Jill Duff, Bishop of Lancaster and former director of St Mellitus College, North West, spoke with Jane Knoop about the topsy-turvy nature of God’s kingdom


Have you ever experienced seasons where God has felt absent? 

In the early days of setting up St Mellitus North West, my mum was diagnosed with cancer, and it seemed that every significant event – like my interview– coincided with her condition worsening. I couldn’t face the pain, so I found it hard to be still with him in prayer. It’s not that God was absent from me in this season, but rather that I was absent from him. And yet it was through this painful experience that Jesus tenderly invited me into sharing in his sufferings. It came as a sad revelation to me how much we’ve airbrushed suffering out of our theology, and with it so much essential transformation. I had believed that Jesus had suffered so I didn’t have to, completely missing all the beauty of passages like Philippians 3:10, that talk about participation in his sufferings. 

You talk about ‘hiddenness’ in your book Lighting the Beacons (SPCK)? Why is being hidden such a significant spiritual practice for you?

I came across the concept of ‘hiddenness’ through Henri Nouwen, who described hiddenness as an essential quality of the spiritual life in his book Bread for the Journey. In a sense, it’s quite a countercultural idea – similar to that of finding power and strength amid suffering – to believe that meaningful growth and change can take place when hidden.

Motherhood doesn’t feature on my CV, but it’s one of the most significant things I have ever done!

I experienced the transformation of living in the hidden place when I became a mum. While loving the wonder and fun that motherhood brought, I also experienced a stripping away. I had accomplished much in the eyes of the world, including a BA from Cambridge in Natural Sciences, a PhD from Oxford and a diverse career starting in the oil industry and then training for ministry in the Church of England. It was a glorious CV! But here was a job – being a mum – that came as a real shock, and which I initially felt rubbish at. 

While the men around me were progressing in their careers in their 30s, I felt stuck and hidden – at home, or at the back of church with a pile of toys. But it was in this hidden place that God refined me and gently nurtured deeper spiritual maturity.

I often thought of Isaiah 40:11: “he gently leads those who have young,” and leaned into the character of Mary, who gave birth to our saviour in the hidden place and, “pondered [all these things] in her heart,” (Luke 2:19). Motherhood doesn’t feature on my CV, but it’s one of the most significant things I have ever done!  

Throughout history, I have seen God working through women who have been refined in the hidden place to be at the forefront of the work of the Spirit. As in the Hebrides revival in the early 1950s, when two elderly women laboured through the night in faithful, intercessory prayer. They were frail and housebound, but their prayers led to revival. 

Where else have you seen God at work through hiddenness?

All my parish ministry has been spent in urban areas where I have encountered so many people whose lives are chiselled out by pain and brokenness, but who have become so alive in the Spirit. They may not be in the forefront, they may not be the obvious leaders, but their testimonies of God’s power through adversity is bringing significant transformation in the streets of our nation. 

Throughout history I have seen God working through women who have been refined in the hidden place

God is working in the unexpected places and through more hidden individuals in our society. It’s tempting to think that we need more lectures on evangelism if we’re going to see revival, but I would much rather hop in a taxi in Liverpool with my friend Ali and listen to her as she naturally enthuses about Jesus to everyone she meets. I’ve noticed that those who have been through much hardship – like Ali – often have incredible courage. I see pride and inflated egos getting in the way of the stereotypically ‘successful’ people, like myself, but it is the poor, the broken-hearted, the captives and the prisoners who will be the ones to “rebuild the ancient ruins” (Isaiah 61:4).    

How do you prioritise hiddenness when working in such a prominent and busy role? 

I spend time in the reservoir. Bernard of Clairvaux, an abbot and mystic in the eleventh century, wrote about the need to be reservoirs, not canals; to serve from a place of abundance, rather than constantly giving out. I try to be disciplined in spending a day a month hidden away with God – I don’t have an agenda, other than to spend time with him, my reservoir. It’s these times of intentional hiddenness and quality time with God when I feel most restored and transformed. One requirement of my job is regular speaking events. I have discovered that God can use me most powerfully when I speak from a place of having spent time in his reservoir. I spend less time preparing and more time in his presence. Sometimes I have to trust right up until the last moment that the words God wants me to share, for a particular people in a particular place, will crystalise. It seems his Spirit flows through me most when I’m speaking from a place of hiddenness in him.

How do you think God feels when he looks at our nation and where do you see God’s Spirit moving at the moment? 

I sense agony in the heart of God for our nation. I think of the end of Matthew 9, when Jesus sees the crowds and his heart is filled with compassion as they are “like sheep without a shepherd” (v36). He has a deep compassion for our nation. His heart is breaking for us, as a parent’s heart breaks if they lose a child. He is longing for us to come home, and I believe he is more than willing to act to bring the coming of his kingdom, but the sin of the Church is getting in the way. In Matthew 9, Jesus goes on to say how we need to send out workers into the harvest fields, but we, the Church, have become too preoccupied with things that don’t matter. We’ve grown shy about sharing the gospel. 

I see God moving in the unexpected, hidden places; through the humble and the repentant. But I also see profound need for the gospel and such agony in our world that I find myself praying more and more: “Jesus would you come soon?” As a personal rule I try not to cry in public, but this summer I was at an ordination in a very prominent venue, singing the hymn, ‘I cannot tell why he, whom angels worship’. I found tears welling up when I sang the line, “but this I know, the skies will thrill with rapture”. He will come, and my heart’s cry is that he will come soon. 

Lighting the Beacons is available now and featured in the Woman Alive book club last year, where our host Claire Musters interviewed Bishop Jill about its themes. Read more at womanalive.co.uk/book-club-with-bishop-jill-duff/14788.article

Words by Jane Knoop