Saturday, January 24, 2009

"Much Beloved Daughter"

I remember my first experience in meeting a woman priest.  She was The Rev. Mary Goshert, a former priest of our Diocese of Northern California; it was at St. Matthew's, my home parish in Sacramento, CA; and at the time I was not yet an Episcopal priest.  Her command of the liturgy and her preaching were captivating.  But as I was coming up to meet her at coffee hour, it occurred to me that I didn't have a clue how to address her.  Somewhat embarrassed, I confessed this to her, and in her simply charming and disarming way she said: "'Mary' will do just fine."   

It would be unfortunate to miss noting the commemoration today of The Rev. Florence Li Tim-Oi, first woman priest in the Anglican Communion.

Her father named her "much beloved daughter" when she was born in 1907.  The "Florence", in honor of Florence Nightingale, was adopted when Li Tim-Oi was baptized.  She attended Union Theological College in Guangzhou (Canton), graduating in 1938, after which she served as a lay woman.  Florence Li Tim-Oi was ordained a deaconess in 1941.  Despite the Japanese invasion, Florence continued her work in Macao, and eventually was befriended by Bishop Ronald Hall of Hong Kong.  With great foresight, Bishop Hall determined that she would be more effective if she were a priest, and so ordained her on January 25, 1944.  

Naturally, a woman priest was quite shocking to many in the Anglican Communion.  Remember, this was long before the 1970's, and we know now how shocking the ordination of the first U.S. women priests was, and is still today for a dwindling minority! Though she continued her work, Florence, in a magnanimous and humble personal decision, decided not to exercise her priesthood until a greater consensus was reached in the Communion.  In 1947 she became the rector of St. Barnabas Church, Hepu.  Bishop Hall insisted that she still be referred to as a priest.  

During the Cultural Revolution in China, from 1958-1974, Florence was forced to leave her ministry and work first on a farm, then in a factory, until she retired.  Five years later, when the churches reopened, Florence took up her priestly ministry again.  She eventually migrated to Canada to be with her family.  She was licensed in the Diocese of Montreal, then in the Diocese of Toronto where she remained until her death on February 26, 1992.

I hope someone will write a book some day chronicling the heroic life stories of women priests like Florence Li Tim-Oi.   

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