A field guide to the processional (updated July 2013, Jan 2015)

A flock of clergy in red stoles

I’m sure you’ve noticed the long processional before Sunday’s 10.30 with lots of people and lots of different vestments. St Paul’s is a Cathedral, after all, and puts on a Cathedral-sized service. But who are all these people?

First, of course a lot of them are clergy. You can identify those ordained because they always wear a stole over their white albs. It hangs straight around the neck for those ordained as priests, and over one shoulder for those ordained as deacons. This field mark is absolutely diagnostic at Mass. I’m hoping that one of the clergy will write a post for us about the symbolism of their vestments and liturgical colors, so I won’t say more about that here.

But there are a lot of non clergy people every Sunday too. Recently my wife Lisa and I realized that Lisa has worn everything a lay person wears during Sunday Eucharist so we’ve used photographs of her to illustrate the different roles lay people play.


We’ll start with the choir, who are the most numerous members of the procession. The choir members wear a black cassock with a long flowing white surplice over the top. The choir are not altar servers per se though occasionally, you’ll see a choir member act as a reader, or serve the Chalice at Communion.

Thus, most of the time, you’ll only see a cassock and surplice outside the choir on a Sunday Eucharist if the lay canons are present. They wear other vestments if they are serving.  However, if you look carefully, you’ll see these canons are wearing a purple cassock, not a black one. What’s up with that?

Canons of the Cathedral are those who have a formal or honorary affiliation voted on by the chapter and approved by the Bishop. They can be clergy, or lay people. At St Paul’s, upon admission to their office, they are given a deep purple cassock, which they will wear instead of black. The only other people who wear purple cassocks are the vergers (see below). The color purple is traditionally associated with Bishops and the Cathedral is formally the “seat” of the Bishop (cathedra), hence the connection. Most of the clergy on the altar are canons, in addition to a number of lay folk. You can read more about the traditional office of canon here.

Just to confuse things further, Canons of the Diocese wear magenta colored cassocks, although you generally don’t see them except on special occasions.


 The core of the altar server corps are the acolytes , whom you can recognize by their plain white albs. These are the table servers. They carry the candles (called torches), the crucifix, and any icons, banners or streamers. They light the candles ahead of time (from the inside out, like opening a curtain), and extinguish them afterwards. They assist with the Gospel procession, help lay the table for the Eucharist, and tidy up.

 If it looks like they each know exactly what to do, that’s because they do! Each acolyte position has a name (e.g, “Brass 1”, “Crucifer”, “Silver 2”), which comes with a precise list of tasks, ranging from which candlesticks they carry to where they sit and what parts of the table service are their responsibility. Before the service begins, the acolytes check an assignment sheet in the sacristy so they know to which position they are assigned. All altar servers start out as acolytes.


The thurifer is unique, and there is generally only one (sometimes two on big feast days). Unlike many Cathedrals, St Paul’s has a thurifer nearly every Sunday, the exception being Lent.  The thurifer swings live coals in the thurible, or censor, to create the clouds of incense. The thurifer wears a black cassock, but instead of a long flowing surplice, wears  a variant called a cotta on top. This has a squared off neck and hem,  short sleeves, and falls at or just below the hip. This shorter garment makes sense to avoid ash and burn marks as the thurifer swings.

 The thurifer’s task  can vary with the weather, as they have to constantly monitor their coals and reload incense several times during the service to ensure “good smoke”. There are a fixed number of swings required at the different stages of the service and the thurifer has to keep close track on the progression of the service and the music to know when to replenish the coals outside, in time to get back inside in the appropriate position on the altar.  They therefore have to function quite independently.

It generally takes months to train as a thurifer.  You can tell if someone is training, because often they will shadow the thurifer and carry the small container of extra incense, called a boat. This assistant is also called “Boat”, and learns how to prepare and maintain the coals “offstage” before eventually making his or her first official appearance at Evensong.  Only after mastering Evensong does the new thurifer serve at the 10.30 Eucharist.

Although the thurifer’s job is very structured, each thurifer puts their personal style on swinging the thurible.  See if you can spot the differences in their moves!  And be sure to watch the thurifers during any outside processions (e.g., Palm Sunday), when you may see some acrobatic throws.  Don Mitchell, the head thurifer, does some particularly elegant maneuvers.


Everyone is marshaled by the vergers, who carry their ceremonial staffs, or virges. Historically, vergers were responsible for the church building, and even for grave-digging! The virges were used to push animals or rowdy people out of the way of processions.

Our vergers wear purple cassocks, which marks them as having an important Cathedral office. Most of them wear a long, white sleeveless anthem over the cassock; the exception is Brooks Mason, who is head verger and Canon, and wears a red and grey chimere on top. (In Lent, which is a penitential season, he wears black and grey instead). You’ll see an occasional verger in black cassock, rather than purple: this is a sub-verger, who is in training and has not yet been formally installed in the office.  Verging is a big job, so the training is lengthy.


At St Paul’s, vergers are responsible for the management of the service. They have to know all the jobs of the altar servers, including thurifer, as they may be called upon to do any of them. For example, all vergers are thurifers, but not all thurifers are vergers.

The vergers are responsible for keeping all aspects of the service running properly. Generally, there are two vergers in addition to the head verger, but a big service will have more.   If you watch, you’ll see them escort the readers to the pulpit, bring in the children at the offertory, help with the table,  direct the acolytes, handle the microphones, cue the procession, and many other tasks (including before and after the service). They may also be out of sight, fetching something in the sacristy, handling the sound system,  or gathering the children.   The vergers manage all the practical details  (what one might call liturgical strategy), so the clergy can focus on celebrating the Eucharist. Vergers have to be flexible to adjust to any glitches “up front” and ideally you’ll never notice if they do.

Head verger
Canon Brooks Mason 

At Communion, you’ll see that anyone vested might function as a chalice bearer: from the clergy to the choir, acolytes, thurifer, canons or vergers. However, serving at Chalice requires certain training in advance and chalice bearers must be licensed by the Diocese.  You’ll also see two vergers standing on the steps above the rail, hands folded, watching Communion. They are making sure that no consecrated bread falls to the floor, and ensuring that the Sacraments are refilled as needed.

So there you have it! a field guide to the many participants on the altar at the Cathedral Eucharist. See if you can spot everyone. (Just remember some of the vestments may change for evensong and at special services!)

And remember that the people you see on the altar are not the only ones: there’s a whole team of sacristans from the altar guild, working behind the scenes before and after the service, and the ushers managing the “front of house”, all working together to ensure you have no distractions from your full participation in the Cathedral worship service. We hope to have future blogs detailing the roles of these ministries.

Most of the altar servers  are volunteers. If any of these functions sound intriguing to you, and you want to be part of the service up front, consider joining the altar servers! Just send Brooks an email to get started (masonb@stpaulcathedral.org) .

The Rev. Canon
Brooks Mason


Head Verger
Lisa Churchill

Brooks Mason was ordained as a Deacon in April 2013. He’s now a clergy member  (field mark:  a white alb, with a stole over one shoulder ;-), and  thus can no longer serve as Head Verger at services.  However, he continues to fulfill the liturgical roles as Canon Liturgist.

Lisa Churchill was installed as the new head verger in July 2013, and made Canon Verger in 2017.   She now has truly worn everything worn by a layperson on the altar!

Read more at this  glossary of vestments.

–Susan Forsburg.  Thanks to Lisa Churchill, Canon Brooks Mason, Canon Christine Spalding, and the Rev Canon Allisyn Thomas for comments and corrections!  Any remaining errors are, of course, my own.

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