Monday, November 03, 2008

Li Tim-Oi

Last Sunday, for an adult forum class, I shared the story of Li Tim-Oi, an inspiring Chinese woman who quietly went about doing God's work and unwittingly opened the doors to the priesthood for women.

She was born May 5, 1907, as China was transitioning from feudalism to modernity. In the fishing village where her parents lived however, the old way of life persisted as it had for centuries. At that time, baby boys were highly prized while girls were not. A bowl of ash could be at hand to smother unwanted new-born girls.

Tim-Oi was fortunate as her father was a Christian convert, doctor and headmaster, who challenged prevailing notions. Mr. Li was determined to show local farmers and landowners that a daughter could and should be cherished. He gave his infant the name “another much beloved girl.” Tim-Oi had two sisters.

In 1931, at the ordination of a deaconess at the Cathedral Church of Saint John in Hong Kong, Tim-Oi heard and responded to the call to ministry. The preacher, Rev. Mok Shau Tsang 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 the do the same?’ Tim-Oi recalled kneeling down and mouthing the words of Isaiah, “Here I am, send me.”

She then attended Union Theological College in Canton. In her third year at seminary, peace was shattered by war with Japan. Along with her fellow students, she served thousands who were wounded and displaced by incessant air raids. Li Tim Oi experienced the horrors of war.

In response to the great need at the time, she was made deacon in 1941, and was given charge of an Anglican congregation in the Portuguese colony of Macao, which was overflowing with refugees from war-torn China. When a priest could no longer travel from Japanese-occupied territory to preside for her at the Eucharist, Bishop Ronald Hall of Hong Kong asked her to meet him in Free China, where on January 25, 1944 he ordained her "a priest in the Church of God.” In his mind, Bishop Hall was merely confirming what he and many others witnessed - that God had already given Tim-Oi the gift of priestly ministry.

Li Tim-Oi continued the work she had started as a deacon, tending to the spiritual and physical needs of her congregation and neighbors. But along the halls of power, there was furor over her ordination. Simply, the Anglican leaders clung to the antiquated idea that women were not worthy to be priests. That women were not equal to men. To this day, this sentiment still prevails in many churches within the Anglican Communion, the Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox churches. Women are not good enough.

After World War II, Tim-Oi tried to diffuse the controversy by surrendering her priest's license, but not her Holy Orders, the knowledge of which carried her through Maoist persecution. Along with others belonging to the intelligentsia, she suffered hard labor and humiliation under the Communist regime. She lived in obscurity and deprivation for over 30 years.

The Bamboo curtain eventually lifted and Tim-Oi was finally permitted to reunite with her family in Toronto, where she resumed the practice of her priesthood. Li Tim Oi died on February 26, 1992.

Since Tim-Oi's ordination, women have been ordained priests and some consecrated bishops. The primate of the Episcopal Church is Katharine Jefferts Schori, a beneficiary of Li Tim-Oi's legacy. These women have long proved that they are worthy, that they are equal to men. I suspect God had known this all along.

For more, visit my knol, Li Tim-Oi.


"Li Tim Oi's Story" and "Memories of Li Tim-Oi," The Li Tim-Oi Foundation.
Florence Tim Oi-Li with Ted Harrison (1985), Much Beloved Daughter, London: Darton, Longman and Todd.

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