The Holy Spirit wants to bring renewal to the UK, says Bishop Jill Duff. It’s a prophetic vision God gave her a decade ago. Might it be fulfilled this Easter?
It starts with a tiny spark of recognition.
“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb” (John 20:1). In her grief – not just Jesus gone, but his body as well – Mary Magdalene meets two angels. In her moment of deepest pain, she hears Jesus calling her name.
The spark is lit.
Rushing to the disciples with the news, she exclaims: “I have seen the Lord!” (v18). It is the start of a chain of light that has reached through two millennia.
Since the earliest days, Christians have kept vigil through the darkness of Holy Saturday, lighting a fire at dawn on Easter day. It serves as a visible sign of the triumph of life over death. Darkness does not have the last word. The lighting of fires has become a very visual symbol of the gospel. It is richly woven through scripture and, over recent years, has become a very personal part of my own faith story.
Believing for more
Ten years ago, I started seriously interceding for our nation, inspired by a vision that I believe was from God. It wasn’t a 3D, wake-you-bolt-upright kind of vision complete with surround sound, but one that came as a series of yet-another-coincidence glimpses of something more. A deep longing in my heart was coming into focus all around me. A reality that was just a trailer for the full-blown blockbuster movie to come.
It is best introduced by a scene from the film The Return of the King, based on the final part of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. At the moment when darkness seems to be at its greatest, a hobbit, Pippin, climbs a mountain peak and lights a beacon. As a chain of lights spreads across the hills summoning help from Aragorn, Gandalf the wizard breathes a sigh of relief and declares: “Hope is kindled.”
I first saw this film clip in 2014 while working at St Mellitus College. I was marking final-year student presentations based on where our newly ordained ministers were going to serve. Ashley was going to St George’s, Liverpool, a church on a hill in Everton, overlooking the city. The local primary school was called The Beacon. My role, as tutor, was to assess her presentation for theological content and clarity of speech. But, as she played the film clip, I found myself overcome by tears; the sort that come from a very deep place inside.
The beacons that I see are men, women and children who have caught God’s holy fire
This was my hope for Liverpool, my husband’s home city, and which had become my beloved home and the birthplace of my boys. This was my hope for the North West of England, my family’s home for generations. This was a picture of my hope for the nation. Beacons of hope lit in the darkest places across our land.
Suddenly, I remembered a stray comment from the previous year. During my interview for the post of director of St Mellitus College North West, I asked the panel: “What would success look like in ten years’ time?” Bishop Graham Tomlin answered: “When I pray for the college, I see this picture of little lights coming on, all around the country, wherever our students are sent.”
Fast forward six months and, during one of our half nights of prayer, student Rachel said: “As I am praying, I imagine beacons being lit across the North, fanned into flame by prayer.”
Fast forward another six months and, at the end of a phone call with Rt Rev James Newcome, the Bishop of Carlisle, he said, as a throwaway comment: “When I came here, I found people who had been praying for years for Cumbria; they had seen fires on the hills all around.”
A year later, and I was in Truro Cathedral, Cornwall. On the wall, I spotted a painting: dawn breaking over the county, ancient Christian churches each marked with a beacon.
The image was so persistent I concluded that I must be going mad. Perhaps I was over-interpreting coincidences. Living in a fantasy land. That very morning, Jenny, my spiritual director, emailed me: “Jill, when I was praying for you, I had a distinct image of you being called to light beacons.”
The beacons have continued unabated since I became Bishop of Lancaster in 2018. In fact, Lancashire is a county of beacon sites. On the day of my consecration in York Minster – a hot summer day in June – a friend said to me: “Did you spot those two fires on the skyline of Winter Hill?” Near to the prominent beacon site of Rivington Pike, Winter Hill is the place where my parents’ ashes are scattered.
