Since You Asked... February 2006

January 31, 2006

Q: "What are the duties of a verger?" 

The Rev. Charles Shipley III, head verger of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, responds:

A: The duties of a verger are varied and depend on the needs and history of the congregation and the skills of the verger.

Since the earliest times, there have been people filling the roles now filled by vergers. I Chronicles (9:26-32) tells us of gatekeepers and others in charge of the wine, incense, utensils and the other property of the temple. Today, many of these duties are done by volunteers: altar guilds, acolytes, sacristans and vergers among them.

The types of vergers in this country may be roughly divided into two groups: vocational vergers and ceremonial or volunteer vergers. The vast majority of vergers in the United States are volunteers, helping the clergy with the work relating to the services.

These duties may include leading the procession, escorting readers and other liturgical ministers to their appointed places, setting out the vessels and books for the service participants and giving instructions for the smooth running of the services. Most vergers are members of the Vergers Guild of the Episcopal Church.

The second kind of verger found in our country are full-time, vocational vergers. There are very few of us, likely no more than 15. There is no specific career path leading to being a verger. Some come to it through love of the liturgy. Some of us are “sacristy rats” who never grew up. Love of God and of the church are important, as is familiarity with the Book of Common Prayer.

Our duties are as varied as those of our volunteer counterparts. In some places, we do strictly liturgical work. In other places, we are the facilities managers. At Grace Cathedral, we have two full-time vergers and one part-time seminarian.

My assistant and I live on site. Some of our duties include ordering all supplies, from wine and wafers to paper towels and brooms. I schedule the sextons and ceremonial vergers. We work closely with the volunteers in the altar guild, garden society, and flower guild. We lead the processions, escort all service participants and maintain order in the church.

One of the most important and rewarding aspects of our work is greeting the thousands of visitors that come into the cathedral. We have tour guides and volunteers at a visitors center, but frequently the verger on duty is the only staff person to interact with tourists, seekers and pilgrims.

We always ask an open-ended question: “Do you have any questions I can answer for you?” You then have an opportunity to answer questions or give them a card telling them about service times. Then on Sunday, when you encounter them in the congregation, it is an amazing feeling. These seemingly little events of hospitality in the name of Christ make a difference in peoples’ lives and invite them to “come and see”!

Occasionally, I finish a day with the thought, “Wow, I can’t believe I get paid to do this!” God has blessed me!

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