It’s been a long time since I last posted a piece – plenty to distract me at the moment. However, here’s one I wrote to mark a very important personal anniversary:
Just ten years ago I picked up the larger of the two verges in the virgers’ office for the first time. It was a special service – Remembrance Sunday 2006 and, as assistant (therefore junior) virger, it was my responsibility to lead a visiting priest in procession. Head Virger John Dell had the greater responsibility of leading the incumbent of the time but it just so happened that this particular visiting priest was the Archbishop of York, so I was leading the second-highest cleric in the Anglican community of England. What could top that as a first outing?
All good things come to an end however and, six months ago, I finally placed the huge bunch of keys (that had cut through many trouser pocket linings over the previous nine and a half years) inside the virgers’ safe and wandered up the road to a new job, without ceremony but with a deep sense of fulfilment.
It’s fair to say my time as assistant virger in Beverley Minster has been the most satisfying working period in my life (so far). Back in 2006 I’d just been made redundant from a well-paid job in publishing (for the fifth time) and was recovering after treatment for a misdiagnosed heart condition – with no idea what to do next. Gill saw the vacancy advertised in the parish news sheet and suggested I applied – and I’m so glad that she did.
From the very first moment in the job, when John said: “Don’t worry about job titles here – we’re a team,” to those final quiet moments in the vestry before I locked the door for the last time and passed the key to the shop volunteers, I have been aware that the daily demands on a virger in Beverley Minster required a completely different mind-set to what I’d had before – and this mindset is a much better way of living.
It’s hard to describe to anyone who’s not done the job what it really involves. I know there were some members of the congregation and PCC in the past who thought we existed merely to ‘tote that barge, lift that bale’ on demand. However, John and I both had a background in business and were eager to do more for the Minster than merely move chairs and dust things so, for example, we started offering daily tours in the roof (which earned more than £110,000 for funds over seven years) while John came up with the idea of help-yourself coffee in the north transept, which raises a few thousand pounds a year for very little effort and gives succour to visitors. This was very satisfying but was not, however, the reason why I loved my job.
It was when dealing with other people that I found a virger’s life to be most fulfilling. I admit to entering employment in the Church of England with a very high opinion of myself. Learning how to stand back and serve the needs of other people, from all backgrounds and with a wide range of concerns, required a degree of empathy I’d never had to call on before and, to my pleasant surprise, it was very satisfying. Over the years I’ve sat down with tortured and grieving people of all ages, as well as one suicidal individual who had swallowed a large number of potentially fatal tablets just before entering the church. I had one much-loved parishioner die in front of me while his wife was nearby and, of course, met hundreds of bereaved families before and after funeral services.
I learned how to listen to people, to shut up and not lead a conversation; how to guide it when someone clearly still had more to say but didn’t want to say it. I stood by and watched as one tortured individual had a moment of epiphany in Katherine’s Chapel and I’ve seen enlightenment dawn on the faces of schoolchildren of all ages as the they’ve suddenly understood how and why Beverley Minster was built in the first place.
I don’t miss it, insofar as my present role at Monks Walk requires many of the same people-skills I developed as a virger. I’m also still moving chairs, dusting things, cleaning the toilets, organising 101 things to make the day go smoothly for my staff and visitors and making sure the stocks are ordered and in the right place at the right time. One bonus is that, these days, I can come into the Minster and enjoy it as a simple civilian – and I do. And the fellowship of the Minster continues outside the building as well as indoors.
But I’m a different person to the individual who first donned the black robes back in 2006 and, if for only that reason, my family and I continue to be hugely grateful that I was once a virger at Beverley Minster.