I went to Princeton Theological Seminary as a Roman Catholic woman. One of the great things about Princeton is that you don’t have to be in the ordination process to pursue a Masters of Divinity. Being the only Roman Catholic woman in my class, I got a lot of questions about why I was there and what I planned to do with my degree. I had no plan. I just knew that I was supposed to be there and had a call to some ministry. I told people I was looking for a loophole.
Florence Li Tim-Oi was born in Hong Kong in 1907. She became an Anglican while in school and then later attended Union Theological College in Canton. She was ordained a deaconess in 1941 and sent to an Anglican congregation in Macao which was a Portuguese colony at the time. Macao was neutral during World War II and received many refugees from China. As you can imagine, it was an area that needed a minister. Since she was a deacon, a priest had to travel across the South China Sea from Hong Kong in order to provide the sacraments. However, once Hong Kong became occupied by the Japanese, priests could no longer make that journey.
Her bishop at the time, Bishop Ronald Hall, was described as a “practical man.” In a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury he wrote, “I’m not an advocate for the ordination of woman. I am, however, determined that no prejudices should prevent congregations committed to my care having the sacraments of the church.” She was ordained a priest six months later in January 1944, the first female Anglican priest. She found a loophole that she wasn’t even looking for— World War II.
When the war ended and more people learned about her ordination, there was a great deal of controversy. It is said that she decided on her own to stop practicing as a priest. No doubt there was significant pressure on her. Regardless of whether she was still considered a priest, she continued to minister to God’s people, even when the Communist party rose to power. However, approximately 10 years later, all of the churches in China were closed and she was sent for re-education with the other victims of China’s Cultural Revolution.After that, she was sent to work on a farm. For the next 30 years she was ridiculed, persecuted, and lived in fear.
In 1983, she had the opportunity to move to Canada where she was finally allowed to embrace her role as a priest in the Anglican Church, almost 40 year after her ordination. I can’t help but wonder what those 40 years were like, years where she lived the calling of a priest, but couldn’t be called a priest. Every person I know who has had the opportunity to follow a call (not just ordained ministry, but any vocation) has moments where they wonder, ‘is this really what I signed up for?’ The answer is no, this isn’t what I was expecting and maybe that’s okay.
There is no doubt in my mind that Florence was a priest for those 40 years, even without the collar, the stole or the sacraments. She was a priest in a place where churches were forbidden. And if she could find ways to be a female priest in Communist China, then perhaps I can stop being preoccupied with the challenges we are facing now. Perhaps I too can fulfill my call in ways that look different than I ever imagined. Maybe we all can.
[Image Credit: Icon written by the Rev Dr Ellen Francis Poisson, Order of St Helena. The icon is located in the Dick Sheppard Chapel within the undercroft of St Martin in the Fields Church in Trafalgar Square, London.]