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Obituary: The Very Revd Dr Arthur Wesley Carr

24 July 2017


High-profile challenges: the Very Revd Dr Wesley Carr, Dean of Westminster, in February 1997. The funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, was held at the Abbey in the September of that year

High-profile challenges: the Very Revd Dr Wesley Carr, Dean of Westminster, in February 1997. The funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, was held at the...

Canon Robert Reiss writes:

THE Very Revd Dr Wesley Carr, Dean of Westminster until 2006, when illness forced him to retire early, died on 15 July, aged 75, after a long battle against Parkinson’s disease and throat cancer.

He was born on 26 July 1941, and his parents were Salvation Army officers. He won a scholarship to Dulwich College, and from there read classics at Jesus College, Oxford, and theology at Jesus College, Cambridge, and prepared for ordination at Ridley Hall, also in Cambridge. He served a four-year curacy at Luton Parish Church, during which time he married Natalie Gill, who was to be his constant companion and support for the rest of his life. He returned briefly to Ridley as tutor, but then took up a Fellowship at Sheffield University, where he received his Ph.D.

In 1974, he moved to Chelmsford, where his work with the Provost, Dick Herrick, brought him into contact with the Tavistock Institute and their work on Group Relations. With the emphasis on clarifying tasks and roles and the boundaries between them, it was found by many to illuminate and explain the functioning of teams and the dynamics of cathedrals and bishops’ staffs.

Much of this was reflected in Carr’s later books The Priestlike Task (1983) and Brief Encounters (1985), which became influential. One diocesan bishop said later that they were “so refreshing because of the sharpness of the observations and the sense that pastoral theology was an intellectual discipline of high importance, rather than simply all about getting on with everybody, smoothing ruffled feathers, and avoiding conflict”. He added: “The more able found him liberating, whereas others could find him forbidding.”

At Chelmsford, he was deputy director for training and research, becoming director and then a Residentiary Canon in 1978. In that period, he was an increasingly influential figure in post-ordination training, but also became an inspector and then senior inspector of theological colleges, where he was known for delivering sharp and often astringent observations.

He tirelessly advised what was then called the Advisory Council for the Church’s Ministry in training selectors and inspectors. Towards the end of the 1980s, he was also chairman of a small group of Archbishops’ Theological Advisers whom the Archbishop (Robert Runcie) could consult on theological issues.

He continued to publish widely on applied theology, but also on pure theology; Tested by The Cross, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 1992, is a perceptive analysis. He gave generously of his time to significant parts of the Church of England, and his contribution was recognised in a Festschrift, The Character of Wisdom: Essays in honour of Wesley Carr, edited by Martyn Percy and Stephen Lowe (2004).

He moved to Bristol, where he remained for ten years as Dean. He was reforming and successful, and did much to build that cathedral’s links to the city, particularly to the university and the city council. That reflected his conviction that cathedrals were there to engage with civic society and local institutions, irrespective of religious views.

He was appointed Dean of Westminster in 1997, at the age of 56, which gave him an even higher public profile. This was especially so when, after only six months in post, he was confronted with the daunting task of managing the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, which involved consulting with the Royal Family and the Spencer family. Most people concluded that he succeeded remarkably, with a combination of practical efficiency, judicious wisdom, and liturgical imagination and sensitivity.

That was the first of a series of royal events at the Abbey, which included the funeral of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, the Queen’s Golden Jubilee, the memorial service for Princess Margaret, and the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. Combined with the day-to-day management of the Abbey and its worship, these made it a demanding position; his increasing ill-health meant he retired in 2006, when the Queen appointed him a KCVO.

In the public mind, many will remember him for the controversial sacking in 1998 of the Organist and Master of the Choristers, Dr Martin Neary, and his wife, who was the Music Department’s secretary. There followed a campaign from many public figures in the press to support them and seek their reappointment. Carr’s reputation as a high-handed and ruthless manager was created by many of those critics, although that was certainly not how almost all the staff at the Abbey perceived him.

He was in reality a compassionate Dean, who knew all the Abbey staff by name and regularly encountered them in his frequent walks around the floor, the offices, and the grounds to talk to all, encourage them, sympathise with their challenges, and raise their spirits.

He also had a clear vision of the Abbey’s priorities and of each person’s responsibilities, and pursued them with determination, normally weighing advice from colleagues and professional advisers with care, and with only an occasional failure to consult. It was telling that, on the matter of the Organist, the rest of the Chapter wholeheartedly supported him.

Dr and Mrs Neary appealed to the Queen, and Lord Jauncey, a retired Law Lord from Scotland, was appointed to investigate. After a 12-day hearing, Lord Jauncey delivered his judgment, which did call in question some of the procedures by which the Abbey authorities handled the issue, but on the central issue of the Organist and his wife he was clear: “They used their position as Organist and Music Department Secretary to make secret profits over a prolonged period and they entirely failed to inform the Abbey authorities of what they were doing. . .

”I consider that this conduct was such as fatally undermined the relationship of trust and confidence which should have subsisted between them and the Abbey. I am therefore satisfied that the Dean and Chapter were justified in summarily dismissing them.”

That did not cease the personal campaign against Carr, but his humility and judgement meant that he cautioned against those who yearned for him to set the record straight on some of the matters where he had been attacked, instead preferring to let his critics’ vehemence run its course and wither on the vine. That profoundly Christian response may be even more recognised for the wisdom it contained now that he has died.

In retirement he moved to Romsey, where Natalie cared for him and his increasing disability in a remarkably focused and yet cheerful way. She survives him, as does their foster daughter.

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