EDS alumna honors Florence Li Tim-Oi at Episcopal Church Center

EDS alumna, the Rev. Ada Wong-Nagata, preached the following homily at the Episcopal Church Center on January 24th, the Feast Day of Florence Li Tim-Oi. Florence Li Tim-Oi is recognized as being the first woman ordained a priest in the Anglican Communion. In the homily, Rev. Nagata noted that Li Tim-Oi “suffered from the ‘Purple Guards’ who decried her orders. She suffered from the ‘Red Guards’ who made her cut up her vestments with scissors'... However, she remained a priest God called her to be and she said that was what sustained her during the persecution."

Homily at the Episcopal Church Center on the Feast Day of Li Tim-Oi

God has good sense of humor. To be honest, sometimes I feel that God has wicked sense of humor. Pardon me, God. Can you imagine? You think you are called to be a priest to feed people spiritually, but you ended up feeding the chickens in a farm!

This is the story of the Rev. Florence Li Tim-Oi, whose Feast Day we are celebrating today.

The Rev. Li was a faithful, courageous, and inspiring woman. In a 3-5-minute homily, I can only share a very brief part of her life with you.

Tim-Oi was born and raised in Hong Kong in 1907, and I am proud to say, that’s my home town.

I must say that Li’s father was a very progressive man. In a patriarchal society of her time, boys were more important than girls, you think it has changed much? When she was born, most parents would be disappointed that she’s not a boy. But not her father. He said God had graced him with more love through a daughter. So he named her “Tim-Oi”, that means much beloved daughter.

The Rev. Li felt the call to Holy Orders after attending the ordination of a deaconess. She finished four-year theological training and eventually ordained as an Anglican deacon in 1941. Later she was sent to minister at Morrison Chapel in Macau, which is on the south coast of China, a Portuguese colony in her time.

That was around the time of WWII. Tim-Oi’s ministry included feeding the hungry, both spiritually and physically. One time she held gatherings in a large middle school. After few meetings, 72 girls asked to be prepared to be baptized. Her bishop said that he had not seen other male priests do that in the Anglican Church in South China.

Early in her life, the Rev. Li was inspired by the nurse Florence Nightingale, so she chose her baptized name as Florence. Of course, God had a different healing idea for her. While at Morrison Chapel, she not only held worship services there but also used the campus to tend the sick.

Since Tim-Oi was a deacon, once a month or so, a male priest came from Hong Kong to celebrate the Eucharist for her until Japanese occupied Hong Kong and part of China. As a result the priests could no longer travel to Macau. The Assisting Bishop licensed her to celebrate Holy Communion as a deacon. However, the bishop Diocesan, the Right Rev. Ronald Hall thought that was like a lay celebration and would like the communion to be properly administered. He felt that “God had already given to her the charisma of priesthood”. He then arranged to meet Tim-Oi at the free part of China. On January 25, 1944, they both made history - the first woman was ordained a priest in the whole Anglican Communion - not a tradition of the Anglican Church at that time. 

After the war, the men who wore “purple shirts”, so-called “Purple Guards” pressured both Bishop Hall and Tim-Oi to take away her title. Tim-Oi, both a faithful priest and a Chinese woman, wanted to both make peace in the church and not against God’s will. She took the middle way to resign her license and had the courage to stand firm not to resign from the Holy Orders.

During the Cultural Revolution, for a period Tim-Oi was sent by the “Red Guards” to work on a farm where she became “Captain of Chickens”.

As the publication, It Takes One Woman[i] says that Tim-Oi “suffered from the ‘Purple Guards’ who decried her orders. She suffered from the ‘Red Guards’ who made her cut up her vestments with scissors”, you may say among the wolves. However, she remained a priest God called her to be and she said that was what sustained her during the persecution.

Tim-Oi was finally recognized as a priest in 1971 in the Church of England when two other women were ordained priests in Hong Kong. Tim-Oi once said that “Christianity was the gift of the West to the East, and her ordination was a gift from the East to the West.”[ii]

The Rev. Li died in 1992 in Toronto where she resided after her retirement from China. The Episcopal Church set January 24 - the eve of her ordination to the priesthood as her Feast Day.

Thank you God for calling Florence Li Tim-Oi, much-beloved daughter, to be a priest in our Communion and be the inspiration for so many women and men. Amen.

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[i] It Takes One Woman. The Rev. Dr. Florence Li Tim-Oi. http://www.ittakesonewoman.org/docs/litimoi_story.pdf[ii] Ibid