As part of Resolution 21-04 of our diocesan convention in 2021, we agreed to lift up the stories of Asians, to protect Asians from racist persecution, and to nurture understanding of Asian peoples and cultures through prayer and liturgy, among other ways. One of the great heroes of the Anglican Communion is Li Tim-Oi of China, the first woman to be ordained to the priesthood in the Anglican Communion. And yet, few people know her story.
Li Tim-Oi became a Christian as a young woman in Hong Kong and chose the baptismal name of Florence after Florence Nightingale, the famous nurse known as the Lady of the Lamp. Florence Li Tim-Oi became another Lady of the Lamp, bearing the light of Christ into war-torn territories. And so it is fitting that we share these materials on the Feast of the Epiphany.
Li Tim-Oi was first ordained a deacon on Ascension Day in 1941. Her diocese was Macau, which was occupied by the Japanese during World War II. By 1944, the Anglican Church was reluctant to send male priests behind enemy lines into Macau, and so Li Tim-Oi conducted worship services, burials, weddings, and baptisms and arranged for food and clothing for the poorest in her diocese.
Recognizing her priestly gifts, Bishop Raymond Hall of Hong Kong ordained her as a priest to add sacramental duties to her very full plate, acknowledging that she was the only person willing to serve in the most dangerous of territories. He informed the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, explaining that he was doing this out of dire need.
When the war ended, controversy erupted over the ordination of a woman to the priesthood, and to spare her bishop trouble, Li Tim-Oi agreed to surrender her priest’s license—but not her priestly orders. She continued to serve the church in China until the Communist Revolution, and for decades she was persecuted in reeducation camps for her Christian beliefs and practices.
Eventually, she was allowed to leave China, and she moved to Canada in 1983. By that time, the Anglican Church in Canada was ordaining women, and she joyfully resumed her priestly duties.
How can we lift up and celebrate this brave and groundbreaking priest who went where others feared to tread? She was as fearless as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—but without the news coverage.
Here are some thoughts. She is honored with a feast day on January 24 in the Book of Lesser Feasts and Fasts, where you will find a collect and readings to share during a Daily Office.
We can incorporate stories about her in our church newsletters, in sermons, in small group discussions, in Bible studies, and in youth group meetings. Here’s the longest online biography of her.
We can pray for the vocations of more Asians to both lay and ordained leadership positions in the Anglican Communion. And we can donate to the Li Tim-Oi Foundation, which was founded to fund the theological education and training of women in the Two-Thirds World.
Almighty God, who pours out your Spirit upon your sons and daughters: Grant that we, following the example of your servant Florence Li Tim-Oi, chosen priest in your church, may with faithfulness, patience, and tenacity proclaim your holy gospel to all the nations, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
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