The modernisers are moving in at Westminster Abbey

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The Independent Culture
TOMORROW, OR very shortly, we are due to learn who will prevail in the duel between the Dean of Westminster Abbey, Wesley Carr, and the organist he sacked, Dr Martin Neary. Dr Neary appealed to the Queen against his dismissal for alleged financial irregularities. A retired Law Lord, Lord Jauncey, was asked to hold hearings and decide the issue.

The Dean is a moderniser. He has introduced a pounds 5 entry fee as part of a scheme entitled "Recovering the Calm". He has reorganised the Abbey volunteers by getting rid of the most elderly: he told a meeting that "people have to know that they don't have to go on for ever".

He is attempting to ban Christmas trees from the Abbey on the grounds that they are pagan symbols. Unfortunately, Her Majesty also turns up in this story, because she gives two trees to the Abbey every year.

Being chronically lackadaisical, the Church of England needs as many modernisers as it can find. Until Saturday, for instance, when the new Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Rev James Jones, was enthroned, the post had been vacant for nearly two years. Can you imagine a school being without an headmaster for so long, or a police force without a chief constable, or an important company without a chairman? Members of my local parish can count themselves lucky, I suppose, that they had to wait for only 15 months for the arrival of a successor to their previous incumbent.

In a church, however, it is difficult, if not impossible, to confine a modernising instinct to managerial matters alone. Professor Sir Bryan Thwaites, 74, who is the convener of Dr Neary's numerous and influential supporters, told a newspaper: "What is happening at the Abbey now is of immense national significance." That is an exaggeration, but he did have a useful point to make: "Deans regard choirs as expensive luxuries, especially younger deans who would like to bring the Church's image up to date. This is a turning-point for a marvellous musical tradition."

There is no evidence, so far as I know, that Wesley Carr has plans that would have the effect of undermining the Abbey's reputation for church music, as wonderfully in evidence during the funeral service for Diana, Princess of Wales.

I have much sympathy, though, with Sir Bryan's general point. English church music is a minor art of great beauty, which at its best always requires large resources. While its masters cannot rival the liturgical music written by Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, Haydn, Mozart and Schubert, nonetheless it is very satisfying. It was said of the Victorian composer of church music, Stainer, that his work was like "Bach much softened by Mendelssohn, and then assimilated to the tradition of the Anglican Church". That is exactly its charm.

Dr Neary embodies this line, which began with Byrd in the 16th century and reached its peak 100 years later with the music of Purcell. Dr Neary was a chorister with the Chapels Royal, then an organ scholar at Cambridge; before coming to Westminster Abbey 10 years ago, he was organist at Winchester Cathedral for 15 years. He also espouses the music of the contemporary composer John Tavener. Indeed it was Tavener's "Song for Athene" that so memorably accompanied Diana's coffin as it was carried out of the Abbey.

Abruptly to fire Dr Neary, then, is quite a thing to do. In a small way, it is like the Prime Minister suddenly dismissing the Governor of the Bank of England, or the Minister of Defence pushing the senior admiral of the Royal Navy overboard when they seem to be doing their jobs pretty well. You have the authority so to act, but there will always be consequences.

The first of these is that a formidable opposition quickly forms. In the case of the organist of Westminster Abbey, the Neary Support Group has raised pounds 40,000, recruited two leading members of parliament, Frank Field and John Gummer, bombarded the newspapers with letters of support and badgered anybody who could influence the outcome of the dispute. Ancient institutions, such as the monarchy, the House of Lords and the Church of England, however decrepit they appear to have become, are rarely as defenceless as they first appear. The Dean of Westminster has attacked a part of the Church of England which the old establishment holds dear; it is fighting back.

Second, if you are to take such dramatic action you must show that you have good cause. This means that for the Dean of Westminster Abbey to impeach an organist whose musicianship is impeccable, he must be able to cite, in the phrase from the American constitution with which we have recently become familiar, high crimes and misdemeanours. Nothing less will do. In the event, the charge is of financial irregularities.

While Lord Jauncey's arbitration will tell us the truth of the matter, I don't dismiss financial irregularities, if such are proved, as being trivial. They are generally a form of stealing which middle-class people like to disguise with words of lesser import. To retain in your own bank account, for instance, monies which belong to somebody else, is to steal.

To make payments that enable the recipients to avoid declaring their earnings for tax is to encourage others to steal from the state. However, overriding my puritan distaste for so-called "irregularities" is the rule of proportion. If Wesley Carr has not succeeded in demonstrating that Dr Neary has been guilty of actions that, in their own context, are equivalent to high crimes and misdemeanours, then he will have to consider his own position. Will he be able to carry on as Dean? I have some doubts.

Third, the author of startling initiatives of this kind must have a care for the institution he or she serves. Whatever the outcome of the hearings, has this public dispute damaged the Church of England itself? About this I am sanguine.

This is not a silly story about an old institution, such as the long- running quarrel between the Dean of Lincoln and one of the cathedral canons. It doesn't resemble the absurd argument as to whether or not the Lord Chancellor should wear breeches, silk stockings and buckle shoes when presiding over sittings of the House of Lords. Nor is it on the level with the question whether, during the State Opening of Parliament, various dignitaries should walk backwards from the Queen's presence. The Westminster Abbey row is a serious event, more or less unprecedented. Such things happen.

But when the result is announced, think of the two men themselves, who have been fighting for what is in effect their lives.

Wesley Carr is 57; he has spent his entire adult life as a priest. Dr Neary is a year older, and has given himself to church music since he was a boy. One will be ruined; one will be triumphant.