What is a Verger?
A verger is a uniquely lay ministry of the church largely exercised behind the scenes providing support for all those, ordained and lay who participate in our worship. Vergers can be full-time or part-time, paid or volunteer. Their duties can be purely ceremonial or can include other responsibilities, such as parish administration, leadership of the worship committee or sexton. Most often they are masters of ceremony for all services of worship. They are the ones who make sure everything and everyone is in the proper place and as much as possible everything is running on time.
A Brief History of Vergers
The office of verger has its roots in the earliest days of the Church’s history. It shares certain similarities with the former minor orders of porter and acolyte. Generally speaking, vergers were responsible for the order and upkeep of the house of worship, including preparations for the liturgy, the conduct of the laity, and grave digging. During this time a verger was more likely to need the skills of a linebacker. The verger was the protector of the procession, which involved steering animals away from the church’s aisles and preventing serfs from coming too close to the bishop. Although there is no definitive historical survey of the office of verger, evidence from Rochester, Lincoln, Exeter, and Salisbury Cathedrals indicates the existence of vergers as far back as the 16th century. A familiar sight in English cathedrals, vergers have maintained the buildings and furnishings of the Church for many centuries. The Church of England Guild of Vergers (CEGV) was formed in 1932 as a fellowship of vergers within the Anglican Communion. The VGEC (Vergers’ Guild of the Episcopal Church) was founded in 1989 and is associated with CEVG.
Concerning Vestments and Virges
Verger paraphernalia can be as varied as the duties of the incumbent. The basic vestment is a black cassock, though it may be of another color. And in some parishes the cassock is not worn at all. Over the cassock (or street clothes), when performing a ceremonial function, the verger wears a gown. One type of gown is sleeveless and resembles a bishop’s chimere; the other is cut more fully and resembles a master’s academic gown. There are no hard and fast rules about the shape and adornment of a verger’s gown. The virge is the staff that a verger carries in procession. The name comes from the Latin “virga” which simply means a rod or staff; hence, a verger is one who carries a staff. The virge can trace its history to the ceremonial maces carried before civic and ecclesiastical dignitaries. The Maces of State used in the House of Lords and the House of Commons of the British Parliament are examples of another modern use of the medieval symbols. Originally a weapon used to clear the way for processions (and control of unruly choristers!); its use is now principally honorific. Again, the size and shape of a virge varies from place to place; but one end has a cross or other Christian symbol mounted on it. A longer variation of the virge is called the ‘beadle’, originally used to lead academic processions.
To quote the president of VGEC, David R. Jette, “If being a verger were only about dressing up in a quaint costume and leading an ecclesiastical parade, we might just as well hang up our gowns for good.” The contemporary office of verger is experiencing a rapid expansion within the Episcopal Church. Differing from the church of England, where vergers are often full-time paid employees of the Church, American vergers are more often than not volunteers with a special calling to the ordering and conduct of the Church’s liturgy. Clergy throughout the Church have come to appreciate the ministry of vergers within their congregations. Vergers can relieve the clergy of the burden of liturgical detail so that they can concentrate on their priestly duties to preach the Word and administer the Sacraments. No longer found primarily in cathedrals and large parishes, vergers have proved their worth and are an asset to any worshipping community. It is said there is a verger in every congregation – whether one has been identified as such or not. The best description of a verger’s role is that of a Church Butler. As the butler runs the house of his Master, so the verger runs the House of God.