Dispute at abbey upsets regulars

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THE WIDENING schism between the congregation and the Dean of Westminster Abbey was highlighted yesterday at a service which was boycotted by several long-standing members of the congregation.

While tourists were bemused by the ongoing row over the dismissal of organist Martin Neary, the remaining "regulars" were far more uneasy. Some regard the abbey as their local church and do not take kindly to the controversy which has so far cost pounds 400,000 in legal fees alone, plus countless damaging headlines.

The feud between the Dean, Dr Wesley Carr, and Dr Neary began when the organist was sacked for alleged "financial irregularities".

Supporters have raised a petition and fighting fund to support Dr Neary, who is currently appealing to the Queen to be reinstated.

Such is the crisis that long-standing members of the Abbey's congregation are boycotting services. At yesterday's services the unease over the issue was palpable.

Tim Bailey, a 33-year-old accountant working for a charity, has been coming to the abbey for 11 years.

He said: "I am a fairly independent person and I am not going to make up my own mind because of pressure from the media. However, a lot of the familiar faces did not appear to be there this morning."

Mr Bailey, who drives in from Sydenham, south London, for the Sunday morning service said: "The quality of music is still extremely good and I don't think that is going to suffer despite what happened to the organist, unless people start withdrawing from the choir - and I don't think that is likely to happen."

Robert and Trudi Johnson from nearby Pimlico both felt the "atmosphere had soured" in the abbey recently.

Mr Johnson, a retired surveyor, was of the opinion that if Dr Neary was vindicated in the judicial hearing, then Dr Carr's position would become untenable. "The whole matter appears to have become personalised. I suppose that means that one of them will have to go."

His wife, a retired teacher, added: "What we need now is a period of calm and not to have the abbey in the newspapers all the time. But this thing seems to have taken on a momentum of its own."

The latest manifestation of this, the petition to the Queen, has already attracted 300 names and is expected to reach 1,000.

Among the signatories are a number of abbey staff including vergers, marshals and stewards, as well as seven MPs including, one of whom is the former social security minister, Frank Field.

Dr Carr is no stranger to controversy and he has had a series of spats with other churchmen during his career.

He also stoked up anger earlier this year when his attempts at changing the way the abbey is managed led him to dismiss several elderly volunteers, some of whom had spent years helping in the church.

Peter Armitage, a commodities trader from Fulham, south-west London, who attended the Eucharist, said: "I'm sure that Dr Carr has some bright ideas but from what I can gather he does seem to rub people up the wrong way. Matters of the church should not perhaps be the subject of litigation."

The judicial hearing by Lord Jauncey, a former Law Lord, is being conducted privately.

The verdict is expected later this month, but whichever way it goes the feeling is that the scars caused by the controversy will take a long time to heal.