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Christian Women in Chinese Society: The Anglican story, edited by Wai Ching Angela Wong and Patricia P. K. Chiu

12 April 2019

William Jacob considers the crucial step that led to women’s ordination

WHY did Hong Kong, one of the smallest Anglican dioceses, pioneer the ordination of women as priests? These essays provide an insightful answer. They illustrate how an ancient Judaeo-Christian pattern has been repeated: an event on the margin comes to transform the centre. Within 45 years of the first regular ordination of women as priests in a small and distant colonial diocese, the face of ordained ministry in the Anglican Communion was transformed.

Anglican missionaries entered China with the opium trade, under pressure from Western imperial powers in the 1840s. This coincided with the emergence of a desire among some women to serve God beyond family life, and missionary societies gradually began recruiting single women as missionaries. British, American, Canadian, and mostly Evangelical missionary societies, focusing on health, social care, and education to witness to the saving grace of God in Christ, sent women to work as nurses and teachers in the challenging context of patriarchal China. There, Christianity was associated with the alien and exploitative West.

Some women missionaries trained peasant women converts to infiltrate home life, in which women were confined, and bridge the cultural gap between foreign missionaries and Chinese society.

The Anglican Holy Catholic Church of China (CHSKH), established in 1912, inherited a tradition of deaconesses from the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, and, in the 1920s, Bishop John Hind of Fukien encouraged educated Chinese women to become deaconesses.

Exceptionally, in 1940, Li Tim Oi was placed in charge of the Anglican parish in Macau, a colony of neutral Portugal, flooded with refugees from Japanese-occupied China and Hong Kong. Because of the impossibility of providing a priest to administer sacraments there, Bishop Hall summoned her to smuggle herself out of Macau to be ordained priest in 1944. He reported his emergency action to Archbishop William Temple. Her work on Macau flourished.

After the war, the CHSKH bishops repudiated Hall’s action, and Li resigned, but the Hong Kong diocesan synod sent a resolution to the CHSKH synod in 1947 proposing the ordination of women as priests for an experimental 20-year period. Most Chinese members supported it, but expatriate clergy mostly opposed it, and it was forwarded to the 1948 Lambeth Conference.

After the 1968 Lambeth Conference, which noted the inconclusive theological arguments for and against the ordination of women as priests, and encouraged Churches to study the matter, in 1971, the Hong Kong diocesan synod passed a resolution approving in principle the ordination of women as priests.

Bishop Baker consulted widely in parishes, and the Anglican Consultative Council confirmed that his action would be acceptable to the Council. The Council of the Church in South-East Asia neither supported nor objected; so Bishop Baker proceeded to ordain deaconesses Jane Hwang and Joyce Bennett priest.

This, it is suggested, happened in Hong Kong because there was a small cadre of able professional women with experience of ministry, who had played a significant part in developing the colony’s social and human resources, were well-respected, and had not campaigned for women’s ordination. Hong Kong Anglicans were mostly entrepreneurial, middle-class migrants, welcoming alternative values, including gender equality, who engaged with Anglicanism as an established Church, which was becoming Chinese and modern.

This is an important book. It is not necessarily an easy read, but should be in the library of every theological college and course.

The Ven. Dr William Jacob is a former Archdeacon of Charing Cross and has written extensively about the social history of religion, including the Anglican Communion, in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Christian Women in Chinese Society: The Anglican story
Wai Ching Angela Wong and Patricia P. K. Chiu, editors
Hong Kong University Press £45
Church Times Bookshop £40.50

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