The Priest Florence Li Tim-Oi and the Ungenerous Communion

Yesterday was the feast day for Florence Li Tim-Oi, the first woman ordained priest in the Anglican Communion. She was ordained in 1944.

The Windsor Report mentions her ordination briefly as “background” to what it wanted to have us reflect upon, namely the decision making processes involved. Bishop Ann Tottenham would later say of this section of the Windsor Report that it “is a breath-taking re-writing of Anglican history that few women would recognize.”

In remembering The Rev. Florence Li Tim-Oi, priest of the church, we remember a woman whose story was considered even in the recent past (2004) as secondary to the story of Anglican decision making processes. 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.

Here is what the Windsor Report had to say about the matter:

“(par) 12. The story of ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate provides us with a recent example of mutual discernment and decision-making within the Anglican Communion.

“13. The background to the story was a period of debate and disagreement both before and after the ordination to the priesthood of Florence Li Tim-Oi in 1944. The story gathered pace in 1968, when the Diocese of Hong Kong & Macao brought the question of women’s ordination to the priesthood to the Lambeth Conference. The Conference was not ready to respond because, as it stated in Resolution 34, “The Conference affirms its opinion that the theological arguments as at present presented for and against the ordination of women to the priesthood are inconclusive”. The Conference recommended that before any regional or national church or province made a final decision to ordain women to the priesthood they should consider carefully the advice of the Anglican Consultative Council.

“14. The Bishop of Hong Kong & Macao sought out the advice of the Anglican Consultative Council at its first meeting (in Limuru, Kenya) in 1970. After lengthy debate the Anglican Consultative Council advised the Bishop of Hong Kong & Macao that if, with the approval of his Synod, he were to proceed to the ordination of a woman his action would be acceptable to the Council, and that the Council would use its good offices to encourage all provinces of the

Communion to continue in communion with that Diocese. The resolution passed (for: 24; against: 22).

“15. What needs to be noted is that Hong Kong did not understand itself to be so autonomous that it might proceed without bringing the matter to the Anglican Consultative Council as requested by the Lambeth Conference 1968. Furthermore, action was only taken with the co-operation of the Instruments of Unity.”

This is what Bishop Tottenham had to say about this bit of historical rewrite:

“Section A (of the Windsor Report) deals with background material and sets the scene for the principles and recommendations which follow. One of the topics, "Recent mutual discernment within the Communion" is presented to show that the Anglican Communion has dealt successfully in the past with controversial issues. Its thesis is that existing Anglican Communion "Instruments of Unity"- the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lambeth Conference, the Anglican Consultative Council, and the Primates' Meeting - provide the structure for dealing with major changes in the Anglican tradition.

“The story of the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate provides us with a recent example of mutual discernment and decision-making within the Anglican Communion." (WR A.12) In fact, this section is a breath-taking re-writing of Anglican history that few women would recognize as either helpful or appropriate.

The story begins with the ordination of Florence Li Tim Oi in Hong Kong in 1944. The Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II meant that Anglican priests were prevented from crossing to the unoccupied colony of Macao to bring the sacraments to the people there. Faced with this pastoral crisis Bishop Hall decided to ordain Tim Oi who was already serving as a deacon in Macao.

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. She surrendered her licence to practise as a priest and continued her faithful service to the church in China as far as she could through terrible years of suffering during the Cultural Revolution.

Finally, in 1971 the newly formed Anglican Consultative Council, which included lay people as well as priests and bishops, met in Kenya and voted by a narrow margin to allow the diocese of Hong Kong to ordain women. Tim Oi now in her 70's was able to resume her priestly ministry and we were honoured to have her spend her final years in Canada. In light of her lonely suffering and rejection by the Anglican Communion, the use of Tim Oi's experience as an example of the effective working of the various "Instruments of Unity" shows, to say the least, disrespect for a courageous woman.

The real lesson which Anglicans can learn from the on-going struggle over the ordination of women is not the one cited in the Windsor Report (A.21) which says that "decision-making in the Communion on serious and contentious issues has been, and can be, carried out without division, despite a measure of impairment". 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.”

