Avon Congregational Church
Avon Congregational Church, Avon, Connecticut
You might ask me, and then again maybe you wouldn't, "How do you decide which church to visit?" You can answer that question by answering mine: "Where would you expect a Critical Christian with his own website to go looking?" No, not the Yellow Pages, the Internet. And so, while surfing through the sites devoted to churches in our region, I came across one in Avon whose pastor, Edward Falsey, has the same name as a psychiatrist whom I had befriended over the phone many years ago in Brooklyn. The good doctor explained to me that the New Testament had diagnosed schizophrenia in its description of the Gerasene demoniac, the man called Legion. That was thirty-five years ago, and I have remembered Dr Falsey every winter when teaching confirmands one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus' life and we treat his healing of the demoniac.
Surely, I reasoned, I would have his son, The Rev Edward Falsey, pastor of the Avon Congregational Church, in my sights on Sunday morning. Wrong! The pastor's dad was a judge in New London, not a psychiatrist in Brooklyn. When the clergyperson read the doctor's obit in The New York Times five years ago, he was startled... for obvious reasons, pinching himself to see if he was still alive and preaching. Small world curiosity was in error, but it did make for a good conversation starter.
Which leads me to an observation I have made before if in a different context: that churches that want a future (and wish to reach critical Christians) had better avail themselves of the burgeoning technology of the computer and the Internet. Avon Congregational Church is encrusted with loads of tradition. It was founded in 1640, just nineteen years after Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. Yet the church, for all its heritage, wants to be part of the future stretching ahead of it. You can read for yourself:www.avon-church.org.
Continuing the transformation of Critical Christian into Celebratory Christian, we once again found ourselves on a Sunday morning in a warm, welcoming, faithful, and serving congregation. Maybe it is partly our fault; for, under the rubric of the fifth Beatitude, the warmth we feel may be a response to the warmth we give in our greetings to Christians we never met before. I'll have to think about that: stay tuned.
Anyway, it was another grand good morning in Central Connecticut.
Building: a 19th Century meeting house with a wrap-around balcony, tall clear windows on either side of the meeting room, a raised central pulpit, an electronic organ with console in the rear of the balcony, an excellent audio system, and, though we certainly didn't need it, air-conditioning. My eyes were drawn to a small cross on the pulpit, designed to hide the reading light attached to the cross beam. I'm not sure I approve of functional uses of the cross, and I would prefer a light to be a light. The Pilgrim founding fathers would have approved of the white, white decor, but they probably would rail against a bas-relief cross in the front wall behind the pulpit.
Welcome: soon after entering the hallway and getting our name tags, I heard a rattling of one of the front doors. It was supposed to be unlocked. One of the ushers seemed dumbfounded by the mechanics of the panic bar... until I explained the need for an Allen wrench to lock the bar in an open position. Fifty years of building maintenance doesn't go for naught. Another usher witnessing my technological expertise asked, jokingly, for my phone number, just in case. A couple of our vintage took us under their wing. After the benediction they gave us a private tour of their new parish house, a $1,800,000 facility completed ahead of time this past spring. It will house a nursery this coming September. A four century old church is keeping its eye on the prize!
Children: they were everywhere to be seen (and heard) in the congregation early on, before making their way to Church School mid-way through the service. A trio of cherubs sang the introit fetchingly, if barely audibly. A Boy Scout announced the arrival of the popcorn. One child and one only (I am still trying to figure out why they weren't all invited forward... maybe too many of them and too much commotion) assisted the pastor with the Children's Sermon, about what we do on Thanksgiving. "Eat," she said, while a boy in the balcony volunteered, "Watch football." Holier uses to the holiday were also offered, especially the pastor's observation that we thank God with our hearts in prayer, our voices in praise, and our hands in service.
Sermon: Heritage Sunday was being celebrated. The temptation on such occasions is to congratulate ourselves on having chosen the right great-grandparents. In a church like this one with four centuries of experience the choices for boasting are considerable. The sermon title, "Whose Heritage?" could have been "Which Heritage?" The pastor chose to report an incident from the past that at first had me worried: about the parson's wife in 1852 who wrote a barely disguised fictionalized account of the poverty to which the penny-pinching deacons of the Avon Church had consigned their pastor. (Things have changed emphatically, I can report. A UCC website lists salaries, though not by name. Some person in an 800 member church is paid $150,000 per year). The point the pastor was making, and an appropriate one it was, especially in a heritage known at its beginnings for its penitential emphasis, was that the past, like the present, contains good and bad and forgetting the latter no less than the former is deleterious to the future of the Kingdom. The Rev Mr Edward Falsey of Avon, like Dr Edward Falsey of Brooklyn, knows his New Testament.
Music: during the announcements at the beginning of the service the organist/pianist described how hymns were sung in ancient of days at Avon. She also warned baritone harmonizers like me that she would be playing some of the hymns without the foot pedals, as of yore. English handbell ringers rang "For the Beauty of the Earth"; and the Senior Choir sang a period piece by William Billings, "From All that Dwell Below the Skies." The Pilgrim Hymnal, the songbook in the bench racks, was first published in 1931. It shows its age... badly; but the UCC's most recent edition is so bowdlerized by gender concerns it is little wonder the church has held on to an outdated heritage in this respect.
Bible: whether usual practice or bowing to the demands of a special Sunday, the Common Lectionary was not invoked. New Revised Standard Versions sit side-by-side with the ancient hymnal. The listed New Testament reading was abandoned for I Corinthians 12 with its thought that we all need one another in the work of the church.
Another Item of Note: a Stewardship Moment featured a woman with a growing family explaining why she went to worship and enlisted for its programs: because she wants her children to have the same positive experience with Church and Gospel which blessed her childhood in the Midwest (among Methodists, I note). I've heard that rationale before... even resorted to it myself with two different generations. In fact, my programmatic emphases as a pastor were inspired greatly by my own experience at First United Methodist Church, Stamford, Connecticut in a distant era.
Rating: four haloes. Avon Congregational Church impressed us as a wonderful place to be a Christian and to pass along to a new generation the joy and the discipline of Christ's service.
Corrections/Updating: Bill Day, our tour guide, responds to the review -
The Church will be ordering the new Methodist Hymnal in January after reviewing various hymnals the past 3 years.
The two-manual pipe organ was built especially for the church by the Austin Organ Company in 1965 and has 8 sets of pipes.
Ed Falsey's father was a judge in New London.
The history as stated on the website shows roots back to 1640(not 1635).
Organist Sue Smith adds:
Dear Mr. Howard:
The church is enjoying our 4 haloes. I am the organist and wanted to let you know that we have a pipe organ not an electronic. The pipes are not exposed, but rather are contained inside a chamber. That is also true of the West Hartford and many other churches.
I would be interested to know how our church compares when it comes to hymn singing …
My answer: right up there with the best of the "singing Methodists."