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."

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