Bishop Tottenham is right. So let us remember the story of this Priest, The Rev. Florence Li Tim Oi, and remember too the lesson of injustice, of “endless postponement and inequitable treatment that it contains.”


  1. Lee Tuck-Leong25/1/07 11:00 AM

    Thank you Mark. It was extremely moving reading Morning Prayers on her feast day: The psalm appointed felicitously captured her voice.

    The proud have derided me cruelly *
    but I have not turned from your law.

    Your statutes have been like songs to me*
    wherever I have lived as a stranger. (Ps 119: 51, 54)

  2. Li Tim Oi was a close friend of mine in the early 80's when she first arrived from China to retire with her brother, and later her sister, here in Toronto. We were both clergy at St John's Chinese Congregation. I organized the celebration of her 40th anniversary in 2004, in part to alert the broader church to her reappearance.

    I was studying church history at Trinity College, and this allowed me access to the handwritten records of Lambeth 1948.

    So I know a lot about Li Tim Oi's own story and the immediately subsequent story of Lambeth, and I have spoken at length with Joyce Bennett, who was ordained in HK in 1971.

    Windsor's take is an unrecognizable distortion of the record. Bishop Hall ordained her without anyone's permission because he felt that it was untenable to have someone who was not a priest celebrating and because it was untenable to leave his people without the comfort and strength of the eucharist. He wrote to William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to advise him of his urgent pastoral need. Before Temple's response reached him, Li Moksi was already a priest.

    When the bishops finally felt it was safe enough to gather in 1948, there was a great deal of outrage about what had happened. Li Tim Oi resigned her license because of her deep affection for Bishop Hall. However, she did not remain in HK, but stayed in what soon became Red China, and continued to teach at Nanking Theological Seminary until it was closed in the 50's. Christo[her Hall cites reports of her appearing at the eucharist in a priest's stole during this period. I recall that she told me that she functioned as a priest during this period, as the arm of Lambeth did not reach through the bamboo curtain.

    She survived much adversity during the Cultural Revolution. When the churched became legal again in the 70's, there were no young clergy, just those who had been trained 30 or more years previously. +KH Ting had a brave and strong work horse in Li Tim Oi, so she started to lead bible studies, preach and celebrate as soon as the churches started to regather.

    She told me explicitly that she had never resigned her orders, and this is consistent with the attitude of Bishop Ting and of the dozens of people I knew from southeast China who had always known her as a priest. There was no discontinuity in her orders, in large part because the Communists cut off Chinese Christians from outside contact and control for so long.

    And a church in danger and without the freedom to gather, whether during the Japanese occupation or the Cultural Revolution, needed the strength of witnesses such as Li Tim Oi.

    The pastoral reality, the needs of the people, and the demands of the gospel of Jesus Christ, were what drove Li Tim Oi. Not compliance with a bishop in Britain whom she would never see.

    I should also note that she was completely supportive of me and my partner in our evolution as a lesbian family: when I told her about our first child, conceived using AI, she said she knew all about that. Our baby was a miracle baby, one truly given by God. One of my most precious pictures is of Li Tim Oi and my wee daughter, both laughing.

    Li Tim Oi could see where God was calling her and she went. She never presumed that God's spirit called anyone to remain still.

  3. Thanks - we need more re-membering of our stories - lest those in power dis-member them.

  4. Alison,
    I looked up her story on the Wikipedia site, and it is rather thin. Would you consider adopting the article?

  5. This story has something to tell about the Father of Lies - and Oh! Gentle Witness!

    Horrible beyond words.

    (I'll mark her day in my calendar)

  6. Great article! Wonderful testimony to the love of our God for this courageous, committed woman. Obviously His was the hand that guided her and held her close during all this turmoil! And still, we have such a long way to go!
    Char Camfield, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, Wyoming, MI, Diocese of Western Michigan

  7. I am not sure Why I'm wondering, but if anyone knows stories of her exemplifying Christ acceptance of sex workers or of abortion, I'd be grateful


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