What Is A Verger?
Strange sounding word -- what does it mean? A unique, front-line lay ministry in the Anglican Communion, the Office of Verger dates from the 16th century. As the Protector of the Procession, the Verger led the way for the church procession from the Vestry* around the church into the front doors, clearing a pathway with his virge (or mace) through the crowds of people and animals. As the first person in procession, he cleared the way for the Thurifer, Crucifer, Acolytes, Choir, and Ministers by swinging his virge.
A virge (or mace) is the staff of office carried by a Verger in procession. Originally a weapon of war, the virge was used to clout the enemy from horseback. As the advent of long-range weaponry came about, the club went out of use on the battle front. The virge or mace remained popular, however, as a symbol of strength and authority. The club end shrank and Civic Maces developed, with coats of arms being added to the pole. Vergers’ Wands or maces evolved into simpler versions of the Civic Maces and often had crosses or other Christian symbols on the end where the coat of arms was located.
The original responsibilities of a verger included preparation for liturgy, order and upkeep of the house of worship, grave digging, building/grounds maintenance, and conduct of the laity. The Verger today is a lay assistant to the clergy, reporting directly to the clergy and carrying out a liturgical style directed by the clergy. This assistance extends to the Altar Guild, Acolytes, Lay Readers, LEMs, Sextons, Musicians, and other lay participants of the liturgy.
This ministry is experiencing a revival in the Episcopal Church today. In essence, a Verger is a committed lay minister within the local congregation who assists the clergy in the conduct of public worship, in either a purely ceremonial fashion or in additional administrative responsibilities.
Basic vestment for a Verger is a black cassock. When performing ceremonial functions, the Verger wears a gown over the cassock. Often, this gown is sleeveless, resembling a bishop’s chimere, but in gray rather than red. A fully cut and trimmed Verger’s Gown has lappets hanging from the shoulders and the arms. The upper lappets are a reminder of the Lord’s words:
Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me;
For I am meek and lowly in heart;
And ye shall find rest unto your souls.
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
- (Matthew 11:29-30)
The lower lappets were used to tie books of the Clergy being escorted, allowing the Verger’s hands to be free. Early canon law provided that the sacred vessels were to be handled only by the Clergy, so the Verger would wrap the lappets around his hands to carry the vessel, much the same way some acolytes use gloves today. Originally intended as protection from inclement weather, the Verger’s gown today is now more of a symbolic reminder of our past.
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 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. If you are called to this ministry or believe your parish could benefit from this ministry, please contact a member of our guild. We will be happy to answer your questions and assist you.
* The word vestry has two meanings: the governing body of a local church, and the room where the clergy and other lay members of the procession get vested for procession