Commemoration of the Ordination of Florence Li Tim-Oi
Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed;
save me, and I shall be saved;
for you are my praise.
See how they say to me,
‘Where is the word of the Lord?
Let it come!’
But I have not run away from being a shepherd in your service,
nor have I desired the fatal day.
You know what came from my lips;
it was before your face.
Do not become a terror to me;
you are my refuge on the day of disaster;
Let my persecutors be shamed,
but do not let me be shamed;
let them be dismayed,
but do not let me be dismayed;
bring on them the day of disaster;
destroy them with double destruction!
Jeremiah was getting it from both sides. His adversaries are scornful because his prophecies have not happened and God didn’t seem to be too attentive to him at the moment. One can forgive Jeremiah for being a bit unhappy with the situation of the moment; however, he does remind God that he has been obedient, faithful and dutiful in proclaiming the message he was given to pass on, just like he was supposed to. Furthermore, God knew it because Jeremiah did his proclaiming to God’s face, so there.
There was a woman, millennia later, who would have had every reason to ask why despite her faithful service, her ministry was limited and God didn’t seem to be in too big a hurry to change that. 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.”