A view backstage at Beverley Minster

A Leader of Men (and Women)

Neil Pickford has a new job title.

Now then everyone, sit up straight because you’re not being addressed by just any old columnist this week. Oh no, you’re not even being addressed by any old virger either because, ladies and gentlemen, may I introduce you to the new Yorkshire Area Leader for the Church of England Guild of Vergers (silly spelling). Taraaaaaa!

Oh yes, it’s me, moi, myself and so forth, so I expect a little bit of respect now. It’s not just me, John and Kevin you’ll have to deal with in future, it’s the entire massed ranks of the signed-up members of the Guild as well. So look out.

Actually, in the cold light of day that’s not much of a threat. I suspect that one of the reasons I was nominated and chosen (apart from the lack of any other candidates) is that I was, by a reasonable margin, the youngest person in the room – and when you’re 56 that comes as a bit of a shock.

It’s a bit depressing really because, south of the river, there’s a few of the next generation to keep us going. I’ve just come back from the cathedral in Oxford (tiny place, much newer than Beverley Minster, a bit of an architectural mish-mash frankly) but their duty verger looked as if he’d just left college. I know of a youngish chap in Lincoln who sports a stylish ponytail like mine (or he did last time I saw him) and, of course, Westminster Abbey has one who will cartwheel down the aisle after a wedding if you want him to (and he spells ‘virger’ properly as well).

But here, in the York and Leeds branches of the guild? We have some sprightly 70-somethings; we have swinging Sixties and a few fit 50-ists, and that’s it. It’s as if we’re dying off – and that’s not right.

It’s not as though the skills we have learned over the years are redundant because whatever marvellous things modern technology can do it’s still somewhat lacking in the old shifting -stuff- around department.

The day that your telephone can programme vacuum cleaners to patrol the floors, semi-intelligent chairs walk to new positions in the nave and stack themselves, or visiting vicars learn how to operate the sound system is the day you can do without us. In fact the increase in the number of parishes having to share their priests with many others, combined with difficulties in finding new churchwardens who can also do a lot of the odd jobs, means the list of duties that may also fall on a rural virger (grass-cutting, brass-polishing, door-locking, heating expert, organist, parish administrator, first port of call for distressed parishioners or visitors, etc. etc.) keeps getting longer.  And, frankly, no matter how splendid the centenarian who’s been doing the job for the last 80 years may be, they can’t go on forever.

When they do finally ‘retire’ who is going to know where the lawn-mower is, let alone how to get the blessed thing going? Which pipes do you bang in the central heating to make that knocking noise go away? Where exactly was great grandma buried in the now-overgrown churchyard? Where are the keys to open the church and get the service going? Why hasn’t the electricity bill been paid? Does anyone know how to play an organ or at least hum in tune?

Why has the church been locked, empty and decaying for the last six months?

It’s not as if there aren’t younger people out there (younger people, ha! Anyone under 55 in our case) who would be willing to undertake these duties and keep old parish activities alive – but they’re not always living where the need is greatest.

So, as Area Leader (trumpets blow triumphant fanfare based on the Roy Wood song ‘Brontosaurus’, bio-degradable confetti pours from the sky, crowds cheer) I feel perhaps I have a vision – to create a cadre of young ‘flying virgers’ who can keep the old skills alive and rural churches in pristine operating condition. I shall lead us to glory!

And then I wake up and find that, in the Guild of Vergers, the word ‘leader’ means the same as the word ‘virger’ itself – i.e. ‘dogsbody’.  Still, if someone feels moved to offer their services somewhere then please feel free to contact the York branch chairman, Richard Babington, on 01964 630263 to see if there’s a convenient hole to fill.

I’ll command him to be ready for you.


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