Editor’s note: This article is the fourth in our 2021 Black History Month and Women’s History Month series. During February and March, the Mutuality Blog will publish articles about Black women and women of color throughout Christian history, to tell and retell the stories of our foremothers of the faith who are often overlooked or misrepresented by history books. We hope this series will inspire you to continue learning more about the egalitarian women who fought for their God-ordained equality and the ways we can continue the work they began.
On January 12, 2021 Rev. Dr. Emily Onyango was appointed as the first woman bishop in the Anglican Church of Kenya. As we celebrate her appointment and await her consecration with anticipation, we also remember those who have gone before her in the long struggle to women’s ordination.
The Anglican Communion has three orders of ordained clergy: deacons, priests, and—at the highest order—bishops. The pursuit of women’s ordination has faced obstacles at each level.
The first deaconess, Elizabeth Katherine Ferard, was ordained in the Church of England in 1861. However, deacons and deaconesses were separate orders, the latter not considered part of the diaconate until the 1968 Lambeth Conference—a decennial gathering of Anglican bishops to discuss current church and world affairs.
In 1971, Hong Kong and Macau was the first province to permit the ordination of women to priesthood. Seven years later in 1978, the Anglican Communion decided that each church could make its own decision on the ordination of women to priesthood. It would take the Church of England another 14 years to permit it (1992) and another two years to ordain their first women priests (1994). The first province to permit the ordination of women bishops was the United States in 1974. Fifteen years later in 1989, Bishop Barbara Harris—a Black woman—was ordained as the first Anglican woman bishop.
Between the ordination of the first deaconess (1861) and the ordination of the first woman bishop (1989) was the ordination of the first woman priest—a woman whose controversial ordination sparked the revival of the discussion on women’s ordination within the entire Anglican Communion.
That woman was Florence Tim Oi Li, a Chinese woman from Hong Kong, who was ordained as a priest in 1944—nearly 30 years before it was permitted in her province and 50 years before the ordination of the first woman priests in the Church of England.
This two-part series is a glimpse into the life, faith, and ministry of the first Anglican woman priest.
The Road to Ministry
Florence Tim Oi Li was born on May 5, 1907 in Hong Kong, a British colony at that time. Her father often invited pastors—both men and women1—to their house to preach. It was in her early childhood years that Li fell in love with Christianity.
In 1931, Li attended the ordination of Deaconess Lucy Vincent at the Cathedral Church of St. John, Hong Kong. The preacher declared, “Here today we have an English lady who is willing to sacrifice herself for the Chinese church. Is there a Chinese girl who would be willing to do the same?”2 As Li heard these words, she felt God calling her through Isaiah 6:8—“Here I am, send me.”
Following this call, Li pursued theological education. From 1934–1938, Li studied at Union Theological College in Canton (a region in southern China known today as Guangzhou). The Second Sino-Japanese War began partway through her studies, and Japanese air raids bombed Chinese cities into submission.3 Li said of that time, “They dropped hundreds of bombs… The bombs came to our area, and many workers were killed.”4
Still, the dangers of war did not stop her from leading and serving. She chaired the college student movement and even led first aid teams into the city, where they were nearly killed by the bombs.
Li returned to Hong Kong after finishing her studies and, for the next two years, worked as a lay leader at a local parish, led youth group, prepared couples for marriage, organized confirmation classes, made visitations, and received refugees fleeing the Japanese raids in Canton.
The Road to Ordination
As the war progressed, the Japanese occupied more and more Chinese land around Hong Kong and Macau, a small Portuguese colony located across the Pearl River from Hong Kong. Macau’s Anglican parishes had been served by visiting clergy who travelled from southern China.
In 1940, when travel to and from Macau became too dangerous for clergymen, Li was appointed to full-time ministry there. The following year she was ordained as the first Chinese woman deacon—ten years after God called her during the ordination of Deaconess Lucy Vincent.
As a deaconess, her job was to assist the priest, read scriptures and homilies, and teach youth Catechism classes. She could even baptize, preach, and officiate marriages and funerals if a priest was not able to be there.
That same year, Hong Kong fell to the Japanese and refugees poured into Macau. When it became too dangerous for the visiting priest from Hong Kong to journey to Macau to perform the Eucharist, Li was authorized to do it due to “exceptional wartime circumstances.” Her biography records that “for two years, [Li] worked as a priest in all but name.” Bishop Ronald Hall, the bishop in her area, “decided that, if Li was doing the work of a priest, she should be ordained priest.”5
In 1944, Bishop Hall ordained Li as the first woman priest in the Anglican Communion. As he did, he stressed that the priesthood was a vocation for life. Li took this commitment to heart.
After, Bishop Hall wrote to William Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to tell of Li’s ordination. Archbishop Temple did not approve, but Bishop Hall refused to ask Li to resign, so Temple tried a different tactic. Li was told, “The bishops at the Lambeth Conference will not accept your ordination. Either [Bishop Hall] resigns or you forfeit the title of priest.”
In 1946, two years after her ordination, Li wrote to Hall: “I would like to keep quiet to help the church. You are an important man, I am a mere worm, a tiny little worm,” and with that she forfeited her title of priest.6
Nevertheless, Li never forfeited her commitment to her calling.
Pausing in the Tension
The rest of Li’s story will be told in part two, but for now let us pause and let her story soak in. Take a few deep breaths if you need to, especially if you are enraged and heartbroken, like I am, about Li’s coerced forfeiture.
Li devoted herself to serving her communities, parishes, and hundreds of refugees during extremely traumatic wartime circumstances. She faithfully did the work of a priest before, during, and after her ordination. Ultimately, her dedication to her calling was greater than her dedication to her title, so much so that she humbly forfeited her title of “priest” to preserve Bishop Hall’s position.
I am angry and grieved that women have had to and still have to minimize themselves to protect “important men.” Li’s choice, while immensely admirable, is not the choice for everyone. I sit with the tension of prioritizing calling over title, while also firmly believing that titles affirm and honor God’s calling in women’s lives. Especially when these titles have historically been kept from them! I do not know what I would do if I were in Li’s position, but I can guarantee I would not have taken it as well as she did.
At the same time, I am hopeful. Hopeful because the sacrifice and suffering of women, like Li, are not for nothing. Li was a pioneer in Anglican women’s ordination so that Rev. Dr. Emily Onyango and others could follow God’s calling more freely.
Now I pray that we, with the same boldness, dedication, and conviction as Li, will continue to light the path for those who come after us.
Li’s story is not finished yet. Stay tuned for part two coming next week! In the meantime, you can join CBE in celebrating Emily’s appointment to bishop by helping to financially support the consecration ceremony. Click here to contribute!
1. There is a long legacy of female Chinese evangelists and ministers—called Bible Women—who laid the foundations for a self-sustainable Chinese Church. Christy Chia, "The Lasting Impact of Chinese Bible Women, 1860–1949," WCIU Journal (2020). https://wciujournal.wciu.edu/women-in-international-development/2020/12/4/the-lasting-impact-of-chinese-bible-women-18601949.
2. Florence Tim Oi Li and Ted Harrison, Much Beloved Daughter (London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd., 1985), 17.
3. The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) would later become part of World War II (1939-1945).
4. Ibid., 24.
5. Ibid., 34, 40.
6. Ibid., 51, 52.