This column first appeared in the March issue of the Anglican Journal.
In the foreword to the book entitled Audacious Anglicans, written by Canadians Ralph Moore and the late Gerald Rayner, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote:
“What the Body of Christ really is only appears as you tell the stories of how he has been real in this or that specific life…We need these human narratives. They show us what it means to be Christ-like in the difficult and diverse settings of a world where real discipleship is itself always controversial and often unwelcome.”
One of the compelling stories in the book that illustrates beautifully Archbishop Rowan’s words is that of Florence Li Tim-Oi. On January 25, 1944, Bishop Ronald Hall, discerning a match between wartime need and a uniquely gifted person, ordained the humble Hong-Kong-born Li Tim-Oi, the church’s first woman priest.
In celebrating the 70th anniversary of her ordination, I am reminded of the enormous price that she paid. Her ordination was condemned by Archbishop of Canterbury Geoffrey Fisher, The Church of England, the Lambeth Conference of 1948 and the Chinese House of Bishops. Her response to all of this? As Rayner and Moore put it, “With her characteristic humility she surrendered her license. With her characteristic tenacity she maintained her priestly status for life.” In 1979, Tim-Oi was once again able to exercise her priestly ministry within the Anglican Church of Canada, and she spent her last years in Toronto.
The Windsor Report in 2004 retold the story of Li Tim-Oi’s ordination to the priesthood as an example of mutual discernment and decision making within the Anglican Communion. The now retired diocese of Toronto Bishop Ann Tottenham took such umbrage with that section of the report that she wrote in her 2005 A Reflection on the Windsor Report: “In fact, this section is a breath-taking re-writing of Anglican history that few women would recognize.” She continues, “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 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.”
While Li Tim-Oi’s ministry as a priest in Canada was significant and historic, the church here should not get too puffed up about the role of women in the church. Our feature on pages 6 and 7 highlights some of the challenges that women clergy still encounter in Canada. Within the Anglican Communion, some provinces still forbid the ordination of women and debate continues over allowing women to be bishops.
Who are today’s Florence Li Tim-Oi’s? Her personal struggles may have ended years ago, but the reality is that there are others like her, who face barriers and resistance when they try to respond to what God is calling them to do and to be. What gifts and talents is the church missing as a result, and most importantly, how will the church respond?
Archdeacon A. Paul Feheley is interim managing editor of the Anglican Journal.