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From The Times Newspaper 24th April 1998



Unchristian discord at Westminster Abbey

Addressing the congregation at last month's thanksgiving service for Sir Georg Solti, the Dean of Westminster, Dr Wesley Carr, spoke of music as "the one language that transcends the limitations of culture and learning". It is also, he might have added, the aesthetic element that, along with great architecture, draws people into churches, turns their hearts to God and, even to the non-religious, sings of the spiritual hunger that lifts the human imagination. Today at Westminster Abbey, "the note is crack'd" by the pettiness of a dispute that should never have led the dean and chapter to dismiss the distinguished Dr Martin Neary as Organist and Master of the Choristers.

The proximate cause, which Dr Carr refused to disclose during the hearings that preceded this ill-judged decision, is the setting up in 1997 by Dr Neary and his wife of a company, Neary Music, to manage the choir's concert engagements, tours and recording contracts - each of which was formally approved by the dean and chapter. They apparently were, however, ignorant of Dr Neary's initiative until it was noticed by the auditors. Dr Carr concedes that any financial element in this dispute is a "question of a few pounds"; yet he insists that the Nearys are guilty of a "breach of trust" amounting to gross misconduct.

To suggest dishonesty in this austere president of the Royal College of Organists is an act of exaggeration so dramatic as to suggest a broader agenda. This affair has more to do with the power struggle between the clerical and musical sides of great cathedrals than with the minutiae of abbey accounts. Dr Carr's record in church politics is that of a zealous but abrasive moderniser determined to establish his executive authority; and in these hermetic hierarchies, where principles and passions collide, deans and organists have ever been rivals.

Ecclesiastical music, always a glory of the English Church, has undergone a popular renaissance in recent years. This has done much for the finances of the great cathedrals - and enabled them to recruit and retain the highest choral talent. But it has done little for internal harmony. Organists, proud of the drawing power of great choirs, tend to be fiercely proprietorial of their charges and their repertoires; deans agonise, in some cases excessively, over the secularisation and "commercialisation" of choral music.

The Organist of Westminster Abbey, inheritor of a title once held by Henry Purcell, is unlikely to be a wilting violet. But Dr Neary has a case that goes beyond professional pride. In this expanding market, the management of choirs in the class of Westminster Abbey or King's College, Cambridge, is no light workload. At the abbey, the key decision was taken in 1994, when the dean and chapter asked Dr Neary and his wife to assume full responsibility for all the choir's external engagements, including the signing of contracts. Mrs Neary subtracted modest "fixing fees" from the revenue. Partly to limit the Nearys' legal liability, their accountants advised him to create a limited company. Dr Neary should perhaps have told the dean, but deliberate deception seems improbable. If the dean and chapter were unhappy, they could surely have found some amicable way to restore Abbey control.

Dr Carr's methods of proceeding could hardly have been more high-handed. After a decade of highly praised service, Dr Neary and his wife were suspended overnight, causing the cancellation of the abbey's justly celebrated concert for Holy Week. Declining offers of mediation by such experienced officers of the abbey as Lord Weatherill, the former Speaker, the dean ordered the investigation, conducted the disciplinary hearing on Maundy Thursday, relayed the findings to the chapter and, as primus inter pares, won their assent to dismissal.

Dr Carr has acted within his rights. Because the abbey is a Royal Peculiar under the direct jurisdiction of the Queen, no cleric has a chairman's power to intervene. But he has acted neither with Christian humility, nor in the interest of the Church's already wretched reputation for handling disputes. The Abbey has problems enough without this poisoning of the air. Dr Neary can appeal only to the Queen. She is expected to refer the matter to the Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, who may wisely see no obstacle to Dr Neary's reinstatement. Dr Carr has raised dispute to the skies; Lord Irvine, like St Cecilia, the patron saint of music, must endeavour to pull an angel down.