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
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
people
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick