January 24: Ordination of Florence Li Tim-Oi, First Woman Priest in the Anglican Communion, 1944

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

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About this Commemoration

Named by her father “much beloved daughter,” 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.

Collects

i Gracious God, we thank thee 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 thy Spirit inspire us to follow her example, serving thy people with patience and happiness all our days, and witnessing in every circumstance to our Savior Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

ii 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.

Lessons

Jeremiah 17:14–18a

Galatians 3:23–28

Luke 10:1–9

Psalm

116:1–12

Preface of  a Saint (2)

Text from Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

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We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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30 Responses to January 24: Ordination of Florence Li Tim-Oi, First Woman Priest in the Anglican Communion, 1944

  1. Michael Hartney says:

    Of all persons commemorated in HWHM, she should have a ‘who she is’ and ‘why she is important’ statement in the first sentence.

  2. E. S. George says:

    Two observations. First, whatever good work she may have done during the course of her ministry, I earnestly hope that this feast will not make it into the final version of the calendar at this time. The issue of women’s ordination is still unsettled within the Anglican Communion and within the broader Church. Indeed, many Episcopalians of the Anglo-Catholic variety are unable for reasons of conscience to accept the TEC majority view on the matter, as their sacramental theology does not allow it. These voices should not be pushed to the margins.

    We are a “big tent” church, and this poses an opportunity to demonstrate as much. It would be a prudent and loving gesture to our sisters and brothers who do not ordain women if TEC were to chose to wait before adding her to the calendar.

    Second, if she is to be raised to the altars of the Church, and if her intercession is to be sought by Christians the world over, it would be good (as Michael Hartney suggests above) for there to be biographical information to help the faithful understand what she did to merit the title of saint. In what way was she a “Holy Woman”? Did she manifest an extraordinary closeness to Our Lord in some way? How?

    I think that people are generally willing to mimic the life of one who is held before them as an example of saintliness, but they need to be shown why they ought to do so.

    E.S. George

    • Lin Jenkins says:

      This commemoration is not actually an innovation; Florence Li-Tim Oi was commemorated in Lesser Feasts and Fasts well before HWHM came out. I remember commemorating her at Evening Prayer on 1-24-07 (I checked in my file of Orders of Worship). It seems clear that she “manifested an extraordinary closeness to Our Lord” in her gifts of faithful and patient obedience and her untiring zeal for service to God’s people in any way possible. Indeed, she seems like the ideal Anglican compromise saint: her ordination was not even her idea, but was the only way her Bishop could get the blessing of the sacraments to his people under occupation. She never put herself forward, and seems to have loved both God and the Church throughout her life. Her faithfulness through years of “re-education” and manual labor under the Communist regime, as punishment for carrying out the duties of her faith, surely testify to her devotion.

    • Michael Hartney` says:

      Note: I did not ‘suggest’ anything of the sort by asking that she have a ‘who she is’ and ‘why she is important’ statement in the first sentence. Readers of this blog since July will recognize that this is an oft repeated comment of mine for many many commemorations.

      I was present at the ordination of women in Philadelphia in 1974. I am in no way associated with any effort to suppress the recognition of women to the presbyterate or their commemoration in Lesser Feasts and Fasts or in future editions of HWHM.

    • John LaVoe says:

      On the question of what she did to merit the title of saint, our tradition doesn’t labor under the illusion that our legislative procedures do that, and “merit” is absolutely the wrong path on which to approach that subject. The Baptismal Covenant is the answer, including “repent and return to the Lord whenever” like anyone else, everyone falls flat on their face in the process.

      Price and Weil (Liturgy for Living, 239, f.) write, “The men and women dignified by black-letter days [i.e., the lesser feasts] are not called saints. There is no procedure in the Anglican communion for recognizing sainthood. We have, on the whole, preferred the New Testament understanding of a saint as any Christian believer. “The saints who are at Corinth” is for St. Paul synonymous with the Christian congregation at Corinth. In the Old Testament the saints are Hasidim, those who belong to the covenant people and are bound to God and to each other by the covenant loyalty (hesed), which God requires of us and himself gives. All baptized Christians are saints in this sense. Black-letter days, then, commemorate not saints, but great persons in the Christian tradition. . . ..

