The First Congregational Church
The First Congregational Church (UCC), Canton Center, Connecticut
If you have followed these reviews with any regularity, you might get the impression that four or five haloes, a virtual trip to the threshold of heaven while still on earth, can be achieved only by big churches with excellent music and trenchant preaching. Bagpipes might also seem to be de rigueur. "Au contraire," I would respond in a language I never learned. A case in point is The First Congregational Church of Canton, visited on a mildly rainy Sunday morning in May. It was an altogether positive experience, if not without a few misgivings. A modest-sized congregation in a modest worship space can fill the room with an immodest amount of spirituality and enthusiasm.
It was, this Sunday, among several titles, Mother's Day. Moms present were treated to, not carnations, pansies. The congregation virtually bubbled with energy before, during, and after the worship. The pastor enjoys an easy rapport with his flock. They laugh in all the right places. They answer his rhetorical questions. They nod in agreement with his observations.
One of the traditional symbols for the church is a beehive. First Church seems to live up to that billing. It is a hive of activity. Few drones were visible. And there was plenty of honey to share. Clearly these congregants enjoyed worship, enjoyed each other's company, and were intent on serving the world outside their doors.
I could have wished, however, that they might have been more cognizant of a couple of stray butterflies from West Hartford. For details, see below under Welcome.
Building: a Congregational meeting house, of which Central Connecticut abounds. As we entered the church building, I noticed how well-worn and ancient was the door saddle, suggesting that it had been around for most of a century. The worship space is a rectangle with a balcony on three sides. A picture of the interior of the church before renovation in the last century shows heavy wooden beams with plenty of diagonal ties to support the roof. All that is gone. Two dozen floodlights beam from the plain open ceiling, giving an oddly modern look to an old meetinghouse. A magnificently large center pulpit occupies the front of the room. The preacher ascends to deliver the Word of God. Messages of lesser importance are delivered from a podium on the same level as the benches. The whiteness of the walls and ceiling was moderated by an ivory-lime (my wife prefers to name it "moss green") tint to the woodwork.
Welcome: Nada. Nothing. No one was aware or, if aware, welcoming to two strangers in the kingdom. During the coffee hour in a crowded room I enjoyed a splendid conversation, but only with the lady who travels with me on these excursions to someone else's church. Yes, the greeters at the door smiled. And the pastor, catching up with us as we were leaving, showed interest in who we might be and where we had come from. It is possible, but not likely, that the church is overrun with visitors; and congregants quite frankly cannot tell who is and who isn't a "regular," so why embarrass yourself by welcoming someone who has been around for a long, long time. Were it not for the obvious effervescence evident during the announcements prior to the worship (and during the children's sermon), I might have concluded with Robert Duvall's Apostle that these Congregationalists were God's "frozen chosen."
Children: they were in evidence and obviously are cherished as part of the congregation's worship. The children did not go forward to the front of the church but sat next to Mom and Dad during the "Children's Message." The pastor, with a placard with MOM on it, asked the young Christians what it was their mothers did for them. And what it was their mothers wanted in return. All of the right answers were elicited from the children in nave and balcony, as the pastor brought forth illustrations from his own life as a child and a parent. Then he turned the placard upside down, to show what we really think about Mom: WOW.
I note that the children lingered at worship longer than in most services, leaving after the offering but before the sermon. This practice may cut down on Sunday School time but it does have the advantage of exposing children to an almost full menu of worship.
Music: a bulletin insert sought a response from congregants on the purchase of new Pilgrim Hymnals to replace those with badly worn bindings currently in the pew racks, notwithstanding the presence in those racks of another new hymnal, the Chalice Hymnal, published by the Disciples of Christ denomination. Judging from our conversation with the pastor, the people take their hymn-singing seriously (or he does!) and needed two hymnals to provide all the songs they love to sing. The Senior Choir sang unseen (by me anyway) from the balcony a pleasingly contemporary anthem of praise by (I assume) Eugene Butler, "Bring to the Lord a Song." The Cherry Brook (name of the stream running by the church) Chimes Bell Choir rang the familiar Humperdinck piece from Hansel and Gretel, "Prayer." It was a blast from my past in the Junior Choir of First Methodist Church with Mrs. Milligan. The choice for a Postlude also gave me reason to remember a later moment in my life. On another earlier Mother's Day Sunday the associate pastor to my senior position expressed her outrage that the tower chimes were playing as worshipers gathered the same hymn featured now on the organ, "God of Our Fathers."
Sermon: the pastor provided a thoughtful and down-to-earth message on parenting. He had obviously researched his topic, citing and quoting "experts" on the subject. But, more to the point, he had obviously lived it and had tried to practice what he was preaching. The two most important gifts a mother and father can give to their children are love (of course, of course!) and freedom (oh, how hard it is!). Finding the proper balance takes all the wisdom and courage parents can muster. I could have wished for a more complete development of the connection of this insight with the Gospel; but I quibble. The congregation listened intently to him preach and occasionally read from his prepared text. He knows them and they trust him, and that's what makes for effective preaching.
Website: You may go directly there by clicking on this hyperlink: http://www.cantoncenterchurch.org. You will be greeted by a piano playing, "Jesus Calls Us." And you can stop the music when you've heard enough. The newsletter, Churchmouse, is posted. So are the Sunday orders of worship, but, unfortunately for those of us who like a hint of coming attractions, they are posted after the fact. A feature of this website I have not come across before is the listing of two hundred or more hymns you can play (on piano, organ, or bells... but I couldn't manage to get anything but a piano) with a click of your mouse. Getting them to stop playing will tax your computer skills; but, if you get a religious tune reverberating in your head and you can't for the soul of you figure out what it is, you might want to sample this feature. All in all, the website is professionally done and maintained in a timely manner.
Rating: three and a half haloes. Who knows how beatific the rating might have been had the bumblebees swarmed over the butterflies!