Retirement ruffles feathers in the cloister

Forcing Westminster Abbey's guides to give up their jobs at 75 has put the Dean at the centre of controversy - again, writes Rosa Prince
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Indy Lifestyle Online
ALL is not well in the hallowed cloisters of Westminster Abbey. The Dean, the Very Rev Wesley Carr, has become enmeshed in truly Trollopian feuds, first with the master of choristers and now with the ancient church's guides.

Earlier this week, Dr Carr hit the headlines when he suspended Martin Neary, who runs the choir and is the Abbey's organist, amid allegations of irregularities in the administration of the music department. It was a move which led the Minister for Welfare Reform, the high Anglican Frank Field, to intervene, denouncing him for running a "totalitarian regime"

Then came the Dean's second strike. Yesterday, he told a meeting of the Abbey's 40 guides that they would have to retire once they reached the age of 75 - a decision which reportedly reduced several elderly women to tears. Dr Carr told them: "People need to know they don't have to go on forever and people need to feel they are not joining a group that is necessarily elderly. But we are not abruptly curtailing. People will be kept in touch with a visit each year and a newsletter."

Although many of the guides have served at the Abbey for a number of years, acquiring detailed knowledge of the church, they have been told they must leave for insurance purposes.

One elderly guide now facing the sack said the Dean was a bully who had handled the process brutally and insensitively. She said that working at the Abbey meant a lot to the guides, many of whom were as agile as 60-year-olds.

Emma St John Smith, the Abbey's spokeswoman, put it another way: "The Dean was concerned at the large number of elderly people and there was a feeling that it would be reasonable to have a cut-off retirement age. He felt that 75 was not unreasonable. I was not at the meeting myself, but I think the accounts of it have been over dramatised."

They may well have been, but Dr Carr certainly has a way of starring in the most extraordinary rumpuses. Ever since he arrived at the Abbey 10 months ago he has sparked controversy. First there was his decision to ask visitors to pay an entrance fee to the church: visits to the Abbey have fallen by 20 per cent since the introduction of the pounds 5 charge.

Then came his decision to allow the body of right-wing politician Enoch Powell to lie in state in the chapel. Given Powell's views on immigration, that was met with revulsion by some of the Dean's sternest critics.

But it was his treatment of Dr Neary which caused the real row.

In the intensely competitive world of church music, the choir of Westminster Abbey ranks alongside St Paul's Cathedral and King's College, Cambridge, at the top of the premier league. Evensong is sung with taste and precision; scarlet cassocks are superbly tailored, surplices starched to crisp perfection. Westminster Abbey Choir School, has its pick of choristers, and never was that more apparent than at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, particularly during the final, spine-chilling moments as the funeral procession made its way out from the darkness of the nave into the sunshine of a September morning, with the solemn, insistent chanting of John Tavener's "Song for Athene" resounding. The entire service had to be prepared in less than a week, and at a time when the choir was officially on holiday. The impeccable music was the creation of one man, Martin Neary.

Today, the Dean maintains that his reforms are all helping to make the Abbey more spiritual and to encourage prayer. But for the moment, it seems more akin to a vale of tears.

Dr Carr was the embodiment of reasonableness when he explained his reason for getting rid of the elderly guides. In the eyes of the church's insurers, he said, they are a liability because an age limit for the volunteers has been set in order to restrict compensation payouts to visitors, should they blame the helpers for any accident that befalls them when going round the abbey.

Weighed against that, the guides' intricate knowledge of the Abbey and its place in the history of the nation, their length of service and their fitness, counted for nothing.