First woman priest honored

By Diana Swift
Posted Jan 28, 2014
A portrait of Li on display at Toronto's St. James Cathedral commemorates a "true saint of the church." Photo: Diana Swift

A portrait of Li on display at Toronto’s St. James Cathedral commemorates a “true saint of the church.” Photo: Diana Swift

[Anglican Journal] On Jan. 25,1944, as much of China lay in the iron grip of the Japanese invasion, the church marked a groundbreaking event. A fearless Anglican bishop, discerning a match between wartime need and a uniquely gifted person, ordained a humble yet steel-spined disciple of Christ into the priesthood. The bishop was Ronald Hall of Victoria and the ordinand was Hong-Kong-born Li Tim-Oi, the church’s first woman priest.

Later, graciously relinquishing her licence in the face of Canterbury-led reaction from the establishment, Li continued her ministry during the Japanese occupation and the Communist regime that followed.

On January 25, 2014, the 70th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Florence Li Tim-Oi’s ordination was the leitmotif of a choral eucharist celebrating the ordination of women at Toronto’s Cathedral Church of St. James. Organized with the University of Waterloo’s Renison University College, which holds Li’s archives, and presided over by Bishop Linda Nicholls of the diocese of Toronto, the service honoured Li’s unwavering ministry during the war and the Cultural Revolution.

From Lambeth Palace, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby sent greetings, noting that Li Tim-Oi “had been given the gift of priesthood” and that though she resigned her licence in the face of controversy, she never resigned her priestly orders but served God all her life.” Tim-Oi means “much beloved,” and Welby said she “was a gift to the worldwide Anglican Church and will continue to be much beloved for all that she did.”

Archbishop of Toronto and Metropolitan of Ontario Colin Johnson welcomed attendees and praised Bishop Hall for his visionary decision. Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, called the pioneering priest “a woman who is remembered for the Christ-like nature of her character.” He added that “she lived her vocation as a priest with such a faithfulness and quiet dignity that it convinced many across the Anglican Communion that the Holy Spirit works as wondrously among women as among men.”

Renison’s Chancellor Ralph Spence called her “one of the true saints of the church…a determined Christian who set an example.”

Reading a wartime excerpt from Li’s autobiography, Raindrops of my Life, Li Tim-Oi’s niece, Sze Sze Lee, revealed how her aunt felt compelled to preach the gospel of Christ no matter the circumstances.

With a choir gathered from several Chinese-Canadian parishes, the Rev. Philip Der of St. Christopher’s, North York and Richmond Hill, Ont., was cantor in a responsive singing of the Lord’s Prayer in Cantonese.

From the pulpit, Canon Judy Rois, executive director of the Anglican Foundation of Canada, called the occasion a day to remember “the hard work, resolve and dedication of women in the priesthood” and a day to “thank all those who helped us get here…who held our hand and dried our tears”—those who stood in solidarity with women when it was unpopular to do so.

With 38 years of women’s ordination in Canada behind us, the homilist recalled her time in the 1990s as the cathedral’s first woman vicar. Once, when filling in at a Friday mass, she began the liturgy with her back to a congregation of about 10. When she turned to face them for the Collect, not a soul remained to receive the sacrament. Had they left because of her gender, she wondered?

But her disappointments two decades into women’s ordination in this country were small compared with the obstacles faced by Li Tim-Oi, Rois said. Noting that there are now more than 700 women clergy in Canada and 35 women bishops in the Anglican Communion, Rois said that the story that began with women in our sacred scriptures, and continued down through the ages, is still being written today by women writing chapters in their lives and that of the church. “It is a better world when we all work and serve together as the body of Christ…a world where there is a place-card for everyone at God’s table.”


Comments (8)

  1. Heather Huyck says:

    Hurray for her courage, and for Galatians 3:28 that gave all of us courage.

  2. The Rev. Fred Fenton says:

    Before we ordained the first women priests in this country, George Regas invited Li Tim- Oi to All Saints, Pasadena. As she came down the aisle in the opening procession we sang “The Church’s One Foundation.” When we got to “she is his new creation,” I lost it. What a woman. What a day. What a promise for the future. When Barbara Harris was ordained the first woman Bishop in Boston, I remembered that morning in Pasadena and gave thanks for Li, for Bishop Ronald Hall who ordained her, and for George Regas and all who led the fight for women’s ordination.

  3. Susan Emeleus says:

    I am greatly encouraged by the stories of courage above. As a deacon in the Diocese of Sydney where women are not yet ordained as priests, I take comfort from those who celebrated the life and ministry of Li Tim-Oi.

  4. Carole Jan Lee says:

    I had the privilege of meeting Rev. Li at Barbara Harris’ consecration in Boston. How proud and uplifting for Women of Color that the first two women ordained priest and consecrated bishop were our sisters! I will be presenting a monologue of her life at St. John’s Parish in Oakland and at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley as we commemorate and celebrate the 70th Anniversary of her ordination. A true pioneer of the church!

  5. Garet Key says:

    With the witness of this brave yet humble woman, who can doubt the calling God has placed on women to minister, to preach and to lead.

  6. Jean Mayland says:

    The President of the Eucharist at St Martin in the Field on 25 January in honour of Li Tim Oi was the grand daughter of Bishop Hall who ordained her 70 years ago..Christopher Hall ,the Bishop’s son, was also present.He carried in the icon of Li Tim Oi and also assisted in giving communion to the congregation.

  7. The Rev. Dr. Fran Toy says:

    I first met the Rev. Dr. Florence Li Tim Oi when she visited my church in Oakland, CA in 1948. I next met her at Canterbury Cathedral in 1986 when MOW (Movement for the Ordination of Women) sponsored a gathering to honor women’s ministries, lay and ordained.
    The Episcopal Women’s Caucus (EWC) sponsored a gathering of lay and ordained women during the 1988 Lambeth Conference. There is a photo of Li Tim Oi and me in an account of that event written by the Rev. Jean Staffeld Jersey entitled “Her Daughters Shall Rise Up.” The photo’s caption identifies Li Tim Oi as “the first woman ordained priest in the Anglican Communion” and me as “the first Asian-American woman ordained priest in the Episcopal Church.”

  8. The Rev. Canon Edmund B. Der says:

    I first met Rev. Li Tim Oi in 1941 in Hong Kong right after her ordination as a deacon. She was the homilist in our family thanksgiving service at home. Somehow I as a 5 year old boy put on my sister’s scarf as my stole and stood by her all throughout her sermon and I was later known in All Saints Parish as the little priest of the Der family. Then later from 1984 until 1992 she was my assistant at St. Matthew’s & St. John’s Parish, Toronto. As editor of her book, Raindrops of My Life in English and Chinese and for many years helped organized services commemorating her and her minisitry, I am so grateful to God to be so close to a saint.

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