Fresh expressions respond to spiritual openings in society: Tolland

This story illustrates the principles of Fresh expressions respond to spiritual openings in society in the Guide.

Tolland - Margaret ArmstrongIn 2001, the parish of Tolland, on the Brendon Hills, Somerset, was about to lose its church. The regular congregation at its monthly service of matins consisted of the two church wardens and their wives.

Then Margaret Armstrong arrived as part-time priest-in-charge of the five-parish benefice, of which Tolland is a member. She asked the church wardens if they were ready to try something new.

They said yes and got behind it,

Margaret says.

It was a real moving of the Holy Spirit.

Now the church is open for seven services a year and is attended by over half of Tolland's population of 40.

It is now an important part of community life,

says Margaret.

Is there a city or suburban parish that has more than half its population attending church?

'Despair has turned into enthusiasm and wanting to worship'

The seven services take place for festivals, including some more novel choices such as Clypping, a medieval custom of hugging the church discovered by Margaret when she read Seasonal Worship for the Countryside (published by SPCK). A pet service is also popular. Christmas can attract up to 120 people.

While Margaret leads services, it is the congregation which readies the church for each occasion, showing a care which includes making 'busy bags' for children and providing facilities for the pets at the pet service.

Tolland - ladsThe churchyard is managed for wildlife and is known in the village, through the parish magazine and by word of mouth, as a 'quiet space'. People come from further afield to see displays of seasonal flowers such as snowdrops and orchids, and to 'be quiet, look and listen,' says Margaret.

The impact of this revival of church life has spread into the village, which now holds an open gardens day to raise money for the building. The parish's contribution to the finances of the benefice is no longer in the red and, more importantly, Margaret believes, she is noticing 'an evolving spirituality' in her one-to-one conversations.

There is a growing community life as well as a revived church life,

Margaret observes.

It started with helping them to worship God and believe in the value in doing that. Despair has turned into enthusiasm and wanting to worship.


At first glance, if you watched the Fresh Expressions DVD: changing church in every place, the story of Tolland was an unusual one. Why does a congregation meeting in a traditional building every few weeks qualify as a fresh expression of church, you might have asked? The fact is that the traditional congregation had dwindled to four people when the Revd Margaret Armstrong made a radical decision. Instead of simply trying to carry on with formal worship in the hope more people would come, she shared her intention to build a new outward-looking, missional congregation, based on regular less formal worship events and real attempts to rebuild community. Margaret brings the story up to date.

Tolland churchOur fresh expressions ministry has continued to flourish in the parish of Tolland. We have continued to build community with a series of alternative worship events, now often held in the village church – which has become the centre of community life.

The key to its success is the involvement of the whole community in the development, selection and planning of the ‘one off’ themed services, and taking care that they focus on the experiences of everyday life in a deep rural village.

Another key is to introduce enough change in the services selected, so that they remain fresh, but also keeping enough continuity so that the community feels comfortable. So three services, The Pet Service, Harvest and All Saints, remain standards on the rota, but of course with fresh content. We have three other services in the year with additional themes. In addition the traditional Christmas Carol Service on Christmas Day is also very popular and in 2008 attracted 110 people, almost three times the population of the village. Everyone brought their extended families!

Last year the church building faced us with a huge dilemma. The bell installation, and floors and ceilings in the tower had become dangerously unsafe. The quotes to remove the bells and make the tower safe were in excess of £10,000 and more than the total assets of the church. The church did not want to focus on money & fund raising, but on continuing to build the spiritual life of the community. So much prayer went in to seeking a solution.

Tolland church bells

That prayer has been answered in a most extraordinary way. An anonymous donor has made a gift of a very light peal of 8 brand new bells to the church. The result of this amazing gift is that I have been able to get grants to cover the costs of all the restoration work, to remove the old bells, install the new ones, and make the tower safe. The entire project has been completed and paid for, without any draw on the very limited PCC funds, and without any distraction from our focus on worshipping together in new and fresh ways.

I am shortly to retire, so the future development of this little church and its worshipping life will pass to another. But I hope and pray that the light that has been lit by Christ there will be carried forward by the lovely people who live and worship in the village.