What does a verger do?

“Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young,
at your altars, O Lord of hosts,
my King and my God.” (Psalm 84:3).

“I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than live in the tents of wickedness.” (Psalm 84:10)

For a bit over three years, I worked as a verger for a cathedral, and occasionally I’ve been a verger for big events at other churches.  Mostly, I’ve found that people don’t know what a verger is (in fact, even the tax office doesn’t know what a verger is!), or what vergers actually do.  The old pun that the vergers are the people who mind the keys and pews only begins to give a glimpse at an answer; and when I try to put into words my sense of what that work is about, I find myself drawn back always to the words from the Psalm which I have quoted here.

Because really, what the vergers do is about what the church building is.  It is a place of prayer and worship, of sanctuary, a place where people seek help; and much of what the vergers do is about maintaining it as a space which can hold all of these things.  When we do our work well, services run smoothly and without distraction; the building is clean, tidy and welcoming to those who seek God; and people who are hurting, vulnerable, or in need are cared for with warmth and discretion.

This means that you will see us emptying bins and polishing brass; trimming candles and clearing litter.  You will also see us moving chairs, altars and stalls to make sure each service has its appropriate setting.  You’ll see us looking after lighting, sound equipment, heating or fans (depending on the weather), and all the liturgical requirements for each service.  We’re often fetching, carrying, and doing all manner of things to support the work of the other groups of people in the building.  While these are practical tasks, they have a focus beyond the immediate practicality, to the people whom we serve; our work is calculated to allow others to come to worship feeling secure and welcome (much like the sparrow of the psalm quoted).

What the vergers do in services also is part of this.  While a verger escorting readers to the lectern and so forth might seem an overly formal, even forbidding, presence (this happens more in a Cathedral setting than most other churches), I have found that often people – particularly those who are visiting or new to the church – are able to relax and enjoy services much more when they know they will be looked after, and that human contact means they are less overwhelmed by the space and grandeur of the building.

Another aspect of our work is that many people seeking help – of all kinds – will often meet a verger before anyone else.  While some are referred to clergy, it’s not unusual for vergers to help people find a meal, emergency accommodation, or medical help.  We also deal with queries about Christianity, and – particularly when there are no clergy in the building – may find ourselves caring for people in times of deep distress or vulnerability.

The paradox of our work is that, in order to maintain the church as a safe and welcoming space, we also need to prevent the abuse of that space.  Security is an important focus; doors are locked, valuables are kept away from public areas, and some parts of the church are not accessible to the public, in order to prevent theft and vandalism.  Sadly, some people are disruptive, threatening or violent, and it is our responsibility to deal with them.  It is also not unusual for outside groups (such as professional photographers) to use churches for their own purposes without permission, and this is discouraged in order to maintain the space as a sanctuary.

I understand the service I offer to God in this work as an expression of God’s welcome of each of us.  The many practical tasks, as well as the personal presence and the holding of the boundaries of the building, I hope all contribute to making this a place in which people can seek and encounter God.  I pray that the experience of visiting will be a blessing to everyone.

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Warning: worship may be harmful to your health.

Incense.  Its use in Christian worship has a mandate going all the way back to Exodus, and it is a key symbol in the liturgy for several denominations.  But in various places now its use has become contentious, for a variety of reasons.  I take no issue with the theological implications of using incense in worship.  Although I’m not particularly fond of it myself, I understand that it adds to the richness of the sensory and symbolic context in which people encounter God.

However, I do take issue on pastoral grounds; and that because the use of incense releases into the surrounding air a complex concoction of carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, benzene, toluene, xylenes, aldehydes and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, as well as various particulates (I may have missed some toxins from that list, too).  This makes being in the vicinity of incense used in worship not unlike passive smoking (without the addictive properties of nicotine).  Here is what a quick survey of the medical journals turned up as possible negative effects of prolonged or regular exposure to incense used in worship:

– Allergic contact dermatitis
– Carcinogenic/mutagenic effects (increased risk of cancer, particularly carcinomas of the lung and respiratory tract, but studies have also reported possible links to brain tumours and childhood leukaemia)
– Development of allergic rhinitis and asthma, and the triggering of symptoms in people already suffering these conditions
– Higher risks of allergy in children of gestating mothers (indicated by elevated cord blood IgE levels)
– Inflammation of the respiratory tract and lungs

That’s a formidable list.  It seems to me that a desire to be welcoming and inclusive to all potential worshippers, no matter how allergic or asthmatic, as well as care for the health of the congregation and particularly those who will have high exposure (servers, clergy and choir have been identified as being particularly at risk), would be a motivating factor for reducing incense use.

However, assuming for the moment that some individuals or congregations will not want to cease using incense, despite the health risks, what can be done to reduce those risks?  I found these suggestions in the medical literature:

– Restrict the use of incense to festivals and special occasions
– Reduce exposure time when incense is used in worship
– Ensure the building is well ventilated (open doors and windows) during and for some time after the use of incense
– Use incense of the highest purity possible, to avoid additional contaminants, and reduce the amount of harmful substances produced
– One paper did suggest that people working with incense should wear a protective mask, but somehow I am sceptical that I will see the liturgical use of face masks adopted any time soon!

I realise that this post, and these suggestions, may seem to some people disrespectful or even sacrilegious.  It’s not my intent to be insulting and hurtful.  But this information is not widely recognised, and I think it is important.  If we are well informed, we are equipped to make good decisions in our worship and in our care of one another.  I offer this brief summary in that spirit.

Because this post makes claims about published medical literature, here is a sample of relevant articles.  This is not exhaustive of the research, but simply a starting point for people who wish to verify the claims I’ve made or perhaps read further.  Oh, and I know my referencing style might be odd.  All the information’s there, I can’t be bothered fussing with meeting the requirements of a particular style guide.  Life is too short!

Al-Rawas, O.A. et al.  “Home exposure to Arabian incense (bakhour) and asthma symptoms in children: a community survey in two regions in Oman.”  BMC Pulmonary Medicine, 2009, 9:23.  Accessed at http://www.biomedcentral.com/1471-2466/9/23

Croxford, B and Kynigou, D.  “Carbon Monoxide Emissions from Joss or Incense Sticks.”  Indoor and Built Environment, 2005, 14, pp.277-282.

Friborg, J.T. et al. “Incense Use and Respiratory Tract Carcinomas: A Prospective Cohort Study.”  Cancer, 2008: 113, 7, pp.1676-1684.

Harder, Ben.  “Holy Smoke.”  Science News, 2006, 170:8 p116.

Hu, Ming-Tsan et al.  “Characteritization of, and health risks from, polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins/dibenzofurans from incense burned in a temple.”  Science of the Total Environment, 2009, 407, pp.4870-4875.

Lin, Ta-Ching et al.  “Incense smoke: clinical, structural and molecular effects on airway disease.”  Clinical and Molecular Allergy, 2008, 6:3.  Accessed at http://www.clinicalmolecularallergy.com/content/6/1/3

See, S.W. and Balasubramanian, R.  “Characterization of fine particle emissions from incense burning.”  Building and Environment, 2011, 46, pp.1074-1080.