A Verger (sometimes “Virger”) is a specialized form of Sacristan; therefore a Biblical origin for their office can be found in those members of the Priestly Tribe of Levi set aside by King David and the Prophet Samuel: The gatekeepers were…in charge of the gates of the house of the Lord…as guards…and they had charge of opening it every morning. Some of them had charge of the utensils of service, for they were required to count them when they were brought in and taken out. Others of them were appointed over the furniture, and over all the holy utensils, also over the fine flour, the wine, the oil, the incense, and the spices (1 Chronicles 9:17–29). Over time the same practical concerns appeared within Christianity and by the fourth century four “minor orders” of clergy had developed to provide assistance to Bishops and Priests; one of these — the Ostiarius, or Doorkeeper — is the beginning of the Verger’s history in the Church.
The next millennium saw liturgies becoming ever more complex with a corresponding increase in the number of clerics required for their preparation and performance; as an example, there were 130 such functionaries at Salisbury Cathedral by 1390. That establishment’s distinctive practice, the Sarum Use (or Use of Salisbury) — England’s dominant “dialect” of the Roman Rite and the foundation on which Cranmer built his Prayer Book — contains some references to them of particular interest: procedat minister virgam manu gestans, locum faciens processioni (A Minister goes in front, bearing a rod in his hand, making room for the procession) and Imprimis Sacristes, virgas in manibus gestantes, deinde... (At the beginning: Sacristans bearing rods in their hands; then…) so some of these clerics — in addition to their curatorial functions — had become part of public liturgies and begun to carry the wands which would eventually become their badge of office and give them their name: the virge. In Latin such a one was a Virgarius (rod-man) or “virgifer”(made by adding “–fer” — from the verb “fero” to carry — to what was carried, following the pattern of Crucifer or Thurifer). The modern English form might possibly come directly from vergifer (several centuries of lazy pronunciation having removed the awkward “f”); but more likely it derives from the Norman French Vergerar or — Verger.
The Verger’s distinctive dress is a gown , although today many wear the less bulky chimere — a garment proper to a Bishop in the Anglican communion. Both of these — like almost all garments worn by clergy in the middle ages and renaissance — are nothing more than late medieval/early modern academic dress: as all academics were clerics (and many clerics academics), such garments were worn by Catholics and Protestants alike. One of the earliest images showing a Verger looking very much as he does today depicts that of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, in 1616, five years before John Donne became its Dean (it is very probable the man pictured conducted Donne to the pulpit to deliver his famous sermons).
VERGERS IN THE ANGLICAN COMMUNION
Henry VIII’s break with Rome destroyed much of the establishment of the Church — both literally (all those romantic ruins dotting the English and Irish countryside were once thriving monastic communities) — and organizationally. In the latter sense, many minor clerics found themselves without a job as “Popish” rites and ceremonies were abolished: the office of Verger, however, was retained — partly because his practical functions were necessary: as in the days of King David and the Prophet Samuel, Gatekeepers were still required. This was just as true elsewhere, however — yet only in England did the Verger survive and thrive to the present day. It seems something about ceremonious, wand-bearing attendants is deeply appealing to the English sensibility; for they continued outside the church doors as well, at every level of society: from the Mace borne into Parliament — representing the Sovereign herself, without which it may not lawfully sit — through civic government, academia, and as the first policemen — Beadles were so called from the staves they carried as their badge of office (as do Vergers in outdoor processions).
The Verger’s most public duty is to accompany processions and persons within the liturgy. In this regard it is important to note that, although the Verger comes before everyone else in a Procession, he is not leading it — he is actually not even part of it, merely walking ahead to ensure the way is clear for it. A Verger’s additional duties can be extremely various and depend on the needs and circumstances of a given church. In America, the mere presence of a Verger is somewhat ad hoc, as are their duties; in England, both are much more formal, often involving licensure. On both sides of the Atlantic, “behind the scenes” duties may include record keeping; upkeep of the building and property, care of the vestments and other items in the Sacristy, or assisting the clergy pastorally; in public worship they can include serving as lector; acolyte, and administering the Precious Blood as a Chalicer during Holy Communion.
VERGERS IN THE CATHOLIC CHURCH
Most Catholics have never seen — or heard of — a verger; yet the office became “Anglican” only as a survival of Catholic practice. What happened? A quick — if surprising — answer might be: Protestantism. It’s an irony that Anglicanism preserved many aspects of medieval Catholicism the Church herself would discard in reaction to the new situation. Her means was the Council of Trent (1545–1563) and the “new ways” would remain in place for 500 years, until another modernizing Council: Vatican II. Both Councils wished to update and streamline the Church’s liturgical practices; at Trent, medieval ways were — in large measure — out: only where the Church’s writ did not run (such as in England) could they remain. Within Catholicism, the City of Rome and the Papal Court itself (as always) retained the old ways the longest: vergers survived there for many centuries: papal mazzieri (who carried a silver wand called a mazza) and Swiss Guards functioned as vergers in papal chapels; Cardinals were preceded in the street and processions by mace-bearers; and the cursores apostolici (papal messengers) also carried wands. Today only Mazzieri are seen — very rarely — at the Consecration of a Bishop (if you watch Otto Preminger’s admirable epic The Cardinal of 1963 you will see one — briefly, but close up — when the main character is raised to the Episcopacy; he carries a mazza of exactly the pattern shown in the engraving). Interestingly, there is some evidence the office of verger may have been reëstablished along with the English Hierarchy in 1850 (or, at the very least the attempt was made or possibility left open): the Priestly rubrician (and 1846 convert from Anglicanism) Rev. John Duncan Hilarius Dale’s enormously influential Sacristan’s Manual, or, Hand Book of Church Furniture of 1854 — a business-like work scrupulous in following not only the decrees but practice of Rome, varying only when officially approved by or for the Diocese of Westminster — contains this intriguing paragraph: 58. Verger’s Staff, the use of which is recognized in the Ceremonial of Bishops (Book 2, chap xxvii, n. 5), is usually surmounted by an emblem of the Patron Saint of the Church, or some other appropriate design (the baton cantoral shown below is a continental example of the patronal finial described by the author).
A quite similar office certainly did survive in both Catholic and Anglican traditions, however: that of Precentor. Like a Verger, the Precentor is responsible for liturgical organization and preparation but — as the name suggests — is also the leading voice in the choir. A nineteenth century French dictionary of canon law says In France, some chapters retain traces of the dignity of Precentor, and one may see sometimes an archdeacon, sometimes a titular or honorary canon, carrying the baton cantoral, the insignia of his office. The same author — in another work — quotes the statutes of the Bishop of Dijon to give an idea of the later form of the precentor’s function: The Précenteur or Grand Chantre is the head of the choir and…Sacristans, chanters, choir-boys, and employés of the Cathedral are placed under his surveillance. He will also preserve order and silence in the sacristy. Which brings us very close indeed to the Anglican verger’s insignia and role.
At Saint Gregory the Great, the Verger also serves as Precentor; so — fittingly — our Ordinariate parish unites two similar offices — one from Catholic and one from Anglican tradition — in one: the Verger of Saint Gregory the Great.
—Kevin Dennis Patrick McDermott