      The same source continues (240) “We do speak of those persons given red-letter days
      [JFL: i.e., the major feasts] as “saints,” in a significant exception to the general principle. . . . [T]hese are recognized as saints in a special though not exclusive sense. . . . ”

    • Cynthia says:

      I am a member of an Anglo Catholic parish that has been served beautifully for the last 20 years by female rectors. I’m sorry, AC does not mean “universally discriminates against women,” just like it certainly doesn’t mean “universally discriminates against gay men.”

      As for the “wider Anglican communion,” the Western churches are pretty advanced here. TEC has been ordaining women for more than my entire adult lifetime. The idea of “a hold” for bigots to catch up just seems Neanderthal to me and likely many of my generation and younger. Mary Magdalene was the First Witness to the Resurrection, Jesus broke cultural taboos to speak with, heal, and hang out with women, women were early church leaders, Jesus’s harshest words were for the Establishment for using the law to exclude and demean people. I’m sorry, the clock has run out on the historical oppression of women in the church.

      The idea of continuing to demean women by policy or by suppressing knowledge of our obvious contributions is exceedingly hurtful, and thereby unChristian. We’re at a crossroad. Yes, the Anglican Communion is not arriving at it at the same time, but that’s not going to happen. It isn’t an excuse to turn the clock back. I’m sorry, I won’t accept the oppression my mother’s faced. I haven’t seen it as a female in TEC and I’m certainly not going to accept it now.

  3. Cynthia Gilliatt says:

    I strongly object to any effort to keep her out of HWHM. She is important to the ministries of all women, lay and ordained. Would it not be odd for HWHM commemorated only lay women? I guess we had best go back an make sure we include no men who remarried after divorce..

  4. Ken Cribbs says:

    This is a lesser feast. It is not a required observance for anyone. Including this in the calendar as an optional observance reflects the diversity the church and the ana element of the truth that women serve in The Episcopal Church as priests. It’s an objective truth, whether or not any given Episcopalian accepts a woman’s ministry. People/communities who don’t want to observe this for theological reasons don’t have to do so (and won’t).

  5. Dale McNeill says:

    I hope the commemoration stays in the calendar. Though commemorations such as this one remind me why the name _Lesser Feasts and Fasts_ was a better name!

    I mean this seriously: isn’t this a calendar of commemorations for the Episcopal Church? I don’t think it’s meant to be used by the whole Anglican communion. Each province should, I think, have its own commemorations. Many of the persons included here are of interest because of the history of our church on this branch of the Anglican communion.

  6. Ken Cribbs says:

    Sorry for the typos. The comment should have been: This is a lesser feast. It is not a required observance for anyone. Including this in the calendar as an optional observance reflects the diversity the church and an element of the truth that women serve in The Episcopal Church as priests. It’s an objective truth, whether or not any given Episcopalian accepts a woman’s ministry. People/communities who don’t want to observe this for theological reasons don’t have to do so (and won’t). As Dale said, every church in the Communion has its own lesser feasts that other churches in the Communion don’t observe as a matter of course (but could, if they wanted to do so).

  7. Dale says:

    I’d like to add (since I was heading out for work earlier), that I think this commemoration is more like the First Book of Common Prayer, commemorating an event in the history of the church. In other words, it seems to me that however holy the Rev’d Li may have been, the commemoration is important in the history of the church.

  8. Leonel L. Mitchell says:

    Although we heard during WW 2 that the Biship of Hong Kong had ordained a deaconess to the preasthood the enable ministries ionterupted by the War, we knew none of the details. Her commemoration first appeard in LLF 2003. I think it is an important addition and should by all meand be retained. It helps to remind us that the Church is Catholic, in faith, in geographical extent, and in

  9. Nigel Renton says:

    Florence Li Tim-Oi is a suitable person to be honored in her own right, but she would not be eligible under the Guidelines until 2042, fifty years after her death. Using the year of her ordination is a questionable choice. We don’t celebrate “The Martyrdom of Jonathan Daniels” on August 14: we celebrate the person. He was added to the calendar long before the passage of fifty years after his murder, with an immense outpouring of support at General Convention.

