St Martin-in-the-Fields, Dick Sheppard Chapel, Reverend Dr Florence Li Tim-Oi icon, by sister Ellen Francis Poisson

Image by Andy Scott on Wikimedia Commons. Adapted by The Christian Citizen. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

What does it take to serve God in tough times?

March 7, 2024

Who was the first woman ordained as an Anglican priest? Initially, I thought it was the Episcopal women ordained in the United States in the 1970s. I remember hearing about those women as a teenager. Their courage sparked my imagination before I ever thought of ordination myself.

However, I recently learned about Florence Li Tim-Oi who was, in fact, the first woman ordained as a priest in the Anglican Communion. Born Li Tim-Oi in Hong Kong in 1907, she took the name Florence at her baptism, in honor of Florence Nightingale. She experienced a call to be a deacon as a young woman, in a service at St. John’s Cathedral in Hong Kong in 1931. She studied theology in Canton in the 1930s, where the Japanese were regularly bombing. A student leader, she organized a first aid team to help the victims. She was ordained as a deacon in 1941.

During World War II, Li Tim-Oi ministered in the Portuguese colony of Macau, where there was no Anglican priest. She was given permission to administer the sacraments. There, she served many war refugees. Finally, the Bishop of Hong Kong, Raymond Hall, met her in unoccupied China. He examined and then ordained her. Many in that town came to her ordination, including the local Baptist pastor. As a Baptist, I was delighted to hear that. (Learn more about her story here.) The 80th anniversary of her ordination just took place on January 25, 2024. Special services were held at the church of St. Martin in the Fields in London and at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

 After the war, Li Tim-Oi decided she would not exercise her priesthood until it was accepted more widely. She continued to minister as a deacon, serving in South China. In 1951, the church she served, St. Barnabas in Hepu, was closed by the government. She was forced to attend a “re-education” school for clergy in Beijing. She later said she entered a dark period then, even considering suicide. After that, she said, she was “touched by the Holy Spirit.” She heard God speak to her and say, “Are you a wise woman? You are a priest!” She was then exiled to do farm labor and later to factory labor.

The challenges I faced in my own life as a woman in ministry faded to nothing as I learned about the life story of Florence Li Tim-Oi for the first time.

Over 30 years later, in 1983, Li Tim-Oi was able to emigrate to Canada where she had relatives. In 1984, on the 40th anniversary of her ordination, she was reinstated to the priesthood. She ministered as a priest to Chinese Anglicans in Toronto for another eight years until her death in 1992. She worked there with Father Edmund Der. He remembers that the night before her death at age 84, she was making calls of encouragement to church members. She is honored on the Episcopal Church calendar of saints on the date of her ordination, January 25.

The challenges I faced in my own life as a woman in ministry faded to nothing as I learned about this story for the first time. American Baptists have a much longer history of ordaining women than the Anglican Communion. Still, I struggled as a young woman in the 1980s to find a place to pastor. I had to move across the country to do so. The persistent, patient, and faithful service of Florence Li Tim-Oi continues to inspire and encourage me. 

Women in ministry have a long way to go, in the United States and around the world. However, opportunities for women have increased significantly since 1944, and since 1988 when I was ordained. There have been many Anglican female bishops, including six African women bishops ordained since 2012. Pope Francis has engaged in serious discussions about the role of women in the church. He even invited a woman Anglican bishop, Bishop Jo Bailey Wells of the Church of England, to join the conversation last month.

Florence Li Tim-Oi’s example encourages me in my own ministry of helping pastors navigate the challenges they face these days. She is one of the “great cloud of witnesses” of Hebrews 12. I imagine her cheering on those who toil in ministry in these difficult times, especially women. 

Rev. Margaret Marcuson helps ministers do their work without wearing out or burning out, through ministry coaching, presentations and online resources.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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