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Li Tim-Oi celebrated in 80th-anniversary service

02 February 2024

In 1944, she became the first woman priest in the Anglican Communion

Francis Martin/Church Times

Members of the Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir, with an icon of Florence Li Tim-Oi

Members of the Soul Sanctuary Gospel Choir, with an icon of Florence Li Tim-Oi

A CONGREGATION gathered in St Martin-in-the-Fields, in London, on Thursday of last week, to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the ordination of Florence Li Tim-Oi, the first woman priest in the Anglican Communion.

She was ordained on 25 January 1944, in wartime, by the Bishop of Hong Kong, the Rt Revd Ronald Hall, having been born and grown up as an Anglican in the British colony. By then, it was, with southern China, under Japanese occupation, which meant that the people were being deprived of holy communion. In later life, her ordination was recognised, and she was awarded honorary doctorates of divinity before her death in Canada in 1992.

The Bishop of Dover, the Rt Revd Rose Hudson-Wilkin, in her sermon last week, described the courage that Li Tim-Oi showed during the occupation, but also in the face of opposition to her vocation.

At a reception, Bishop Hall’s son Canon Christopher Hall recalled the Church Times headline on its editorial objecting to his father’s action — “A Bishop in Insurrection” — and the pressure that was put on him to resign, which relented only when Li Tim-Oi opted to return her licence.

Canon Hall is the founder of the Li Tim-Oi Foundation, which has helped more than 700 women in the Anglican Communion to receive theological education.

“For decades, women have had to be the generous ones,” Bishop Hudson-Wilkin said in her sermon. The hierarchy of the Church “showed no respect for her: all they could think of was that they were right. . . The respectable leaders of the Church failed to recognise the Lord at work.”

Bishop Hall’s granddaughter, the Revd Frances Shoesmith, who is a Team Vicar of Wigan, presided at the service, attended by around 150 people — most of them women — whom Bishop Hudson-Wilkin urged to be faithful to their calling.

After the service, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, reflected on the experience of singing in unison with a mainly female congregation, and the position of women priests and bishops in the Church of England.

“Rightly, churches are mixed, with a great diversity, but there is something about being able to hear the women’s voices which is always moving. I think it’s because there are so many voices, and some of them have struggled to be heard over many years, and to hear them is just a joy.”

Bishop Mullally said that it was important to “celebrate the gift” of women’s ministry in this year’s 30th anniversary of the ordination of women in the C of E, and to recognise the “difficult journey” that some had faced, while at the same time valuing those who did not agree with the ordination of women.

“The settled position of the Church of England is that we accept that we have the orders of priests, deacons, and bishops into which women are able to be ordained, and seeing the flourishing of all,” she said.

Speaking to the Church Times at the reception after the service, however, Bishop Hudson-Wilkin said: “It was an error of judgement, and I think history will prove it.” She reiterated her concern, made at last summer’s meeting of the General Synod, that the C of E might attempt a comparable settlement in relation to blessings for same-sex couples (News, 14 July 2023).

Others at the reception, including the first woman to be ordained priest in the Church of England, Prebendary Angela Berners-Wilson, then one of the Bristol cohort of ordinands, spoke of warm memories of encounters with Li Tim Oi. They also recalled stories of those helped by the foundation in her name: priests, including the Revd Purity Munyiri, whose theological education is helping to inspire teenage girls in the community to which she ministers (News, 12 January).

Li Tim-Oi’s cultural heritage was also celebrated during the service; the Lord’s Prayer was read in Cantonese by the Vicar of St Francis of Assisi, North Radford, in Coventry, the Revd Agnes Palairet.

One of the trustees of the Li Tim-Oi Foundation, the Revd Mark Nam, who formerly ministered in Hong Kong and, in 2021, founded the Teahouse network for Chinese-heritage clergy in the C of E (News, 20 August 2021), has launched a petition calling on the Church of England’s calendar to include Li Tim-Oi. She is remembered with a minor feast in the Episcopal Church in the United States on 24 January, and a commemoration in the Anglican Church of Canada on 26 February.

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