    If the commemoration is moved to the date of her death, she could share February 26 with Emily Malbone Morgan.

    I suggest that the title be simply “Florence Li Tim-Oi”. The subtitle should show the year of her joining the Church Triumphant: 1992, conforming to the norm for these bios.

    Line 5, first paragraph: add “across the harbor from Hong Kong island” after “Kowloon”. The location of Kowloon will not be known to every reader.

    Line 5, first paragraph: add “, at that time a Portuguese colony.” after “Macao”.

    Line 5, fourth paragraph: add “, near Guangzhou” after “Hepu”.

    Line 4, fifth paragraph: delete the extra space between “self-” and “propagation”.

    Line 6, fifth paragraph: presumably the cathedral used the British spelling “Saviour”.

    • John LaVoe says:

      Nigel’s observations about celebrating her ordination date, celebrating the person, and the complication of the 50 year rule bears thinking about. Nigel cites the Jonathan Daniels commemoration as an example of being flat out honest about exempting someone from the 50 year rule, if I read him correctly, and recommmends the same for today’s feast. The only parallel that occurs to me is the consecration of Samuel Seabury, in which the focus is more about American episcopacy than Samuel Seabury. Florence Li Tim-Oi is such an outstanding example of a “holy woman” — illustrated throughout her life — I’d be happy to have her listed regardless of ordination status. To focus on her ordination discounts the person and becomes a not too subtle self-congratulations for breaking the sex barrier at best, or it becomes a factional tug-of-war about ordination at worst — in either case treating her as a symbol more than a child of God. I’d like to see this be about her, own up to making an exception of the 50 year rule, and tolerate the pushback about ordination.

  10. Barbara Cheney says:

    Florence Li Tim-Oi is certainly someone I hope will be included in HWHM. In reading Luke 10:1-9, however, I was struck by how solitary her life was compared to the 72 Jesus sent on ahead in pairs to every town and place he was going to visit himself. She, as the first and under extraordinary circumstances, was a solo woman ordained priest. Her biography speaks more of her own personal and grace-full obedience to God’s service under her very difficult political and cultural circumstances than it does to a ministry among others such as the 72 who were similarly sent. Might we know what other passages were considered before settling on this one?

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  12. Steve Lusk says:

    This feast, having been approved by General Convention, would seem to beyond removal or retitling. I suspect that putting it in as “the consecration of” rather than the person herself was a deliberate maneuver to avoid breaking the 50-year rule. If so, the title is a legal fiction, and legal fictions are solemn things. As for marginalizing “Episcopalians of the Anglo-Catholic variety,” one would think that whatever damage this feast might do was done when it was approved for trial use in 2003 and officially added to the calendar in 2006. And the approval of this feast wasn’t the only thing the General Convention of 2006 did that might have offended them. I seem to remember something about the gender of the presiding bishop . . .

    • Dale McNeill says:

      I also think it’s important note–not that you suggest otherwise–that there are plenty of Anglo-Catholic Christians who support the ordination of women.

  13. Celinda Scott says:

    I didn’t see it mentioned in the comments above that she is mentioned in the Windsor Report for her willingness to abide by the wishes of those who did not accept her consecration until there was wider
    acceptance in the church. And she waited a long time. Although some Anglo-Catholics think women’s ordination is not a matter for a decisional change by any church body, similar to the stance by many that the same thing applies to same-sex relation blessings and the ordination and consecration of those in same-sex relationships–that is, NEVER, due to perceived Biblical teachings and examples–the Windsor Report held her decorous restraint up as an example to those who would not exercise restraint on the other dividing issue, implying that the church might SOMEDAY change its mind.

  14. Celinda Scott says:

    Sorry, I should have said “ordination” above in reference to her, not “consecration.”

