Reflections on the commemoration
of the ordination of the first Anglican woman priest

On January 24 the Episcopal Church commemorates Florence Li Tim-Oi, the first woman ordained to the priesthood in the Anglican Communion. Until now we have not devoted any article on our blog to the Rev. Florence. Today we make up for this omission, but we would like to begin with reminding a fragment of a text that has nothing to do with the ordination held on January 25 in the diocese of Hong Kong, even though it pertains to the ordination of women – moreover, to the first ordination of a woman in the Catholic tradition, about which we already wrote. On February 21 1929 the superior of the (Polish) Church of the Mariavites, Archbishop M. Michał Kowalski, issued a pastoral letter in which he announced the ordination, on Maundy Thursday of the same year, of 12 women. We read there:

The photograph shows Li Tim-Oi, her mother, Bishop Mok, her father, Archdeacon Lee Kow Yan after her ordination as Deacon by Bishop Hall at St John’s Cathedral HK. Ascension Day 22 May 1941

What impediment can be conceived now for the female kind to be able to receive the Holy Spirit to perform this high priestly honor in the Church? None, save perhaps for the fact that the Tradition of the Church does not know the custom of ordaining women to the priesthood, even though they were ordained as deacons.

But lack of tradition cannot be an impediment to the introduction into the life of the church what is not in conflict either with the Christian rules of faith or of morality. For everything can be introduced into Christ’s Church by the action and will of the Holy Spirit what is good, if only this new thing may increase God’s glory and be to a saving advantage to [all human] souls. – That is also why Christ our Lord says in the Apocalypse, announcing new things in his Church, “Behold, I make all things new”.

Reading these words again today of all days, the thought comes to our mind that Archbishop Michał, by the way not without a reason often considered a controversial figure, in this case “nailed it.” We think that actually no “defender of Tradition” has given a satisfying answer to this question: “Why do we prohibit the Holy Spirit so often from realizing what was announced by Jesus Christ, making all things new…”

But let us return to the Rev. Florence Li Tim-Oi. She was born on May 5 1907 in Hong Kong. Her Chinese name means “Much Beloved Daughter” as her father wanted to signify that she was not less dear to him than a son would have been. As a student she was baptized and chose the name of Florence in honor of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910), a social reformer and founder of modern nursing, tireless herald of “Mankind which must create Mankind following in the footsteps of Jesus, the image of true humanity.” She felt the call to ministry at an ordination of a deacon in 1931 and, after taking a four year course in theology, first served as a lay person in Kawloon and then Macao and then was herself ordained a deacon in 1941, and assigned to the Anglican congregation in the Portuguese colony of Macao. When a few months later Hong Kong fell to Japan, priests could not travel from Hong Kong to Macao to celebrate the Eucharist. Despite this, Florence continued her ministry and Bishop Ronald Hall of Hong Kong decided in 1944 that “God’s work would reap better results if she had the proper title” of priest. When World War II ended, her ordination aroused much controversy and Rev. Florence was forced to give up her license (as she was informed that Bishop Hall would have to resign if she didn’t do it) until the Anglican Communion would come to an agreement on the issue, but not her Holy Orders, and continued to serve the church until all churches were closed during the Cultural Revolution in China from 1958 to 1979. She was forced to work on a farm and in a factory and was punished for what were deemed to be counter revolutionary activities by the Chinese authorities (her decision to resign her license resembles what the Old Catholic Church of the Mariavites did as it has never declared the orders of women to be invalid but withdrew the licenses of all ordained women until the matter would find approval in the Old Catholic Union of Utrecht – thenceforth they probably ministered as priests only to other sisters in the Mariavite Order and not in parishes). She resumed the practice of her priesthood in the Church in China, and was licensed in Canada where she emigrated. She died on 26 February 1992 in Toronto and is buried there.

Today’s commemoration bids us not only to reflect on a piece of the history of the church, but also on its situation nowadays. Mark Harris writes about this in a moving way on his blog. Below a few excerpts from his post.

It should be noted that Bishop Hall was in no position to consult any of the “Instruments of Unity” before making this decision and, in fact, was later roundly condemned by them. After the war, despite censure and pressure from the 1948 Lambeth Conference and two successive Archbishops of Canterbury, Bishop Hall did not require Tim Oi to renounce her ordination.

We must remember her as a woman whose vocation and ministry were severely curtailed and dismissed by the Communion, held in scorn by her government, and went unrecognized as a priest by the rest of the Communion until in the first flood of ordinations of women to the priesthood she was licensed in Canada.

The real lesson derived from the story of the ordination of women is that when unity and fellowship become the first priority for the Church the result is the endless postponement of decision-making and the inequitable treatment of those most closely involved with the issue.”

We can hardly disagree with Mark Harris on this. For representatives of broadly understood reformed Catholicism the unity of the Church is extremely important, and we should be aware that this unity sometimes requires compromises, including ones regarding things about which we are convinced deeply and honestly. That is why we can understand the standpoint of those who, like for example our friend Abbot Klaus Schlapps OPR, who died a few days ago, think that the ordination of women may be introduced only by a deciscion of the universal church. On the other hand we should not forget about what Prof. Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatkoski said in March of the past year at the Conference Bringing the Episcopal Church to Cracow:

… it is important to see how Anglicans retained their distinct identity while recognizing what they held in common with other Christians. This flexibility is an expression of reformed Catholicity adapted to local contexts.

And these local contexts sometimes require taking decisions despite the awareness that churches operating in other contexts will disagree with them. In other case, that is if it doesn’t have the courage to take such decisions and accept their consequences, the local church will not be able to fulfill its prophetic mission where it is called to do it. With this in mind, let us say the collect for today’s commemoration.

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.

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2 Responses to Reflections on the commemoration
of the ordination of the first Anglican woman priest

  1. Very many thanks for this blog – on an auspicious day, and from a predominantly (Roman) Catholic country. You may like to add our website to your blog – or at least to your many links. I did not know that Sr Ellen OSH had written another icon; Florence is holding a host not a bible in her icon in St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. A comment: ‘Florence voluntarily gave up her license’: she did so having been put under pressure by a diocesan official [‘a Purple Guard’] who had told her that, if she didn’t, the Bishop would be pressured to resign. The Bishop was very cross when he learnt what had happened. A correction: ‘Kawoon’ should be ‘Kowloon’.

  2. admin says:

    Thank you very much for your kind words and the additonal information on how Rev. Florence was forced to surrender her licence. We will revise our post to include it.

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