For Paul Harris, his role as Dean’s verger at Christ Church Cathedral is all about the ministry of welcome.
Paul came to Christ Church last year from Holy Trinity in Stratford-upon-Avon, the busiest parish church in the country where William Shakespeare was baptised, worshipped and is buried. Holy Trinity has over 300,000 visitors every year, so Paul knows all about places of worship that double as tourist attractions.
“I see our role as vergers as primarily one of making sure that all visitors are welcomed. Whether they wish to visit as a tourist, visiting Shakespeare’s grave or they want to come in to worship, have some quiet time or to pray and light a candle,” says Paul.
Growing up in Surrey, it was his great aunt and uncle, both committed Christians, who influenced Paul’s journey to faith. The great uncle would walk to their house most Saturday mornings helping Paul and his siblings learn to read using Bible stories.
It was while working and travelling around the country as a sales rep for a Christian publisher that Paul first felt a calling to Christian ministry. After a year or so of ignoring that sense of calling, Paul, who is married to Annie, sought confirmation.
He visited his friend Jim for advice. “He told me he had been having visions of me in a pulpit in a dog collar, giving sermons which is what I was hoping he wouldn’t say! With that firm confirmation and support I put myself forward for possible ordination. It was after a few tentative steps that I decided that the Church of England wasn’t ready for me, but the idea of some form of Christian ministry stayed with me. It was a friend of Annie’s who suggested that I had great practical skills and was perhaps being called to be a verger.”
Paul’s first verger role was in Ludlow, Shropshire, before the move to Stratford, which Paul and Annie hadn’t planned. During a family trip to Stratford Paul began chatting to the vicar and was invited to apply for the role of head verger. It was a position Paul had seen advertised but hadn’t applied because at the time he was in a wheelchair recovering from a foot operation.
“I was offered the job on the same day as the interview and accepted it on the spot but said I would be unable to start until I was fully recovered from the operation. They were fantastic, and they were happy to wait for me for me. I knew that God was behind it,” says Paul, who later learned that the vicar told the PCC secretary he had just met their new head verger even before he had applied.
“It’s the most visited church in the country and I had a great three years there,” says Paul. In 2016, Stratford and most of the world celebrated the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death.
“Our visitor numbers spiked, and we were inundated with television news crews, celebrities and royalty all paying their respects to William,” says Paul, who can be found on the internet giving a news crew an introduction to being a head verger. He thought they were testing their sound levels until he arrived at Christ church to be told: “We know all about you because we found you on the internet.”
After three years in Stratford, Paul saw the Christ Church role advertised. He had got to know Oxford when his son, Joshua, studied at Keble College for three years. “I applied and to my delight was appointed. Joshua is delighted that his father has finally got to Oxford and is working within an Oxford college.”
Christ Church Cathedral is placed within the historic grounds of Oxford University’s Christ Church College. Paul works in a team with two other vergers, Jim Godfrey and Matt Ball. Historically, the verger’s role was to lead the procession of clergy into the place of worship. Now, their role includes care of the cathedral building and helping ensure that services run smoothly.
Paul enjoys all types of worship and occasionally pops over the road from Christ Church to St Aldate’s Church, where the worship is charismatic and lively.
“I find it sad when people say worship should only be in a particular style or genre. Worship and liturgy come in many shapes and forms and there are all aspects of worship that people can benefit from.”
Paul is enjoying being in Oxford and looking back over his life he can see how God has influenced his decisions and his journey.
“A lovely lady called Margaret once said to me that there is no such thing as a coincidence but there are lots of God-incidences. The moves I have made have sometimes been difficult, but I have always realised God has been behind them.”
20TH FEBRUARY 2019