Abbey appoints Catholic organist

Church of England: After acrimonious Neary row, the `poisoned chalice' of Westminster post passes to shock choice

WESTMINSTER ABBEY broke with nearly five centuries of tradition yesterday and appointed a Roman Catholic as organist to replace the previous incumbent, Martin Neary, who was sacked by the Dean of Westminster a year ago.

After lengthy efforts to fill a post widely regarded as a poisoned chalice, the Abbey's search finally ended close to home when it persuaded James O'Donnell, organist at Westminster Cathedral for the past 11 years, to move.

The choice of Mr O'Donnell, who will take up his post next January, shocked some traditionalist members of the Abbey's congregation. He is believed to be the first Catholic appointed to a senior post at the Abbey, which is the official place of worship of the Queen, head of the Church of England. He will be responsible for the music played at state occasions such as coronations and royal funerals.

The Abbey authorities deny that they had difficulty finding a successor to Dr Neary, who was sacked by the Dean, Dr Wesley Carr, in April 1998. Earlier this year a church court found that Dr Neary and his wife, Penny, an Abbey administrator, had been fairly dismissed, although it cleared them of charges of dishonesty.

There was considerable surprise when the Abbey engaged a firm of headhunters to fill the top job in church music.

Some observers claim that many eminent musicians declined to apply for the post because they did not relish working with Dr Carr, who has been accused of being ruthless and a control freak.

The two most obvious candidates - Edward Higginbottom, organist at New College, Oxford, and Stephen Cleobury, of King's College, Cambridge - reportedly ruled themselves out, while a third, David Hill, organist at Winchester Cathedral, recently withdrew his application for the post.

One long-standing member of the Abbey congregation suggested yesterday that the rules on religion had been relaxed to attract a wider field. While the organist was in the past required to be "a communicant member" of the Anglican Church, this time it was stipulated merely that he or she be "a communicant member of a Christian church and at home with Anglican worship".

Cardinal Basil Hume, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, was said to be disappointed to lose Mr O'Donnell, who described the invitation to move to the Abbey as "a wonderful opportunity".

Mr O'Donnell, 38, has a first-class degree in music from Jesus College, Cambridge, and is professor of organ at the Royal Academy of Music. He arrived at Westminster Cathedral in 1982, when he was appointed assistant organist.

Yesterday he paid tribute to James Baker, sub-organist at the Abbey, who has stood in for Dr Neary for the past year and was reportedly hoping to be appointed himself. The two men are friends and, according to insiders, Mr O'Donnell broke the news to Mr Baker over a drink on Wednesday evening.

Dr Carr said of the appointment yesterday: "James O'Donnell is renowned throughout the world as an organist and a choir director. We are delighted to announce this key appointment and look forward to bringing those skills to the musical life and worship of Westminster Abbey."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones