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Interview: Charles Williams, Dean’s Virger, St Paul’s Cathedral

01 April 2016

‘If we’ve done our job well, we should fade into the background’

I have just completed 30 years at St Paul’s. I’m so involved here, and love it so much, I don’t think another cathedral would come up to it.

I haven’t always been a virger. I was a small boy before that.

I had a celebration in July last year — a formal presentation of an award by the Dean, and a small cheque that comes with it, which was rather nice, and we had a departmental party in the evening.

We’ll be heavily involved in planning the service for the Queen’s 90th birthday. Essentially, it’s a matter of ensuring that all the preparation and timings are done, and that we play our part in it, so that all the hard work that’s gone into the liturgy and music shines through. If we’ve done our job well, we should fade into the background.

I definitely learnt by doing. Nothing can quite prepare you for the complexity of what is involved in our role. What we do can seem effortless when looked at from the outside, but it’s only when you’re on the inside that you realise how much effort is involved in making it look effortless.

I was sent away to school at an early age, and I think I grew up quickly quite young. You need to be resilient, calm under pressure, and be able to free yourself from an emotional reaction, or a judgemental attitude, to do this job well, and I learnt that early.

All the best virgers I have ever met feel this to be a vocation. It’s the thing that makes us go the extra mile because we believe in it, not just do it.

Within the team of six, we all have different strengths that we play towards, but we’re all called to do everything, and have to adapt at a moment’s notice — from feeding people who are homeless to attending planning meetings with the royal household.

I enjoy the personal contact with the public, being able to support the clergy in their role in that, and showing the building off to people. I think I’m also good at covering the detail of every event so that it’s as planned and organised as it can be.

I’ve found, over the years, that the best way is to find the way that other people think and work, and adapt what you do to their way of the world. For example, the works department has a very scheduled, linear way of looking at things; so I construct a timeline of all the furniture-moving needed over the Christmas and Easter period. They find that easy to work with, and it dissolves any arguments that might have occurred.

I’m hugely supported by my deputy head of department and our four virgers. We recruit to include the widest net possible. The most important part of training for me is at the very beginning, where I try and instil the principles and ethos of what we want to achieve as a cathedral. I can then thread everything that I train them in back to those principles and that ethos.

In the height of the summer, we can have over 5000 people walk past us during the course of the day — the size of a small town. Within that number, there’ll be people who have recently been bereaved, or are having family or work problems, or are carrying with them heavy burdens. We’ve no idea how what we say or do might affect them; so it’s essential that we treat each person in the same way, whether they are a guest of the Dean or someone with no home.

There’s also a vast community of regulars, in one form or another, from those I see only occasionally from one year to the next to those who volunteer, or are with us every Sunday.

For me, it is essential that we, as a department, make no judgements about a person, or their reasons for being here. Absolutely not. For me, every person is of infinite value.

We don’t separate people who come to sightsee from those who come to pray. Both do both. What is important to me is not what people arrive at the cathedral thinking they want to do, but what they leave thinking we are.

Over the years, the thing that’s most surprised me is the generosity of others.

The hardest thing is getting up for an early shift. I’m a night owl, not an early bird.

The pressure when we’re doing royal events is huge, but we aim to apply the same professionalism and eye for detail to every service or event we put on, however small or high-profile it might be. As a result, we know what the expectations are, and that we can achieve them, and we know we can rely on each other. I’m so focused on the detail of what we are about to do that it is only afterwards that I fully realise we did it in front of millions of people.

Charles and Diana’s wedding pre-dated even me, but the most extraordinary and creative experience for me here was the day after Princess Diana died. It was a Saturday night, and we had our Sunday services on the following day. The BBC wanted a live broadcast at 1 p.m., and we couldn’t do that, but offered to have one at 6 p.m. Between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m., a team of four of us — the Dean, a minor canon, a visiting choir director, and I — had to fix a choir, because our choir was on holiday; sort a service paper; print it; and put on a live televised event. It was one of the most moving experiences of my life. In the middle of the service, the cameras changed to show Diana’s body arriving at RAF Brize Norton. The organ music just happened to playing, and it fitted that moment perfectly. It was an enormous privilege to be part of it, and to meet the need at that time.

Making an inscription on candles for another memorial service was probably the worst moment. The inscription failed. We had a plan B. It failed. We had a very tentative plan C, but the day of the service was now quite close. It failed. We held our nerve, and, thankfully, we found a solution. (It involved going to Ryman and buying some photocopier transparencies and sticky tape.)

On the question of St Paul’s being blown up in the new film [London Has Fallen], my first reaction on seeing it was one of shock. My second reaction was to wonder where we might hold the morning services.

Our role, and way of worshipping, is to facilitate the worship of others; so it is difficult in other churches to switch off. But it’s also very reassuring, knowing that I’m not responsible for anything that happens.

My experience of God comes through other people. 

I am Welsh. My father was a Major in the Royal Regiment of Wales, and, as a result, we moved all over the place. I went to three primary schools in six years, and was then sent away to school at Christ College, in the Brecon Beacons. I didn’t really feel a sense of belonging until I went to King’s College, London, to read theology, when I discovered that London was the place for me. I am married to Caroline, who is a paramedic with the London Ambulance Service.

Virgers hate silence in a service. I have seen virgers flying in all directions behind the scenes during a meaningful pause, and coming to a halt only when the reassuring sound of someone speaking through the sound system has been heard.

A man came up to a colleague of mine the other day, and asked if they had heard the good news. My colleague wasn’t sure what he meant. The man said: “The Anglicans are against gays.” I want the good news to be that we are for people, not against people.

I’m happiest in the pub with Caroline and my friends.

After my immediate family, it would be my godfather who has influenced me most. He was witty and exciting to be around. I idolised him, and he died too soon for me to be able to join in.

I don’t think of prayer as a way of making things happen. I see it far more as a way of putting things in perspective. The wider the perspective, the better — the widest perspective of all being, for me, God.

If I was locked in St Paul’s with a companion for a few hours, Iwould choose Paul McCartney. He plays guitar. I play guitar. He’s left-handed. I’m left-handed. Who knows what might happen?

Charles Williams was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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