Ordination of Florence Li Tim-Oi, First Woman Priest in the Anglican Communion
With a world full of problems that seemingly have no solutions, it’s often said that one person can’t make a difference, but sometimes one person can, directly or indirectly, effect a change of perception or action that does create a new way of thinking and/or doing. When it happens, it starts as a small spark that gradually grows as people recognize the truth and validity of the message being transmitted. There are times, though, when no words are spoken but actions speak volumes, and times when quiet words and quiet actions go almost unnoticed until people realize the growing miracle that has been going on without their being aware.
The person we know as Florence Li Tim-Oi would not have seen herself as a kind of beacon of faith but her life demonstrated that that was precisely what she was. At her birth her father gave her the name of “Much Beloved,” and that name became prophetic, particularly during her adult and elder years. She took the baptismal name of Florence from Florence Nightingale, an English nurse who worked during the Crimean War and who changed the direction of nursing. Nightingale earned the nickname “Lady with the Lamp.” In her own way, Tim-Oi would herself be a bearer of the light in dark and perilous times.
Tim-Oi received a call to ministry in 1931 and was ordained a deacon ten years later. Her mission was to the colony of Macao, a Portuguese colony near Hong Kong. The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) was raging and refugees from China were flocking into Macao to escape. In 1941 Tim-Oi was charged with serving the Anglican community in both as a deacon and as a medical helper aiding victims. When it became too dangerous for priests to travel to Macao to celebrate the Eucharist, Tim-Oi was licensed to preside in her capacity as deacon. In 1944, the Bishop of Hong Kong, Ronald O. Hall, called her to meet with him in a part of Free China and ordained her as a priest. It was a ground-breaking moment for Tim-Oi, the souls in Macao whom she served, and, indeed, the Anglican world as a whole. The bishop recognized her call and made her the first woman priest in the Anglican Communion.
Tim-Oi was aware of and sensitive to the controversy surrounding her ordination and priesthood in other parts of the Anglican Communion. As a result, when it was safe for male priests to once again travel and be visible, she relinquished her license to act as a priest until her orders would be recognized by the Communion. Bishop Hall called her to service in the clerical order when, in 1947, he made her rector of St. Barnabas Church in Hepu, China, with the title of priest. With the Maoist takeover in 1949, things changed radically. She went to Beijing to study and teach at a theological college but with the closing of all churches by the Maoists in 1958, she was considered a political revolutionary and was forced to undergo political re-education which was often accompanied by torture. Following re-education she was assigned to farm and factory work until she was allowed to retire in 1974. She returned to Hong Kong and began service as a lay teacher and preacher. Two more women had been ordained to the priesthood in Hong Kong eight years previously so Tim-Oi’s license was restored although still not actively recognized by much of the Anglican Communion.
She moved to Toronto, Canada, in 1981 and served there as an associate priest and preacher until her death in 1992. She died a much-beloved figure in both China and North America, living up to her name.
Tim-Oi is one of those people who went about quietly, following her call and serving her God and her people. The mental image that I have of her, however, isn’t one where she’s dressed in priestly clothes behind an altar but rather as a small, ordinary-looking woman, walking past the backdrop of bombed-out buildings and rubble, going either to church or a home where her priestly words and touch were needed. It must have been a terrifying time, a single woman in a city surrounded by forces at war, yet she had the confidence that God was present and the strength of her call to duty was unshakable.
Tim-Oi shook the ground of the Anglican Communion simply by following where God led her. Her bishop was condemned by the Communion for the precipitous action of ordaining a woman without full approval of that body. Her quiet perseverance and witness helped to change minds and hearts to the acceptance of women as not only deacons but priests, bishops and archbishops. It isn’t universal yet, but the movement is in that direction. I am sure Tim-Oi is smiling with each ordination.
I see Tim-Oi as a prime example of strength in humility. She gave up functioning as a priest because she did not want her vocation to be a stumbling block for others until they could come to the realization that God called both men and women to service in that capacity. To think of one’s own actions in light of what it might mean to others and then acting on those actions, even if it causes one’s heart to break, is an act of both courage and humility, two great characteristics of Tim-Oi’s life and ministry.
Those who say one person can’t make a difference can look to Florence Li Tim-Oi. She was, in her quiet way, a symbol of doing what God called her to do, not with rousing speeches or great public appearances, but rather a quiet light shining through darkness and tradition. Her humility should serve as a lesson to all of us that greatness doesn’t come with pride, self-confidence, and fame. Jesus taught that the humble would be exalted and the those who exalted themselves would be humbled(Matt. 23:12). If that is true, and if Jesus taught it, it must be true. Tim-Oi is undoubtedly very close to the throne of God and welcomed as a Much Beloved daughter not only of her father but also her Father.