Then, on Remembrance Sunday that year, we marked 100 years since the end of the first world war. As we lit a beacon at Lancaster castle, near the ancient priory, 1,000 torches blazed across the country. Rt Rev Paul Swarbrick, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Lancaster, was standing next to me. Knowing my beacon story, he whispered from his deep wells of faith: “This is a sign of your prayers being answered.” Imagine my excitement when, for our late Queen’s Platinum Jubilee four years later, 3,000 beacons were lit across Britain and the Commonwealth.
Catching the fire
I have wanted to write a book for as long as I can remember. Eventually, I was fortunate enough to be granted two months’ study leave in 2022. I sat down to write and out poured thousands of words, emerging from the ashes of a decade’s worth of tiny fires. Around the time that I was finishing, I led a training day for new ministers on healing and deliverance. As we prayed before the day began, Alison Fleetwood, the Diocese of Carlisle’s healing advisor, said: “I have this beautiful picture of little lights coming on across Lancashire and joining together into a bigger light.”
We often need reassurances that our instincts, our dreams, are socially acceptable. We can be tempted to commit anything that is not fully rational to the lonely lunatic asylum of the “supernatural”, safe to be ignored.
May this Easter season be a time when Many beacons are lit across every sphere of our society
But what if our God-given dreams are not a fantasy? What if they are actually trailers of a better reality to come?
For me, the beacons that I see are men, women and children who have caught God’s holy fire; who bring light, hope and love into their families, communities and networks. I see pinpricks of light in lives everywhere. Some are like tall lighthouses, giants of faith on the cliffs in the storm. Some are like tiny, flickering candles, their very fragility giving hope. Some are like fires crackling in the hearth, gently inviting others home to the warmth of God’s love.
What is the fire that lights these beacons? Or should I say, who is the fire? It is God’s own Spirit, whose universe-shattering power brought Jesus back from the dead on the first Easter day. He is the gift that Jesus promised when he left – so that men, women and children in all times and all places could experience him with them. He is described as the “deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Corinthians 5:5).
After a miraculous healing in her teenage years, Jean Darnall spent her life as a missionary. In 1967 she had a vision, recorded in her book, Heaven, Here I Come (Marshall, Morgan & Scott):
“Suddenly, a vision appeared within my mind – for the third time. I saw the British Isles glistening like a clump of jade in the grey seas surrounding. Trees upon the hills and clustered clouds hid the people. Suddenly, small, flickering lights appeared, scattered all over the isles. The light was firelight, burning from the top of Scotland to Land’s End on the tip of Cornwall. Lightning streaked downward from the sky above me, touching down with flashing swiftness, exploding each of the fires into streams of light. Like lava, they burned their fiery path downward from the top of Scotland to Land’s End. The waters did not stop them, but the fire spread across the seas to Ireland and to Europe!
“‘What is to come, Lord?’ I asked, wondering why he should show this to me. ‘I will penetrate the darkness with a visitation of my power. With lightning swiftness, I will release the power of my Spirit through a renewed people who have learned to be led of the Spirit. They will explode with a witness that will reach every part of the society of Britain. I am strategically placing them to touch the farms, villages, towns and cities. No one will be without a witness whether they be children in the schools, farmers in the fields, workers in the factories and docks, students in the universities and colleges, the media, the press, the arts or government. All will be profoundly moved and those who are changed by my power will alter the destiny of the nation.’
“‘And the streams of fiery light into Europe, Lord?’ My mind seemed to see an army of all types of people moving into the continent with a compassionate ministry. This ministry was not mass meetings, led by powerful personalities preaching to spectators, but participating, caring communities involved with each other at grass roots level, sharing the love of God everywhere. I saw the empty cradles of Europe – her churches – holding a new generation of Christian leaders.”
I like to think of the Spirit of Jesus as showing us a trailer of that welcoming heavenly fire, burning in the heart of the Father. The message of these beacons is simply this: we miss you, please come home.
May this Easter season be a time when many beacons are lit, across every sphere of our society, throughout our nations. May sparks of recognition of the risen Jesus flicker into life in hearts across our land. And may God visit us with his Spirit, pouring out his fiery love from heaven, and calling out a new generation of Christian leaders who will, in turn, call many lost sons and daughters home.