Angela Tilby: The rare gift of a critical mind    

20 April 2018

ISTOCK

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

NEXT Tuesday, the ashes of the Very Revd Dr Wesley Carr will be interred in Westminster Abbey. Wesley was Dean of Westminster from 1997 to 2006. He officiated at the funeral service of Diana, Princess of Wales, and also at the funeral of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. He died last July after some years of ill-health (Obituary, 4 August 2017).

I knew Wesley when I was a member of a steering group setting up a course in theology and media at New College, Edinburgh. We used to meet off the plane and gossip. I enjoyed his company. He was smart, cool, and fun. He never adopted a particularly “priestly” persona: he looked more like a banker than a senior cleric.

His academic interest was pastoral theology, which he felt was insufficiently rigorous and often lacked a sense of professionalism. He had no patience with the Church’s tendency to tolerate mediocrity, or to meet criticism with lame excuses. He made no secret of the fact that he thought much clergy training was inadequate. Wesley’s time at the Abbey was overshadowed by the dispute over his dismissal, in 1998, of the Organist and Master of the Choristers, Dr Martin Neary, and his wife, who was the Music Department’s secretary.

A subsequent investigation, carried out by Lord Jauncey, a retired Law Lord from Scotland, upheld the dismissal — Neary’s accounting practices were seriously flawed — but was critical of the way in which it was handled. The judge clearly felt that the Dean and Chapter should have come to a gentlemen’s agreement in which face was preserved on all sides.

Wesley accepted this with remarkable good grace. He knew that some found his actions difficult to accept, but he took the criticism (and a fair amount of verbal and written abuse) as the price to be paid for professional integrity.

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I found this impressive. He genuinely believed that truth mattered more than image and reputation, and, if he ended up carrying an amount of opprobrium, so be it. Wesley saw the Church as a highly fallible institution. He also understood how the Church sometimes appeared to the rest of society as an introverted, self-interested body, incapable of genuine reform.

Wesley offered to the Church the rare gift of a critical mind. There are very few senior clergy who have the ability to see things with the clarity and detachment that he brought to his ministry, and very few with a theology sharp enough to address complex institutional issues.

All too often today, theology is kept to the classroom, while “the bland lead the bland” in a misguided attempt to bolster the Church’s public image. It is not difficult to think of senior priests who have been blocked for promotion because they are too frank, too abrasive, too ready to grasp nettles where others would hide in process and procedure.

Wesley called a spade a spade, and was prepared (as he did) to suffer for it. I miss his irreverent passion, his questioning mind.

The Revd Angela Tilby is a Canon Emeritus of Christ Church, Oxford.

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