The verger with a heavenly workplace
He spent his childhood helping in his local church. Now Ian Griffiths has the job of his dreams at King’s College Chapel where architecture and music make a sublime combination. His favourite composers are Byrd, Palestrina and Tallis — but he also enjoys listening to Adele.
When I tell people I’m a College verger, they’re often puzzled.The word comes from the Latin word virga, or French vergier. It’s the name for the rod of office carried by the church official responsible for the care-taking duties of a church. The role is mentioned in psalm 84 as “doorkeeper in the house of my God”. I quite like that description — it’s practical.
My office is in one of the side chapels. These were originally built between the buttresses and used by the Fellows of the College to say Mass. Some of these chapels retain their original use whereas others have been adapted as vestries for choir and clergy and a small exhibition telling the story of King’s. Anyone can tap on my door and come in.
King’s is famous for its music, its fan vaulting and its stained glass. Each year it attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world — last year we had 250,000. We give them a warm welcome. We also have to remember that the chapel is essentially a private chapel and its role has always been to serve the college community but we carefully balance those needs with the local community and wider world.
I never thought I’d work in such an amazing place. Six years ago I stood on King’s Parade and looked up at the west window of the chapel. I had been to a service at King’s only once — when I was a teenager. As I stood there, remembering how I’d been wowed by the music, I found myself thinking how wonderful it would be to work at King’s — and I wondered if they employed vergers.
When I got home I looked at the chapel website. There was a job advertised for a part-time administrator. At the time I was employed by Ely Cathedral — and I’d previously had roles at Westminster Abbey, Canterbury Cathedral and Portsmouth Cathedral. I clicked on the button and found myself applying. A part-time job became full-time and two years ago I was appointed as Dean’s Verger.
My parents insisted that my brothers and I went to church. When we reached 13, we could decide whether we wanted to carry on going or not. My two older brothers went into the army. I’d joined the church choir and helped with jobs like handing out books. Right from the start I felt at home in church — I loved the music and the liturgy.
Aged 18, I got a job in the Protocol Office at Westminster Abbey. I went straight from college to work at Westminster. Looking back, I was so young for a post like that. I helped to organise special services and events — and even got to go to the receptions afterwards. Much later I took an Open University degree which I did part-time over eight years. I graduated in 2015.
At King’s I play a key role in organising a busy schedule. On top of the services and concerts that take place in the chapel, we have to maintain the building and its contents. Last year it was the turn of the organ which was overhauled by specialists — a huge job — and at the same time we had the medieval oak screen restored and all the medieval stained glass cleaned.
The combined choirs comprise around 32 choristers.The boys’ choristers come from King’s College School — they are aged seven to 13 — and there are generally 18 of them. They are complemented by a similar number of choral scholars who are undergraduates at King’s. People think they must be music students — but they could be studying any subject at all.
The organ has to be tuned every two weeks. It takes a team of specialist tuners an entire day to tune the hundreds of pipes.The pipe that makes the deepest sounds is 36 feet long. Some of the pipes are hidden inside the wooden screen that divides the chapel into two parts. The organ is played chiefly by King’s organ scholars.
Health and safety doesn’t sound exciting. But it’s vitally important. Sometimes more than 600 people attend evensong at the height of the tourist season. It’s a very special experience for them. The public are generally fantastic and respect the fact that the chapel is a place of worship.
Adele is someone I enjoy hearing — but I don’t know a lot about pop. I was a head choir boy at my local church and became a Dean’s Chorister at Rochester Cathedral when I was 12. If I’m asked for my favourite composers, I say Byrd, Palestrina, Tallis and, partly because I was lucky enough to meet him, John Tavener. Of course, you can’t go wrong with Mozart.
When one of the organ scholars is practising one of Bach’s Cantatas, it’s heaven. The chapel has a life of its own — and no day is the same. Every day the light is different — and there are new challenges. I’m blessed to work in such an amazing environment. At the end of each day I attend evensong and, however frustrating the day has been, 45 minutes of music and prayer work their magic.