    • Michael Hartney` says:

      Actually Celinda, consecration is a quite appropriate word. Page 533 of the Book of Common Prayer 1979 is titled “The Consecration of the Priest” and the Bishop’s prayer is titled in the rubrics: “Prayer of Consecration.”

  15. Bill Petersen says:

    In the 2nd paragraph of the bio the phrase “to celebrate the Eucharist” occurs. Here and elsewhere throughout “HWHM” is a chance to use language consistent with the Dublin Report of the International Anglican Liturgical Conference (IALC) in 1995 (yes, that long ago!), namely, that it is the entire assimbly of the faithful that celebrates the Eucharist. The priest preisides. So in future editions, in Florence’s bio and in other places let the text read: “to preside at the Eucharist.” This will also advance the cause of getting the rubrics in the BCP changed as well.

  16. Philip Wainwright says:

    In the collect, having just said ‘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’, it feels very odd to continue ‘inspire us to follow her example’. The collect goes on to make it clear that the example to be followed is not that of being the first woman to be ordained, but I think the wording should be changed to eliminate the mental back-pedalling this causes for some. It’s obviously appropriate for those who can use the ordained ministry of women to celebrate that, but it’s also obvious that she demonstrated faith in her life in other ways, and it is also appropriate to celebrate that. I think the collect should be re-written so as to express both of those things, but that the title of the commemoration refer to her ordination rather than her person until she meets the 50-year standard.

  17. Pegram Johnson III says:

    I think I am correct – – and if not I am sure someone will correct me – -in saying that Florence Li Tim Oi is honored in both the Church of England and in the Canadian Anglican Church. An active Li Tim Oi Society is centered in England. One of its leaders is Canon Christopher Hall, son of Bishop R. O. Hall who performed the ordination. An excellent biography is available that focuses on Bishop Hall for those who are interested. It is important to note that even though Bishop Hall was censured by the Lambeth Conference, Li Tim Oi always knew in her heart that she was a priest in the church of God. She chose not to function as such until there was some clarification. She did not wish for Bishop Hall to lose face thou he continued to affirm her priesthood.

  18. Valerie McDonald says:

    I am sadden by the discussion here being centered solely on whether she should be included rather that acknowledging her faithful use of the gifts God gave her for many years under difficult circonstances. Circmstances which i suspect most of the commentators would no fare as well as Li Tim Oi did.
    Do we have to bicker all of the time?

    • Cynthia says:

      I agree with you Valerie. But isn’t it interesting that the very first comment was extremely exclusionary and done so in my name (Anglo Catholic). Li Tim Oi was extraordinary for her work and witness. And I’m sorry that it feels like a fight to include the contributions of women. Oddly enough, this is a recent phenomenon to me in TEC. I thought that women’s equality in the eyes of God was settled. I’m keenly aware of what is going on in England. We broke with them for a reason, so they are no excuse for us to backpedal on human decency, as was suggested in the first post.

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  21. Adelaide Kent says:

    I am perplexed by the use of the term ‘saint’ in reference to those included in LFAF and HWHM.
    Still more so by the idea that such people would or could intercede for us. I know many Episcopalians who consider themselves Anglo-Catholic who would not find these practices comfortable.

    Can we agree that these people provide an inspiring example of faith without loading other duties on the poor souls? All being ‘in the calendar ‘ should mean that their example provides us with a witness that may strengthen us all in our faith and our lives.

  22. Walter J Bauer says:

    The very first and most important aspect if the Episcpal Chuch is its universal message of being a welcoming and accepting denonomination. I truly feel that Florence Tim-Oi should be honored and revered by all Anglicans of all mindsets. She was/is an example of how the Episcopal Church embraces our present time and does remain stagnant to change in the name of rigid tradition. The Episcopal Church has much to offer and it should make its welcoming mission accessible to all, especially those who are searching for a church that is inclusive and not judgmental and self-righteous. Having female clergy is a testament to how the Church has addapted to change. Florence Tim-Oi is just another of its many great role models and should inspire and not be the catylist for division.

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