Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Ordination of Florence Li Tim-Oi [the First Woman Ordained to the Anglican Priesthood]

Li Tim-Oi was born in Hong Kong in 1907. When she was baptized as a student, she chose the name of Florence in honor of Florence Nightingale. Florence studied at Union Theological College in Guangzhou (Canton). In 1938, upon graduation, she served in a lay capacity, first in Kowloon and then in nearby Macao.

In May 1941 Florence was ordained deaconess. Some months later Hong Kong fell to Japanese invaders, and priests could not travel to Macao to celebrate the Eucharist. Despite this setback, Florence continued her ministry. Her work came to the attention of Bishop Ronald Hall of Hong Kong, who decided that “God’s work would reap better results if she had the proper title” of priest.
On January 25, 1944, the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, Bishop Hall ordained her priest, the first woman so ordained in the Anglican Communion.

When World War II came to an end, Florence Li Tim-Oi’s ordination was the subject of much controversy. She made the personal decision not to exercise her priesthood until it was acknowledged by the wider Anglican Communion. Undeterred, she continued to minister with great faithfulness, and in 1947 was appointed rector of St. Barnabas Church in Hepu where,on Bishop Hall’s instructions, she was still to be called priest.

When the Communists came to power in China in 1949, Florence undertook theological studies in Beijing to further understand the implications of the Three-Self Movement (self-rule, self-support, and self- propagation) which now determined the life of the churches. She then moved to Guangzhou to teach and to serve at the Cathedral of Our Savior. However, for sixteen years, from 1958 onwards, during the Cultural Revolution, all churches were closed. Florence was forced to work first on a farm and then in a factory. Accused of counter revolutionary activity, she was required to undergo political re-education. Finally, in 1974, she was allowed to retire from her work in the factory.

In 1979 the churches reopened, and Florence resumed her public ministry. Then, two years later, she was allowed to visit family members living in Canada. While there, to her great joy, she was licensed as a priest in the Diocese of Montreal and later in the Diocese of Toronto,where she finally settled, until her death on February 26, 1992.

I was already working in the church upon the initial "discovery" of Li Tim-Oi's story and was fortunate to have actually met her.  Due mostly to China's secretive regime, Mother Li was so unknown that, upon the occasion of the ordination of the first women clergy in 1974, we were not generally aware that the Anglican Communion had already ordained a woman to the priesthood thirty years before.  Once Mother Li's remarkable story was discovered, it radically altered the primacy of the American women priests and revealed a previously unknown portion of our tradition's history.

Anyone who met her in person, as I was so honored to have done when she and I shared a lecture hall at the University of Toronto, found himself or herself in the presence of a true priest.  She lived to serve God, not self, and reached beyond culture to preach a quiet, simple message of faith.  As the first woman priest, she set a standard that is inspiring, catholic and service-oriented.

Gracious God, we thank you for calling Florence Li Tim-Oi, much beloved daughter, to be the first woman to exercise the office of a priest in our Communion: By the grace of your Spirit inspire us to follow her example, serving your people with patience and happiness all our days, and witnessing in every circumstance to our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the same Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.