Ordination anniversary of the first Woman Priest

An ordination anniversary – a message for our times?

January 26, 2012

This week marks the anniversary of the first woman to be ordained in the Anglican Communion.

I came across this account of the ordination and ministry of Li Tim-Oi by Linda Ryan. I wonder could insights be deduced from it in approaching the issue of sexuality and belief?

Linda writes: “Li Tim-Oi, “Much Beloved Daughter”, was both a pioneer and a lightning rod. Ordained as the first woman priest in the Anglican Communion in 1944, serving as a priest in the Japanese-occupied colony of Macau (at that time, Maçao) when male priests were prohibited to travel from Hong Kong to Macau to bring the sacraments.

“She served quietly but effectively until, after the war had ended, her ordination became a cause célèbre around the Anglican world. She voluntarily gave up her license to act as a priest in the name of peace, but never relinquished her vows and anointing from her ordination. She served and suffered in China during some of the most brutal years of the Communist takeover, but was able to start again in public ministry when the churches in China were reopened in 1979, sixteen years after their closure. In 1981 she was able to visit family members in Canada where she later settled, and on that visit was licensed once again as a priest, this time in the Diocese of Montreal and later Toronto. She died in Canada in 1992.

“As much as Li Tim-Oi suffered at the hands of the Japanese and the Communists, the rejection by her church of her priestly vocation must have been one of the hardest battles she had to endure. This time the adversary wasn’t the armed enemy but those who were members of the same family. Jeremiah must have felt sort of the same way. It’s hard to be a prophet, and it’s hard to be the first. It’s hard to face an enemy but even harder to face brothers and sisters of one’s own spiritual family.

“Li Tim-Oi was the first but not the last. Two women were ordained in Hong Kong in 1971, eleven women in Philadelphia in 1974 and four in Washington in 1975. Canada approved women’s ordination in 1975. Other provinces have followed but not all have yet accepted the ministry of women in the priesthood. For those early women priests, however, it was a struggle, and it still continues to be a struggle in some parts of the world.

Florence Li Tim-Oi, though, was and is a beacon that will shine brightly wherever women are called by God and assent to that call. Like Mary at the annunciation, there is a choice to say yes or no to God’s call — and the ramifications of an assent is life-changing. Jeremiah said yes and, even when whiny, kept his focus on what his job was. Li Tim-Oi had that choice and said yes in her turn. It probably would have been easier to renounce the whole thing when oppression came, but she never succumbed to that option.

“Florence Li Tim-Oi never made a big noise in the world with powerful speeches and public appearances, but her faithfulness, dedication and grace in the face of hardship and suffering mark her as truly a ‘holy woman.’ “(End of article).

Possible ponder points:
1. Most Anglicans today accept that God calls women to the priesthood. How and where does the call of God  and the discipline of the church intersect? What should take precedent?

2. How much ‘sacrifice’ of identity and vocation should the Church expect of people who perhaps are in the vanguard of God changing the church to be more representative and inclusive?

3. How does the Church model dialogue to a world which is divided in so many places where there is a total absence of dialogue and constructive listening? How do we ‘model the model’ and ‘walk the talk’ of reconciliation?

4. How should “the pioneers”, “the lightning rods” be treated? (See para 3)

Houston McKelvey


This reflection, by Houston McKelvey in the ‘Church of Ireland Gazette’, questions just how far have we Anglicans gone in the acceptance of women’s call to ministry in our churches, since Florence Li Tim-Oi undertook a priestly mission of covenience for God and for the Church in Macao

During the japanese Occupation in the Second World War. Despite the constitutional problems around the ordination of a female priest, it was decided that the pastoral needs of the Church in that area and at that time required a new response – a response that this doughty woman was able to make – feeling it a call from God to minister in a difficult situation of real need. Without the services of a priest at that ime, the Church could have been wiped out by the Japanese occupiers, or later, the Communist Chinese.

There is no better encouragement for change than the virtue of necessity, and the needs of the Anglican Christian community in Macao at that time weere paramount. The occupying powers would not allow male clergy to visit from the nearest Anglican settlement in HongKong; so it was decided by the then Bishop of HongKong to advance her status as a Deacon to being that of a priest – according to the following record:

“Bishop R O Hall of Hong Kong then asked her to meet him in Free China, where on 25 January 1944 he ordained her ”a priest in the Church of God”. He knew that this was as momentous a step as when the Apostle Peter baptised the Gentile Cornelius. As St Peter recognised that God had already given Cornelius the Baptismal gift of the Spirit, so Bishop Hall was merely confirming that God had already given Tim-Oi the gift of priestly ministry, but he resisted the temptation to rename her Cornelia.

To defuse controversy, in 1946 Tim-Oi surrendered her priest’s licence, but not her Holy Orders, the knowledge of which carried her through Maoist persecution.

She resumed the practice of her priesthood in the Church in China, and in Toronto when she retired in 1981. She was awarded Doctorates of Divinity by General Theological Seminary, New York, and Trinity College, Toronto.

She died on 26 February 1992 in Toronto and is buried there”.

Florence Li Tim-Oi was made a priest according to the exigency of the mission of God at that time in enemy-occupied Territory. Surely, then, especially in view of the shortage of suitable males offering themselves for the ministry, the call of God upon the lives of Godly women should be recognised by the Church today – in thanksgiving for the fact that God is actually calling them into the priesthood and the epsicopate in the Church of our time, and that many women are brave enough to stand the test of scrutiny in a still-reluctant Church.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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