The First Mother Priest

Celebrating the First Woman Priest Li Tim-Oi
By Mary Frances Schjonberg, May 04, 2007

The Rev. Li Tim-Oi met with then-Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie in 1984.

[Episcopal News Service] Special services in the countries where the Rev. Florence Li Tim-Oi, the first woman ordained a priest in the Anglican Communion, began and ended her ministry will be held in honor of the 100th anniversary of her birth on May 5.

One service is planned at Morrison Chapel in Macau on May 5. Tim-Oi served at the chapel during World War II. Macau is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. It borders Guangdong Province and is about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Hong Kong, China’s other Special Administrative Region.

The other will be held May 6 at All Saints’ Chinese Anglican Church in Markham, Ontario, near Toronto. Bishop Victoria Matthews of Edmonton, the first woman bishop in the Anglican Church of Canada, will preside at the service; retired Massachusetts Suffragan Bishop Barbara Harris will preach.

Harris, who served the diocese of Massachusetts before retiring in 2002, was the first woman bishop in the Anglican Communion. Tim-Oi was a concelebrant at her consecration. Matthews was recently nominated as a candidate for the election of Canada’s new Primate. If elected, she would become the second woman primate in the Anglican Communion after Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

Tim-Oi, whose name means “much beloved daughter,” was born in Hong Kong. When she was later baptized she took the name Florence in honor of Florence Nightingale. She studied at Union Theological College in Guangzhou (Canton). After she graduated in 1938, she served in lay ministry first in Kowloon and later in Macao. She was ordained as a deaconess in May 1941.

Later that year, Hong Kong fell to the Japanese and priests could no longer travel to Macao to celebrate the Eucharist. According to her biography in the 2003 edition of “Lesser Feasts and Fasts,” Tim-Oi continued her ministry, and her work drew the attention of then-Hong Kong Bishop Ronald Hall, who decided that “God’s work would reap better results if she had the proper title” of priest. Hall ordained her on January 25, 1944.

On the 60th anniversary celebration of her ordination, Canon Christopher Hall, Hall’s son, said during his sermon, that his father talked with Tim-Oi on the day of her ordination about lifelong priesthood, not of the momentous step they both were taking.

Her ordination caused much controversy after the end of World War II and Tim-Oi decided not to continue exercising her priesthood until it was acknowledged by the wider Anglican Communion. Hall had appointed her rector of St. Barnabas Church in Hepu and said she was still to be called a priest.

The 1948 Lambeth Conference refused to recognize her ordination, as did two successive Archbishops of Canterbury. The Conference, in Resolution 113 rejected a request from the then-Diocese of South China brought to it by what was known as the General Synod of the Church in China to experiment with ordaining deaconesses to the priesthood.

“The Conference feels bound to reply that in its opinion such an experiment would be against the tradition and order and would gravely affect the internal and external relations of the Anglican Communion,” the resolution said.

In resolution 114 of that meeting, the Conference reaffirmed a decision made in 1930, saying that women were only qualified to be deaconesses. The bishops said it was not time to reconsider that position (Resolution 115) but said that deaconesses ought to be honored and encouraged in their work (Resolution 116).

When Communists came to power in 1949, Tim-Oi studied theology in Beijing to understand the implications of the Three-Self Movement which had been instituted to govern church life in China. She moved to Guangzhou to teach and serve at the Cathedral of Our Savior.

When the government closed all the churches in China between 1958 and 1974, Tim-Oi was forced to work on a farm and then in a factory, and was required to undergo political re-education when she was deemed to be a counter-revolutionary. She was allowed to retire from factory work in 1974. Christopher Hall recalled in his sermon that Tim-Oi went to the mountains to pray during the years when she did not dare be seen with her Christian friends. He also said her re-education nearly drove Tim-Oi to suicide. She was forced by the Chinese Red Guard to cut up her vestments with scissors.

Tim-Oi was able to resume her public ministry in 1979 and, two years later, she was allowed to visit family in Canada. While there, she was licensed as a priest in the Diocese of Montreal and later in the Diocese of Toronto. She eventually settled in Toronto. She received doctors of divinity at New York’s General Theological Seminary in 1987 and at Toronto’s Trinity College in 1991. Tim-Oi died in Toronto on February 26, 1992.

The Episcopal Church’s General Convention agreed in June 2006 via Resolution A059 to annually commemorate Tim-Oi’s ordination. Her feast day was set as January 24. Tim-Oi’s actual ordination date is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Peter the Apostle.

The collect appointed for her feast day prays “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.”

Tim-Oi’s legacy continues with the Li Tim-Oi Foundation, which has helped 200 women from 67 dioceses in 11 provinces of the Anglican Communion train for ministry, including more than 50 for ordination.

