Our church has a verger. I have often wondered what that word means. The word “sexton” came up while exploring “verger”, so I have included that here too.
A verger (or virger) is a person who assists in the ordering of religious services, particularly in Anglican churches.
The office of verger has its roots in the early days of the Church of England. Historically, vergers were responsible for the upkeep of the house of worship, including the care of the church buildings, its furnishings, and sacred relics, preparations for liturgy, conduct of the laity, and grave-digging. Although there is no definitive historical examination of the Office of Verger, evidence from the cathedrals of Rochester, Lincoln, Exeter, and Salisbury points to the existence of Vergers in the twelfth century.
A verger’s main ceremonial duty is to precede the religious participants as they move about the church during services. He or she does not typically take any speaking part in the service. During a service, an objective of a verger is inconspicuousness, but behind the scenes, vergers often play a prominent role in helping to plan the logistical details of a service and discreetly shepherding the clergy through it.
The verger’s title comes from the ceremonial rod which a verger carries, a virge. The word comes from a Latin word “virga”, meaning a branch, staff, or rod. The Maces of State used in the House of Lords and the House of Commons of the British Parliament are examples of another modern use of the medieval virge.
In former times, a verger might have needed his virge to keep back animals or an over enthusiastic crowd from the personage he was escorting or even to discipline unruly choristers. Perhaps our Music Director needs one.
Guild of Vergers
The Church of England has a Guild of Vergers. According to their website, “Each Verger is at the forefront of the Church’s ministry of hospitality, welcome, care (of people, buildings and sacred things) and outreach in one form or another.” There are similar guilds in several parts of the world.
A sexton is an officer of a church, congregation, or synagogue charged with the maintenance of its buildings and/or the surrounding graveyard. In larger buildings, such as cathedrals, a team of sextons may be employed. In smaller places of worship, this office is often combined with that of verger. Some sources suggest that the verger takes care of what is inside the church building and the sexton what is outside.
Amongst the traditional duties of the sexton in small parishes was the digging of graves—the gravedigger in Hamlet refers to himself as sexton. In modern times, grave digging is usually done by an outside contractor. The general duties of a modern sexton may include:
- Operation and maintenance of mechanical systems such as refrigerators, boilers, air conditioning units, kitchen equipment, etc.
- Liaison with maintenance and supply companies regarding fire and safety, pest control, etc.
- Ordering/receiving supplies and equipment.
- Logistics for events on church calendar (chairs, tables, lighting, etc.)
- Emergency response during bad weather, etc.
- Building and grounds tasks not handled by a contract service such as replacement of ceiling light bulbs, returning premises to a neat and orderly state following services and events, etc.
- Maintaining the grounds.