[Copied from: The Verger’s Guild of the Episcopal Church website.]
What is a verger?
A verger is a person within the Church who assists the clergy in the conduct of public worship. It is said that the verger serves the church in a ministry of welcome and the duties of the verger vary from parish to parish. Vergers can be full-time or part-time, paid or volunteer. Their duties can be purely ceremonial or include other responsibilities such as parish administration, leadership of the worship committee, sexton, etc. He or she may serve in other capacities throughout the church; such as Sacristan, Acolyte Master, Sexton, Chalice Bearer, Lay Reader, Usher, Protector of the Procession, Doorkeeper, Grave Digger, Master of Ceremonies or anything else that the parish requires. The Office of Verger dates back to the Middle Ages when the Verger was the “Protector of the Procession.” He led the procession into the church or cathedral, clearing the way for the procession and protecting it from vagabonds and animals that tried to attack it. Today, in many parishes and cathedrals you will see a verger ceremonially leading the procession. The verger wears a gown and carries a virge (Staff of Office) to help clear the way, and point the way for the procession.
Where did vergers originate?
The role of the verger has its roots in the earliest days of the Church’s history. It shares certain similarities with the former minor orders of “porter” and “acolyte.” Generally speaking, in the olden days, vergers were responsible for the order and upkeep of the house of worship, including preparations for the liturgy, the conduct of the laity, and grave-digging. Although there is no definitive historical survey of the office of verger, evidence from Rochester, Lincoln, Exeter, and Salisbury Cathedrals indicates the existence of vergers as far back as the 16th century. A familiar sight today in parishes large and small, vergers have maintained the buildings and furnishings of the Church for many centuries. The Church of England Guild of Vergers (CEGV) was formed in 1932 as a fellowship of vergers within the Anglican Communion.
Are there really vergers today?
Yes! The contemporary role of the verger is experiencing a rapid expansion within the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion world-wide. Differing from the Church of England, where vergers are often full-time paid employees of the Church, vergers in America are more often volunteers with a special calling to the ordering and conduct of the church and the church’s liturgy. Clergy have come to appreciate the ministry of vergers within their parishes. Vergers can relieve the clergy of the burden of liturgical detail so that they can concentrate on their duties to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments. No longer found only in cathedrals and large parishes, vergers are an asset to any worshiping community regardless of size or tradition. It is said there is a verger in every congregation, whether one has been identified as such or not!
What do vergers wear?
Verger paraphernalia can be as varied as the duties of the verger! We have a “Processional Gear” department in the Vergers Guild Shop online store that has a basic virge and chimere for sale. The basic vestment of a verger is a black cassock. In some places, the cassock may be of another color such as purple at many cathedral parishes. In some parishes the cassock is not worn at all. Over the cassock (also known as street clothes), when performing a ceremonial function, the verger might wear a gown. One type of gown is sleeveless and resembles a bishop’s chimere; the other is cut more fully and resembles an academic gown.
What is a virge?
The virge is the staff that a verger carries in procession. The name comes from the Latin “virga” which simply means a rod or staff; hence, a “verger” is one who carries a staff. The virge can trace its history back to the ceremonial maces carried before civic and ecclesiastical dignitaries. 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 symbols. Originally used to clear the way for processions (and control unruly choristers!), its use is now principally honorific. The size, style, and shape of a virge varies from place to place; but one end typically has a cross or other Christian symbol mounted on it. A longer variation of the virge is called the “beadle” originally used to lead academic processions.