Editor’s note: This article is the fifth 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.
Previously on “Florence Li: Pioneer in the Anglican Priesthood”…
Last week, we were introduced to Florence Tim Oi Li, a woman from Hong Kong, who became the first woman ordained as priest in the Anglican Communion. Li ministered in Hong Kong and Macau during the chaos of the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II. She was ordained first as deacon (1941) and then as priest (1944) but forfeited her priestly title due to pressure from church leaders in England.
Picking her story back up this week, we will look at how Li’s story ends. Will she get the recognition she deserved in her lifetime? Will she get to practice as an ordained priest? Let’s find out!
The Long Road to Recognition
A year or so after the war ended and Li forfeited her title, Bishop Hall sent Li to rebuild a parish in the Chinese region of Hepu. There, she continued to perform the duties of a priest, though without the title, and also taught at two high schools.
In 1948, Bishop Hall sent Li and a few other Chinese clergy to visit the US and rest from their wartime ministries. Since the Lambeth Conference was meeting in London that year and news of a mysterious ordained Chinese woman priest was quickly spreading, Assistant Bishop Victor Halward instructed Li to keep her ordination a secret and barred her from preaching or making public statements as she traveled in the States.
However, Li was often asked to preach and speak at the churches she visited, even though most did not know about her ordination. People began to ask her, “There’s a woman priest in China, she’s very famous. Do you know her?”.1 Li never revealed that she was this woman priest, but they soon found out anyway.
She returned to Hepu and ran a maternity home, kindergarten, and primary school in addition to parish work. Not long after, in 1949, Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party gained control of China, expelled foreigners, and sought to rid China of religion and traditional beliefs.
A resurgence of anti-imperialist sentiment coupled with Chinese nationalism that sought to unify a China divided by foreign influences resulted in the condemnation of all things foreign. The Chinese church created the Three-Self Movement—a non-denominational Chinese-led Christian movement focused on self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation—in anticipation of these socio-political changes.
In 1951, Li moved to Beijing to study the Three-Self Movement at Yenching University and equip herself for ministry under the new regime. The Communist movement periodically prohibited church services and communal prayers, particularly those established under foreign influence. Intellectuals from foreign churches, among others, were subject to public criticism and interrogations in attempts to re-educate them to Maoist ideology.
Li’s peers ostracized and ridiculed her, questioning her allegiance to China and accusing her of being a spy for the imperialist English church. She became depressed and suicidal but held onto her faith and calling. With time and much effort from Li, her peers began to see the authenticity of her intentions and the mistreatment ceased.
From 1953–1957, Li returned to Union Theological College to teach English, church history, and the Three-Self Movement. In 1958, Mao’s Great Leap Forward movement sent intellectuals like Li to countryside and factory re-education labor camps. The Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) brought the brunt of persecution and all of Li’s books, writings, and her Bible were confiscated and burned. In her memoir she wrote,
I had no Bible, but could remember some passages. I knew, of course, that God was always with me… I had no cross, no outward sign of any religious things. I dared not make a sign of the cross in my room; someone might report me. The cross was in my mind. Jesus was in my mind.2
Finally in 1974, at the age of 67, Li was allowed to retire from factory labor.
Unbeknownst to Li, by 1971, Hong Kong and Macau’s Anglican synod had moved to allow women to be ordained as priests and she was officially recognized as priest in her home region. That year, two additional women, Jane Hwang and Joyce Bennett, were ordained priests.
However, Li was in China with little outside contact. Few people in Hong Kong and Macau had heard from her since 1949.
In 1979, freedom of religious belief and worship was once again allowed in China. Li and other church leaders reconstructed church services from memory since most Bibles, prayer books, and hymnals had been burned. More than a thousand people attended the first church service, filling every available space in the church—even the windowsills. She said of that day, “When the hymn started, no one could sing the hymn properly. We were crying with joy, so happy to have the church again. Some had suffered so long.”3
Li was granted permission to leave China in 1981 and reunited with friends and family for the first time in 32 years, first in Hong Kong, then in Canada. In 1983, she immigrated to Toronto, Canada, and served as assistant priest in the Anglican Church of St. Matthew with St. John, a church shared by English and Chinese-speaking congregations.
In 1984, the Church of England invited Li to Westminster Abbey to formally recognize and celebrate the 40th anniversary of her priestly ordination.
An Inspiration to All
Li concluded her memoir: “I would like the story of my life to encourage women to serve God patiently and happily…. Perhaps I can be a small, tiny strength to help. I hope.”4
The perseverance of Li’s faith, calling, and ministry in the midst of war, patriarchal denominational polity, political upheaval, and persecution is indeed inspiring. Her enduring commitment to her priestly call paved the way for women’s ordination in the Anglican Communion, leaving a lasting legacy that can be seen around the world today.
In addition to Li being the first Anglican woman priest and an exemplar of bold and steadfast faith, her story is important because she breaks the mold of who we expect a priest to be. How many of us have been conditioned to expect a man, especially a white man, when we hear the word “priest”? As for the first Anglican woman priest, were you shocked to learn she was a Chinese woman? I sure was!
Her story matters because representation matters. At age 75, Li continued to lead in her Toronto parish. In Li’s biography, Rev. Alison Kemper said of the older women of the congregation,
When Florence [administers Communion], they see someone very much like themselves; someone who has experienced plenty and poverty, with experience of war, with grandnieces and nephews—and bunions… She brings the liturgy that much closer to them.5
The church is not just one gender, race, ethnicity, age, nationality, body type, or ability. The richness of God’s church is brought closer when we diversify the people and stories we center. In this way, more people young and old, male and female, with bunions (or without) are seen with the fullness of the imago Dei in them.
Finding Ourselves in Li’s Story
Let’s try something together. I am going to give a recap of Li’s life and I want you to try to find a point of resonance between you and Li, like how the older women in her congregation saw themselves through her leadership. Perhaps you will see yourself in her story, or perhaps her story will give you hope for your own journey.
Li was a trailblazer, a preacher, a pastor, a teacher, a survivor, a youth leader, a lay leader, a manual worker, and a writer. She was self-sacrificial, faithful, humble, served refugees, and tended to the wounded. Li received her call to ministry around age 24. In her late 20s, she attended seminary and bravely led student first aid teams in the midst of war. She was ordained as deacon when she was around 34 and as priest at 37, which she would forfeit at age 39. From her early 40s to her early 70s, Li lived under heavy persecution. She immigrated to Toronto, Canada, at 75 and continued serving at her local parish. At age 77, Li’s priesthood was finally recognized throughout the entire Anglican Communion.
I can see myself in Li’s story. At 24, Li was called into ministry and soon entered seminary, which resonates with me because I am a 24-year-old Hong Kong Chinese American woman in seminary. Like Li’s leadership during her seminary years, I am also serving and leading my student body. I aspire to lead as courageously as Li did, especially in the present chaos of American society.
Li’s story inspires me because it gives me hope that someone like me and who looks like me could be as faithful and pivotal as she was in a world that sought to silence and suppress her. I do not know what will come next in my story or how long it will take me to get there, but if her story is any indication, I will get there.
How do you see yourself in Li?
On March 27, we will witness another first in the Anglican Communion. Rev. Dr. Emily Onyango will become the first woman bishop in the Anglican Church of Kenya. As we look forward to her consecration, you can join CBE in celebrating by helping to financially support the consecration ceremony. Click here to contribute!
1. Florence Tim Oi Li and Ted Harrison, Much Beloved Daughter (London: Darton, Longman & Todd Ltd., 1985), 63.
2. Ibid., 98.
3. Ibid., 103.
4. Ibid., 112.
5. Ibid., 109.