A sermon by The Rev. Marc Landeweer on Sunday, January 22nd 2023
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, Saint Paul, MN
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, oh God. Amen
When I was told that today would be our Racial Reconciliation Holy Eucharist and also we’d celebrate the life of Florence Li Tim-Oi, I was like okay… cooool… who is Florence Li Tim-Oi? That was not a name covered in my Seminary education. In short, she was the first woman to be ordained an Anglican priest. The priestly ordination of the next two women occurred about 27 years afterwards in 1971. For those of you with quick math skills, Florence Li Tim-Oi was ordained in 1944 by Bishop Ronald Hall,
during the Sino-Japanese War, which was part of WWII. As you might imagine, she was ordained under highly unusual circumstances. Her life before and after ordination were extraordinary and tumultuous. She answered a call to serve God and the church but would also inspire women many years later.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls four of the Apostles, two pairs of brothers: Simon Peter & Andrew, James & John. All four of these men were near the sea as part of their livelihood as fisherfolk. We know hardly anything about their backstory. Every time I think of the passage about James and John the sons of Zebedee, I kinda feel sorry for Zebedee. Can you imagine him going back to their mother: “You’re not going to believe what your sons just did. Yeah, they just left me with the nets, and the boat no less”.
When God called them, they said yes.
Li Tim-Oi tells of her call when a young woman of 24, while attending the diaconal ordination of Lucy Vincent. It was the year 1931 and the Rev Mok Shau Tsang preached saying, “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?” Immediately the words of Isaiah 6 came to her mind.
“Also I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send and who will go for us? Then said I, Here I am; send me.”” [Isaiah Ch 6]
In her own words: “the verses went round and round in my mind. I’m here God, would you like to send me?”
No, she did not immediately head for training to become a priest. She had much more filial piety than say James and John. Li Tim-Oi completed her degree to be a teacher in 1934. Yet in the three years that followed, she says, “All the time the call kept coming back. Sometimes I was naughty, not wanting to listen, but his call was always in my mind.” She took the teaching post recommended to her by the wealthy friend of her father, in a fisherfolk village.
As much as Li Tim-Oi delighted in teaching these children, she felt the call to serve the church and received support from the Anglican church to attend Union Theological College despite her father’s disapproval. The first two years of her theological studies, she was able to learn without much worry about the politics of the world at large. That dramatically changed in 1937, when Japanese bombs would land on Southern China. The college formed its own First Aid Society, which Li Tim-Oi led, to help find and treat victims of the bombings. While she completed her studies and final examinations, conditions eventually proved too dangerous, and she was forced back home to Hong Kong to live with her parents.
Upon returning home, she spent the next two years working for the church to help war refugees arriving in Hong Kong. Despite the long hours and incredible challenges, she still called those years as “happy years”. In 1940, she was asked to go to Macao, a neutral territory owned by the Portuguese, for full time work at a church there. Macao is just 35 miles west across the Pearl Sea from Hong Kong. She was ordained to the diaconate in May of 1941. It is interesting to note that unlike the Church of England which had separate orders for deaconesses from deacons, the Anglican Church in China did not make such a distinction.
Before the end of 1941, Hong Kong fell into the hands of the Japanese and Macao became a new place for refugees to escape the war. For over two years, Li Tim Oi performed nearly all the duties of a priest except the Eucharist.
However, the conditions worsened so that the priest who would occasionally visit to provide communion could no longer travel to Macao. Bishop Hall sent a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple relaying his opinion that it would be better to have the unusual circumstance of a woman being ordained a priest, than having a deacon perform all the duties and actions of a priest in “an unusual and irregular manner”. It is somewhat fortuitous that the speed of wartime international mail was slow, as the response to this letter arrived after Li Tim-Oi’s priestly ordination.
And so around the of eve 1944, Li Tim Oi smuggled herself out of Macao back to into Japanese occupied China and met with Bishop Hall. On January 25, 1944, Florence Li Tim Oi was ordained the first female Anglican priest in the world. She had no idea what controversy this would cause. Her focus was on returning to Macao and serving the people once again in her local parish.
Bishop Hall naturally got into very hot water for ordaining a woman and controversy ensued in Britain and the Anglican Communion. I find humorous though the words of a letter written by Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple: “If we could find any shadow of theological ground for the non-ordination of women, I should be immensely comforted, but such arguments as I have heard on that line seem to me quite desperately futile”. So, despite his disapproval, the Archbishop himself could not reconcile barring the ordination of women with sound theology, only with misogyny. Li Tim-Oi being the humble servant she was, did not wish to jeopardize Bishop Hall and his ministry. And so when the Japanese surrendered, she opted to relinquish publicly functioning as a priest, though she never recanted her ordination vows.
I wish her story was then of just peacefully serving the church and the people of South China for the rest of her years. Sadly, that was far from the case. When the Japanese surrendered, civil war soon broke out in China between the Nationalists and the Communists. Marxism and Communism would eventually overrun the country, closing many churches as every city, town and village was being “Liberated” by the Red Army. Depending upon the whim of the political forces from year to year, she at times experienced years of intense turmoil and at times a couple years of relative peace. One of the unfortunate outcomes was that for someone so highly intellectually talented and educated she spent over a dozen years of her later her life as a farm laborer or a factory worker. Li Tim-Oi spent many of her days in silence reciting prayers and scripture in her mind while on the assembly line.
I think the depth of her faith and gentleness can be displayed by the way she did not curse the ones who persecuted her, the ones who robbed her and burned her books and her bible. As she says, “If I can keep my inner possessions safe, that is what matters. So, I forgave the Red Guards in my heart. They were only youngsters. They did not know the value of the things they took or destroyed. They did not know why they behaved as they did.” To me, those words are reminiscent of Jesus on the Cross, “Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Each of us can hardly know how saying “Yes” to the Spirit’s beckoning will play out. If the Spirit does not seem to be beckoning and calling you, I say pray more, discern deeper, listen harder. I’m fairly certain the Spirit is calling you. Maybe you’re in a situation like how Li Tim-Oi described herself, “Being naughty, and not wanting to listen.” Not all, of course, are called to ordained ministry, but all are called to vocation, which is not to be confused with a job or occupation.
Li Tim-Oi’s call and ordination, unbeknownst to her at the time, helped inspire a younger generation to challenge the church into ordaining women into the priesthood. Twenty-seven years after Li Tim-Oi leading the way, Jane Hwang and Joyce Bennett were ordained to the priesthood in Hong Kong. Florence Li Tim-Oi could not have known that in answering that call, she would eventually be recognized at Westminster Abbey marking the 40th anniversary of her ordination to the priesthood. Nor could she have predicted ending her days serving as a priest in Toronto an ocean away. Few are going to have such an extraordinary call like Li Tim-Oi, yet all are called to serve God and humanity and share the Gospel of the one who said, “Follow me.”
And as today is the Chinese New Year, Sun Leen Fai Lok! And Amen!
Much of the information for this lesson was gleaned from a wonderful biography of Florence Li Tim-Oi : A Much Beloved Daughter by Li Tim-Oi and Ted Harrison (1985), ISBN: 978-0232516326