the Queen through the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, says that it is anomalous that great institutions such as Westminster Abbey should remain exempt from the same degree of scrutiny and accountability as applies to cathedrals.

The review, chaired by Averil Cameron, an historian and Warden of Keble College, Oxford, recommends that the independence of the Royal Peculiars from the structures of the Church of England should be preserved.

It also recommends, however, that a Standing Commission for Royal Peculiars be set up, to which the Queen and the Lord Chancellor would delegate visitorial functions.

The report will go to consultation before Lord Irvine draws up proposals for action and advises the Queen. Most of the reforms would not require legislation, merely a Royal Warrant or letters patent.

In her preface Professor Cameron admits that part of the impetus for review came after a “difficult period” in the history of Westminster Abbey, which last year attracted more than 1.25 million visitors. There was widespread negative publicity after the sacking of Dr Neary, decorated by the Queen for his role in the music at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales.

Dr Neary appealed directly to the Queen, in her role of visitor, who referred that appeal to the Lord Chancellor. Although a judicial inquiry exonerated the Abbey over the sacking, and also cleared Dr Neary of any dishonesty, hostile comment continued.

The affair led to demands that the procedures of the Abbey should be “accountable and transparent”. In particular there was criticism in Parliament that the Abbey was not included in the 1999 Cathedrals Measure, now bringing greater accountability to the 42 cathedrals. Two years ago the Deans of Westminster, Windsor and the Chapels Royal petitioned the Queen to set up an inquiry.

More recently, the Abbey has again been embroiled in controversy with the resignation of Roger Overend, its choir school headmaster, for “personal reasons” after he was asked to leave.

The latest proposals would mean that the Queen’s direct control over Abbey affairs would be delegated and her intervention could no longer be invoked over discipline.

The Standing Commission would consist of up to five people, including a senior bishop who would be the chairman, as well as a lawyer who has held high judicial office and another with financial expertise. The review panel resisted demands to reduce the Abbey’s independence.

The report says that the Abbey — it is where Kings and Queens are crowned and is the stage for important national events such as the Princess’s funeral — occupies a unique role in the symbolic life of the nation, adding: “It is not a cathedral, but equally it is more than a great or parish church. It stands at the heart of the delicate balance of custom and history that is the English constitution, and a nation denies that history at its peril.”