Rural church is national awards finalist

24 October 2023

Providence Methodist Chapel at Throwleigh, in the Plymouth & Exeter Methodist District, is one of the finalists for this year’s National Church Awards. Each year, the National Churches Trust rewards six churches that have amazing stories to tell.

It took just a few years for Providence Chapel to reinvent itself and become a lively rural church. “Providence is the creation of a very successful model. We needed to put energy and passion into it. We started with four people but it has now grown into so many more,” says Revd Chris Jackson, superintendent for the West Devon Methodist Circuit.

Located in the middle of Dartmoor, the chapel’s isolation is only broken by a couple of houses, a pub and farms. Its location meant Providence had seen a steady decrease in attendance over the years, making the closure of the chapel a real possibility.

The last members of the congregation did not want that to happen and were committed to returning Providence to the heart of the community. Their first idea was to offer monthly services followed by tea and cake. “That went on for some time but it did not grow the congregation,” explains Chris.

Just before Chris moved to West Devon in 2021, a member of the congregation contacted the photographer Chris Chapman, who lives in the area. Chris has taken many pictures of Dartmoor and its residents over the past decades, and it was suggested that he could have an exhibition of his collection in Providence Chapel.

The church hatched a plan to fund the project – including getting a National Lottery grant and advertisements. “It’s about finding solutions for rural chapels to exist and serve God in the community,” adds Chris.

On the exhibition's first open day, the team was very anxious about how many people would come but it proved to be a success from the start, bringing thousands of people inside the walls of Providence Chapel over the warm months to come between April and October. Due to the weather, the exhibition is closed during the winter.

But this success was just the beginning. Not only do people come to see the exhibitions, but the number of monthly service attendees has also grown with people from the community. The chapel welcomes pilgrims who walk the Archangel’s Way and hosts events such as local history talks and live music. There are no parking issues as a neighbour kindly agreed for her field to be used when there is an event at the chapel. Thanks to the variety of events and some grants, the chapel is now financially healthy and uses the money to improve its facilities.

So what’s next? “See what you can do in the community and engage them in something vibrant. It’s a model for rural churches that we're developing here as a circuit,” says Chris. They have already had another exhibition in a nearby rural church. Invigorated and engaged, the local community now wants monthly services again.

Get your free ticket for the live stream of the National Church Awards on Monday 6 November at 4 pm.