Diocese of New York service honors the Rev. Florence Li Tim-Oi, first female Anglican priest

By Caleb Galaraga
Posted May 13, 2024
Li Tim-Oi service

Episcopal clergy participating in a service honoring the Rev. Florence Li Tim-Oi pose for a photo at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York. Photo: Bruce Paul Media

[Episcopal News Service] – About 100 people gathered May 10 inside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York to mark the 80th anniversary of the ordination of the first female Anglican priest, the Rev. Florence Li Tim-Oi.

Li, who died in 1992 in Toronto, was ordained in Hong Kong on Jan. 25, 1944 by Bishop Ronald Hall. Her ordination was a “remarkable achievement,” as she entered priesthood at a time “when there was no role model to follow,” noted Mandy Marshall, director for gender justice at the Anglican Communion Office.

The cultural ensemble New York Taiko Aiko Kai rendered a high-energy Japanese drumming performance as a prelude to the festive event at the cathedral. New York Bishop Matthew Heyd offered opening remarks.

“The grace of the prophets open space for which the Holy Spirit might move,” Heyd said. “Li Tim-Oi is one of those prophets.” 

Western Oregon Bishop Diana Akiyama honored the late Anglican priest in her sermon. “As first, she [Li] represents to Asian women the promise and possibilities of God working in us and through us,” said Akiyama, the first female Asian bishop in The Episcopal Church. She noted being first has an attached sense of duty and responsibility to it, but one “can be easily distracted and misled by this” without a healthy view of oneself. After all, she added, “The power of one’s incarnate identity finds its culmination in the ultimate identity as God’s beloved.”

Later in the service, Akiyama and the Rev. Fran Toy, the first female Chinese priest in The Episcopal Church, offered Communion. Toy, who also served as celebrant, met Li several times, including as a teenager in 1948 and at a Women’s Witnessing Community event at the 1988 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops.

“It took a full 50 years before the Church of England followed the lead of Anglicans in Hong Kong,” said Ralph Norman, who is on the faculty at Canterbury Christ Church University in England, in a statement. Today, most of the Anglican Communion’s 42 provinces allow women to become priests.

The special service, held during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, showcased Asian cultural diversity. “We tried to embrace as many cultural music [selections] as possible,” said Jie Yie, the music director.

The offertory anthem was sung in English and Bahasa, followed by a performance on sitar, a traditional South Asian instrument. The post-Communion hymn, with the melody of “Joyful, Joyful,” had lyrics originally written by Janet Yieh, music director of Church of the Heavenly Rest and the service’s organist.

Li is celebrated in The Episcopal Church’s cycle of Lesser Feasts and Fasts on Jan, 24 each year. Celebrations for the 80th anniversary of her ordination are being led by the dioceses of New York, Los Angeles and California, said Yvonne O’Neal, member of the planning committee and a lay leader from New York.

The Rev. Pamela Tang, a deacon who serves as interim missioner for The Episcopal Church’s Asiamerica Ministries, noted the New York service is one of a series of diocesan events celebrating the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women, referring to the ordination of the “Philadelphia Eleven” in 1974.

In the 1930s, Li attended Union Theological College in China with the support of her church, as her family couldn’t afford the tuition. In 1994, when the Church of England allowed women to be ordained priests, her sister, Rita Lee Chiu, and Hall’s son, Christopher Hall, established the Li Tim-Oi Foundation to financially support women from the developing world to attend Anglican seminaries.

The Rev. Cristina Reese, the foundation’s executive director, participated in the May 10 service. “As Christians, we should understand God’s will. God created both male and female,” Reese said, reading from Li’s memoir, Raindrops of my Life. “And we are all his children. He surely wants his children to work with each other and support each other in making heaven on earth a reality.”

Marshall, of the Anglican Communion Office, noted the opposition to Li’s ordination that led her to stop officiating as a priest in Macau, where she had ministered after ordination. After suffering through the Cultural Revolution in China and emigrating to Canada, her priesthood was fully recognized by the Anglican Church of Canada in 1984.

The Rev. Bruce Woodcock, partnership officer for Asia and the Pacific of The Episcopal Church, told Episcopal News Service that events like the special service help educate the church about the importance of empowering women. Toy made similar points about the significance of Li’s ordination eight decades ago.

“If she hadn’t been ordained, I don’t know how long it will take for The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion to ordain any women at all,” she said. She recalls the message women leaders conveyed to the Anglican bishops in 1988 at the Lambeth Conference, with Li present.

The message, Toy said, was, “Here are these priests from different parts of the Anglican Communion, and their churches have done well with women. We have this to offer. God has gifted us just as much as God has gifted men.”

— Caleb Galaraga is a freelance writer and journalist based in New York City. His work has appeared in The Jerusalem Post, the Times of Israel, Rappler and The Algemeiner Journal.