Monday, August 11, 2014

Verging on the ridiculous...

Those who know me even a little will also know that I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a details woman. 
I'm not bad at the big picture, at dreaming exciting dreams and even, on a good day, sharing those dreams with others...but the step by step process of getting from here to there is really not my thing. 
For this reason, as much as for many others, I'm really glad that I share an office at the Cathedral not just with the Precentor and the Director of Music - but also with the Head Verger.
Otherwise, I might just have been so seduced by the seamless performance of our verging team, again and again, that I  failed to register just how much work is involved.

However, fortunately J is there so I see at close quarters quite what it costs her small team to keep things running smoothly - and a couple of weeks ago I was also allowed to be a supernumerary sub-assistant-under-verger for a morning shift...and learned so much.
First - that our beautiful marble floor is punishing if you are walking from end to end of the Cathedral repeatedly all day. Think long shopping trips on London pavements and you're in the right area.
There's lots of walking and your feet know about it by the end of the day.
Second - that the essence of verging, beyond the obvious remit of loving service, is THINKING AHEAD
(you see - I would undoubtedly make the world's worst verger...I am incapable of anything that smacks of a life is an endless series of surprises, which can be fun but would be useless in this job).

I began my (abbreviated) shift after Morning Prayer - by which time the duty verger had already been at work for 90 minutes, unlocking the building, switching off alarms and making everything ready for the day ahead. Then said verger attends the Office, usually reading one of the lessons. If by some mischance no cleric appears at all, then it's also her responsibility to lead Morning and Evening Prayer...and it seems to me that the motto must either be "Ich dien" or "Expect the unexpected"....

As I followed in A's wake that morning he was constantly thinking ahead - the books that we were putting away after Morning Prayer in the Prayer Circle at the West End would next be needed in the Lady Chapel, so now was a good time to get them there...
Would there be enough quiet moments now to refill the oil candles, so that it wouldn't be a problem the following week when we would be a verger down due to holidays?
We were passing the votive stands quite early in the day - a good moment to clean off the wax before the stands were crowded with candles...
There were chairs and tables to move, safes to empty, service books to mark up with the many-splendoured ribbons of Common Worship Daily Prayer, mics to set up for prayers on the hour, litanies to introduce (and lead, if nobody else is detailed so to do)...
And so it went on.
Vestments were loving set out for Sunday, with due regard to the height of all the sacred ministers...
Questions about art, faith, history were answered - for to the public, of course, anyone in a cassock must be the fount of all knowledge but also fair game if you're feeling unhappy about entrance charges or really really don't get why Graham Sutherland envisaged Christ looking like that...
And, of course, every time a member of the clergy has a bright idea about prayer stations for General Synod, an extra service for a special occasion, poppy petals dropping from the ceiling for WW1 Remembrance, extended opening hours or a longing to pray the Litany standing on her head in a bucket of water (yes, I am making that one up - but you never know) the process of making it happen will involve the ministry of the vergers.
Those poppies were the work of any number of people, who, in the week leading up to the WW1 commemoration spent any spare moment cutting out petals. The visual impact on the day was stunning - the team work beforehand even more so!

As Head Verger J undoubtedly keeps about her person a Swiss Army knife, a tape-measure, some spare batteries, a polyglot dictionary and probably a small hip flask..
If you find yourself in pretty much any kind of need in a Cathedral, your first and best port of call  is bound to be a verger.

But the frustrating thing, of course, is that as long as everything is running smoothly (and with our team, even under-strength, that's pretty much what it does) nobody will notice at all.
If the Cathedral is a swan gliding effortlessly down the bright stream, then the vergers are those feet paddling like mad that keep her moving forward.
I don't know where we'd be without them.

[The splendid diagram is, of course, the work of the still more splendid Dave Walker, Copyright © 1999-2013 Dave Walker
and published here with his kind permission.
For more delights, visit
Dave understands all the foibles of the church so very well, but always balances frustration with love.]


UKViewer said...

I had a tiny bit of insight when my SD (A former Canon of Canterbury) gave me a private guided tour behind the scenes and I met some of those Vergers that you describe, doing the vital work that keeps everything on a stable footing. From leading processions to ensuring that the toilets are clean and maintained, if the contractor doesn't do their thing. But being part of the Cathedral ship, perhaps the allegoric 'stoker of boilers' down in the engine room, unseen, unappreciated but keeps the ship moving forward by their endless labour.

Matthew Caminer said...

In my student days in the '70s I was a voluntary guide at Coventry Cathedral, and spent a summer as a full time student guide, and like you was once a stand-in verger for a mid morning service. Wonderful memories of a special time in my life and yes, I too could tell a few stories but don't want to steal your thunder. But thanks for bringing it all back to life

Perpetua said...

Having seen the amount of work done by the verger in a large and busy parish church, your post doesn't surprise me, though it still fills me with admiration for the achievement. I really enjoyed this.

Crimson Rambler said...

hurray for vergers! I never had time to confirm my suspicion that a janitor increases in wisdom and stature and assiduity and skill if when you rename him/her Verger and give him/her a natty black gown to wear. It is delightful being able to follow your adventures at the Cathedral! I'm headed back to work in the hinterland (200 km one way) as of September 1, a "return engagement" and I'm delighted.

DRN said...

I'm pleased to see the Cathedral clearly appreciates its vergers- I spotted this just outside the Lecture Hall after yesterday's Diocesan Choral Evensong: