“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.