God in the life of Matt Power

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MEETING the Queen last year has to date been the highlight of Matt Power’s career. The Head Verger at Christ Church Cathedral told Jo Duckles his story. matt moving hundreds of chairs mm MW5A0236

Matt (pictured right putting out chairs before the Queen’s visit in 2013) and I chatted in the sacristy (verger’s office) tucked away at the back of the medieval building. As we talk clergy, volunteers and staff wander in and out, some with information, some with queries about the day to day life of Christ Church.

Matt, who has a love of art history and music, is clearly in the perfect job. “I was brought up in a typical parish church,” he says. “It was a Wiltshire village where my father was the organist and also a local teacher. It was a small but lively parish and our family were pivotal in the church. I was in the choir, a server and when I was six or seven I remember holding the incense for the Bishop of Salisbury. This all happened by default, I grew up with it,” says Matt.

“Music and art were very much part of my childhood and I ended up doing a fine art degree in London. All the time music and church architecture interested me.” He tells an old joke about the question you ask a person with a degree in fine art: “Could I have a burger and fries please?”

“Most people with fine art degrees wonder what they are going to do afterwards. This job came at the right time. I wasn’t sure what I would do. I wasn’t interested in the new modern art movement that was going around in college. I took a gamble in applying for a job that would immerse me in my own interests. I thought it would give me the space to decide what I wanted to do,” says Matt, who was 21 at the time and the youngest of a four-strong team. He is still there 19 years later, loving being at the heart of Cathedral life. One highlight that stands out was the Queen’s visit for Maundy Thursday in 2013. It was Oxford’s turn for the Queen to come along and hand out Maundy Money to selected pensioners in honour of their work for the Church.
“The event was so carefully put together with meetings and strategy documents so nothing could go wrong,” says Matt, who loves the careful ‘stage management’ that ensures that all Christ Church services run smoothly. “At 5am I would have been cleaning the toilets, at 11am meeting the Queen and later in the evening washing altar linen. It’s an incredibly varied job where one phone call can take you all day to sort out.”

A combination of clever marketing and the Harry Potter connection (many scenes from Hogwarts were shot in Christ Church) mean that the cathedral and adjoining college has become a lot busier since Matt started to work there. “When I first started you could sit and read a book at times, it was calm. It’s now on the map of Oxford as one of the places to visit and is open 365 days a year,” says Matt, who worships in the cathedral but also takes time out to go to Evensong in the Merton College Chapel in term time.

At Cathedral services the vergers may not take centre stage but they have an important role. “I don’t want to be in the limelight but I get a quiet sense of satisfaction from helping the service to enhance someone else’s faith,” says Matt. “I’ll be sitting in the corner with a wry smile at the end of a service knowing that it’s gone well.”
On a typical day, a verger will start at the cathedral at 6.30am, ready for morning prayer at 7.15am and 7.35am. “It’s the nicest time of the day. There’s a sense of calm and there are some wonderful effects with the light coming through the building, it’s magical.”

Those early morning services attract between two and 12 people before 8am when the choristers from the cathedral school arrive for a practice. From 10am tourists begin to arrive and the calm turns into a busy chaos.  “You meet lots of different types of people. It’s not like being in an office where you report to one person,” says Matt. “You are mixing with the public and different types of cathedral staff and volunteers. We deal with a huge number of people throughout the day and each of us has our own responsibilities for preparation of services,” says Matt, who sees ironing the altar linen as a welcome retreat from the crowds. “Ironing time is thinking time and it’s important to take pride in what you do.”

“I like to think of this as the equivalent of preparing for your great aunt who is coming around for tea. There’s a reason for doing it and showing that you have made an effort.”
The verger’s role includes concert management and the newest member of Matt’s team is Christopher Waterhouse, who used to work as the stage manager of the Sydney Opera House.

“Christopher sees everything like a theatrical performance. It has to be polished from start to finish with the blessing being like the final curtain in a show. People expect that from a cathedral service,” says Matt.  Back in 1998, Matt’s interest in art history came in useful when he found forgotten fragments of stained glass and began to piece them together. They turned out to be a window depicting a story from scripture that had been destroyed in the Reformation.

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“The windows were put in just before the Civil War by Van Linge in the 1630s. We have spent a long time piecing them together. It’s like doing a jigsaw without the lid and without all of the pieces. It’s like delving back into the history of the building,” says Matt, who is proud that some of his prized ‘jigsaw’ has been displayed in the Tate.
He pointed to an ancient record book with an entry for 2 June 1651, asking for the picture to be taken down. “Later one of the Canons appointed by Cromwell was responsible for stomping up and down on it. This is real history, written down in our records, it’s not assumed. I have been researching the poems that go with it. I was a bit like a hermit for a few years putting sky and limbs back together.”

Matt lives in Christ Church but is far enough from the cathedral to have a sense of leaving for work in a morning and going home again.

 

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