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Recalling Li Tim-Oi in Hong Kong

Recalling Li Tim-Oi in Hong Kong

Jenny Standage. Outlook, no.28, Summer 2011, p18.

I was able to visit the Cathedral of St John the Evangelist in Hong Kong earlier this year, where the very first woman priest Li Tim-Oi heard her vocation and was ordained in 1941. I was interested to see how the cathedral had changed. Much damage was done during the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong (1941 - 1945) when it was converted into a social club for their Imperial Army! The original fittings were stripped out including the William Morris stained glass window. There have been additions: new windows, the mosaic floor and the bells given in honour of Queen Elizabeth's coronation in 1953.


While still at school, Li Tim-Oi attended the ordination of Deaconess Lucy Vincent at the cathedral. The Chinese preacher asked if there was a Chinese girl willing to offer herself for the Chinese church and she prayed, 'God would you like to send me?'

She was born in Aberdeen, a fishing village on Hong Kong Island and as a student joined the Anglican Church. Whilst at Union Theological College in Canton she led a team of students rescuing the casualties of carpet bombing narrowly escaping injury herself.

And so, on Ascension Day in 1941 Lim Tim-Oi was ordained deacon by the Bishop of Hong Kong, Ronald Owen Hall. She served a curacy in Kowloon and was then put in charge of the Anglican Church in Macau and for two years was licensed to preside at Holy Communion as a deacon. (It was a long journey for male priests to travel from Hong Kong).

The Gift of Priesthood

Bishop Hall was not happy with what was almost a lay celebration and when visiting the USA discussed the matter with Ursula and Reinhold Niebuhr. Downing Street had told him that if he ordained a woman, he would never be bishop here. After much prayer and discussion Bishop Hall ordained Li Tim-Oi, believing that God had already given her the gift of priesthood.

Challenging Times

After the war she was pressured to resign her licence as a priest and moved to a parish near Vietnam where she started a maternity home to ensure that new- born girls were not smothered at birth.

Serving for 30 years in Maoist China must have been difficult, not being able to fulfill her calling openly. The Red Guards made her cut up her vestments and under the pressure of brainwashing, she contemplated suicide. When the 'bamboo curtain' eventually lifted Christian ministers received their back pay from the government, but when Li Tim-Oi finally got permission to visit her family in Toronto, she left behind her savings and her pension rights to be used for good causes in China.

Preaching in Sheffield

In January 1984 Li Tim-Oi came to Westminster Abbey for the 40th Anniversary celebration of her priesting. She also visited Sheffield and preached in Bolton Parish Church - to a congregation that did not really go along with this newfangled notion of a woman being a priest! She visited Archbishop Robert Runcie who told the Canadian Archbishop, Ted Scott, ‘Who am I to say whom God can or cannot call?’

She died in 1992 in Toronto and is buried there. The USA Episcopal Church has inserted the anniversary of Li Tim-Oi's ordination in the calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts (24th January) and in 2004 the Anglican Church of Canada included her in the Calendar of Holy Persons on the anniversary of her death.

In her Name

She is honoured in various church windows in the USA and in St Martin-in-the Fields in London there are two memorials: a prayer board dedicated on the Golden Jubilee of her priesting, and an Icon dedicated on her Diamond Jubilee. While at St John's Cathedral in Hong Kong I enquired about a memorial to the first woman priest in the Anglican Communion and to my astonishment I discovered there was nothing. I am hoping my enquiries will prompt the Dean and Cathedral to remedy that.

Li Tim-Oi's Legacy

During her final years in Toronto, Li Tim-Oi sent the Movement for the Ordination of Women a cheque for £5,000 to help with our campaign. I was the one to open the envelope in our office in Napier Hall. .. something I will never forget. It was the year before the momentous vote of 11th November 1992.

The Li Tim-Oi Foundation has been set up in her memory and is a charity helping women in the two-thirds world train for ministry in their own countries.

Read also: Christology, by Kwok Pui-lan, Introducing Asian Feminist Theology, Pilgrim, 2000, ch.6, pp79-97.

If you want to find out more about the work of the Li Tim-Oi Foundation, visit the websites-
http:// www.litim-oi.org or
http:// www.ittakesonewoman.org

Li Tim-Oi's story 'It takes One Woman' is available from the Foundation [send a stamped addressed C5 envelope].

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