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“Super Verger” inspired others at Men’s Conference

I had seen vergers before – I recall the verger at the cathedral in Tallahassee, Florida, who would strike the wooden aisle with his beadle (a ceremonial staff) as he walked at the front of the procession – but I didn’t quite know what a verger was until I began attending the Layman’s Conference with Mark Hunter.

Mark was our “master of ceremonies” at Trinity Clarksville, and I had been helping him with some behind-the-scenes liturgical planning. At the conference, I noticed that two men, John Whittaker and Bill Gleason, seemed to have a similar role – signing up volunteers, patiently organizing our banner processions, and hurrying in the background at each service, tracking duties and movements, and giving instant training. At the conference, they had the additional complication of ensuring that servers coming from dozens of churches with dozens of variations on standard liturgy were on the same page.

These were vergers, Mark explained, and the only differences between what they did and what Mark and I did at Trinity were that they used the term “verger” and they dressed in black and carried a stick.

It’s a common story – most vergers don’t realize they are vergers. They do the duties and aren’t aware that there’s a tradition and role for that liturgical function. Through attending the conference each year and watching and talking to Bill and John, first Mark and later I became better educated about the verger role. It was a neat idea – a new thing to try.

But the importance of the role became clear to me a few years in. I think it was at the 2012 conference, maybe earlier, Bill was serving, wearing the black cassock and chasuble of the office, and was standing near the stairs behind the altar, helping to direct men to communion. An elderly conference attendee who was a bit wobbly on his feet began to stumble as he made the turn around the altar, and he was stumbling toward the marble stairs that led to the high altar. Bill bolted forward, and, unable to stop the man from falling, dove underneath him, landing on the marble steps while the man landed on top of him. Mark and I saw it happen and were dumbstruck. We’ve joked for years that on that day, Bill became “Super Verger,” at least in our eyes. But in seriousness, it illustrated the true nature of the role: At the discretion of the priest, to plan, organize and execute elements of the worship service, then to respond immediately and discreetly to anything that goes wrong (up to and including throwing your body against a flight of marble stairs).

Learning from the other vergers each year at the conference, Mark and I have been able to bring valuable ideas for liturgy planning back to Trinity. That’s one of the great things about the conference – the opportunity to compare notes and learn from other churches across the three dioceses. I’ve heard similar discussions among organists and choir members, Sunday school teachers, and lots and lots of vestry members. By coming together and building connections, we create space to share ideas, sometimes to commiserate, sometimes to brainstorm new and better ways to serve our congregations and our communities.

And we’d like to hear from you, too. See you on the mountain!

–Chris Smith, assistant verger, Trinity Episcopal Church, Clarksville