Controversy over Tim-Oi’s ordination came to a Lambeth Conference that had been pondering the issue of women’s ordination for nearly 30 years. It was the 1920 Lambeth Conference that called for the restoration of women to the diaconate (Resolution 47) but said it was the only order to which women could be ordained (Resolution 48). The bishops outlined the elements of a deaconess’ ordination in Resolution 50 and Resolution 51. The conference also called for inclusion of women in the councils of the Church to which lay men were admitted (Resolution 46).

The bishops meeting in 1920 also called for a study of women’s work in the Church and their compensation (Resolution 54).

The 1920 gathering was the first time that the bishops dealt with the role of women in any way other than as it related to marriage. The emphasis came in a series of resolutions at the 1908 Lambeth gathering. Women are not mentioned at all in any of the resolutions from the first four Lambeth gatherings (1867, 1878, 1888, and 1897).

At the 1930 Lambeth gathering, the bishops outlined the duties of deaconesses (Resolution 70 and Resolution 71) and reaffirmed a 1920 resolution, which said that the office was primarily for ministry to other women and did not require celibacy.

That conference also called for women to be able to use whatever specialized training they had received in “posts which provide full scope for their powers and bring to them real partnership with those who direct the work of the Church, and genuine responsibility for their share of it, whether in parish or diocese; so that such women may find in the Church’s service a sphere for the exercise of their capacity.” (Resolution 66).

The bishops said, in Resolution 72 that “every stipendiary woman worker, whether parochial or other, should receive formal recognition from the bishop, who should satisfy himself not only of her general fitness, but also that an adequate stipend is secured to her with provision for a pension, and that she works under a definite form of agreement.”

In 1968, the Lambeth Conference refused to accept women’s ordination but passed five resolutions (Resolutions 34-38) suggesting, among other things, further study and provisions for “duly qualified women to share in the conduct of liturgical worship, to preach, to baptize, to read the Epistle and Gospel at the Holy Communion, and to help in the distribution of the elements.”

At the first meeting of the Anglican Consultative Council (ACC) in 1971, the ordained and lay members of the group considered a proposal from the Council of the Church of South East Asia. The ACC advised the then-Bishop of Hong Kong that “acting with the approval of his Synod, and any other bishop of the Anglican Communion acting with the approval of his Province, that, if he decides to ordain women to the priesthood, his action will be acceptable to this Council; and that this Council will use its good offices to encourage all Provinces of the Anglican Communion to continue in communion with these dioceses.”

At the 1978 Lambeth Conference, the bishops recognized that the Diocese of Hong Kong, the Anglican Church of Canada, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America, and the Church of the Province of New Zealand had begun to ordain women to the priesthood and noted that “eight other member Churches of the Anglican Communion have now either agreed or approved in principle or stated that there are either no fundamental or no theological objections to the ordination of women to the historic threefold ministry of the Church.” Resolution 21 passed by a vote of 316-37 with 17 abstentions.

The resolution said the conference accepted the stance of all of its member provinces on the issue and encouraged “all member Churches of the Anglican Communion to continue in communion with one another, notwithstanding the admission of women (whether at present or in the future) to the ordained ministry of some member Churches.” The bishops also called for “further discussions about the ordination of women be held within a wider consideration of theological issues of ministry and priesthood.”

And the resolution recommended that that no decision to consecrate women as bishops be taken “without consultation with the episcopate through the primates and overwhelming support in any member Church and in the diocese concerned, lest the bishop’s office should become a cause of disunity instead of a focus of unity.”

In the Anglican Communion today, eight of the 38 member provinces do not ordain women to any order of ministry. Fourteen provinces currently make provisions for women in the episcopate.

Tim-Oi’s birthday commemoration comes nearly 31 years after the Episcopal Church voted at its 65th General Convention to open all three orders of ordained ministry to women.

Today, the ordination of women is widely — but not universally — accepted in the Episcopal Church. An entire generation, both in chronological age and in terms of their membership in the Episcopal Church, has known nothing but a church in which women serve as priests.

Many, if not most, in the church have “come to the conclusion that there is a rich diversity brought by women to the church,” the Rev. Margaret Rose, director of the church’s Office of Women’s Ministries, said in an ENS story leading up to the 75th General Convention in June 2006.

Rose suggested that women, both lay and ordained, are continually changing the Episcopal Church by “the way in which they exercise ministry in a hierarchical church.”

She said that women have a relational style of ministry to the church. “I think the whole church is richer for it,” she said.

In the Episcopal Church, only the dioceses of Fort Worth, Quincy and San Joaquin do not permit the ordination or deployment of women as priests.

A more complete look at the history of the movement towards women’s ordination in the Episcopal Church is available here.

The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is national correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *