May 5 2007

Tim-Oi remembered seeing me in short trousers before 1941.  Particularly in 1948 her name was often mentioned in our family.  After the Lambeth Conference that year which censured my father’s action, we went on holiday for the month of August in the English Lake District, but, when the Conference Report was published, I remember that a Daily Express journalist searched my father out for an interview.

On 21 January 1984 I escorted Canon David Paton, my father’s biographer, into the 40th Anniversary Thanksgiving Service in Westminster Abbey and sat with the robed clergy behind the nave altar.  At the Peace I was diffident about going forward to greet Tim-Oi as David Paton did.  He came back saying “Florence is asking for you.”  So that was a most appropriate occasion for me to meet her consciously for the first time.

The next Saturday another Thanksgiving Service took place in Sheffield Cathedral, at which I was invited to preach.  I took as my text Acts 10, because I knew that my father had been tempted to rename Florence ‘Cornelia’, because he was conscious of the parallel between the baptism of the first Gentile and the priesting of the first woman – like Peter, he was not prepared to withhold what she had already received, as had others, through the Holy Spirit [v.47].  Also I knew that in the current debate on the ordination of women there lurked the unspoken taboo of the alleged uncleanness of women.  It is not for man to call unclean what God has made clean.

After the service she was bemused by the performance by JABBOK of their satirical play “My Fair Vicar.”

Tim-Oi traveled back with us to Bolton where she preached the following morning.  Her text was “Having loved his own, he loved them unto the end.”  After all she suffered from the Red Guards and Purple Guards, those words clearly meant a great deal to her. In the porch afterwards, she insisted on grabbing the diehard BCP/KJV (Book of Common Prayer / King James Version of the Bible) members of the congregation down to her level to kiss them.

Before breakfast the next morning she set about the homework I had set for her: to write my father’s name in Chinese calligraphy – Ho Ming Wah ‘he who understands China’ [!?!] – for use on the spine and dust jacket of my father’s biography.

In February 1985, she was in London during the sessions of the Church of England General Synod.  I sought a way of having her welcomed officially, and approached the Secretary General.  He was willing to help, but felt it would impolitic to do so at that time as the first woman priest, but to do so as the first visitor from the Church in China after the lifting of the Bamboo Curtain.  I sat beside her in the gallery.  The Chair that morning was Dr Mary Hobbs, a lay member from the diocese of Chichester, a diocese still one of the least supportive of women’s ministry.  Her words of welcome, probably drafted by the Secretary General, are recorded in the Report of Proceedings:

“We have in the gallery a special visitor, the Rev Florence Li Tim-Oi.  She is, I am sure, known to us all by name, and many of us had the pleasure of meeting her when she visited this country last year.  We have two particular reasons for welcoming her. First, for herself, someone whose qualities of courage, quiet confidence and steadfastness we all admire.  Secondly, her visit to us today is the first occasion on which this Synod has welcomed a visitor from the Church in China.  It is wonderful to think that coming and going is possible after long years of separation.  We assure her of her welcome here today and ask her, when she returns, to assure our fellow Christians in the vigorous community of today’s China of our affection and of their continuing place in our prayers.”

These words were greeted by prolonged applause from all the members seated below looking up at her diminutive figure standing to acknowledge their greeting, including ironically many staunch opponents of the movement for the ordination of women.  Soon afterwards Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, came up to the gallery to greet Tim-Oi personally.  She was presented with a copy of the Alternative Service Book.

In April 1986 Tim-Oi was again in England for the weekend in Canterbury celebrating the Ministry of Women.  For the Sunday morning Eucharist I had been invited by MOW to concelebrate with Tim-Oi.  I dissuaded the MOW Committee from including Tim-Oi as a celebrant, because it would put her into the eye of a storm of what would be regarded in the press as an illegal celebration.  I helped to devise a liturgy as inclusive as possible.  After the very male-dominated Eucharist in the Cathedral on the Saturday, there was much anger that a man was to preside the next morning when there were a number of women priests present. Several boycotted the service – many of them apologised to me afterwards, saying “Nothing personal”, to which my response was “As they said to the goat of the Day of Atonement!”

In Tim-Oi’s mind I seemed to inherit a role as her adviser.  She turned down an Australian invitation to make a TV documentary on her life on my advice. Then Robert Browne, film maker to the Anglican Consultative Council, wanted to take her back to China to make a film.  Knowing something of the stress involved in film making, my advice was that at the age of 80 she should only do so if she was accompanied by her sister Rita, and suggested some help might be available.  That was just before I set off myself for 12 weeks study leave in Hong Kong and China.  On my return a letter from Tim-Oi awaited me, thanking me for offering to pay for Rita to go!  Only then was I able to ask my sister if to do so we might use some funds left by my father.

In November 1997 Bob Browne visited us in Bolton to show the rough-cut of “Return to Hepu” to a group of MOW members.  After they had first been deeply critical of a MOW-produced TV programme, he was very anxious how his film would be received.  He need not have worried. There was hardly a dry eye in the room. A few minor amendments were suggested.

During his stay he told us some of what happened on the trip off-camera.  One evening in their hotel they overheard a dispute between Rita and Tim-Oi, who wanted to respond to some pastoral emergency. “It’s not your problem,” said Rita, “you’re retired.”

“Rita, you no tough guy like me,” said Tim-Oi, as she stomped off.

As they were leaving China with all the footage in the can, their equipment had been loaded onto the train after clearance from customs.  As they waited to leave, they saw that it had all been unloaded again onto the platform. While Tim-Oi appealed for calm, Rita went off to give officialdom a piece of her mind.  So thanks to Rita’s presence the film was rescued.

The Lambeth Conference 1988 saw the British premiere of “Return to Hepu” which Bob Browne invited us to attend in Canterbury with Tim-Oi and Rita.  In the crowded Conference programme, not many bishops attended.  In my remarks it seemed appropriate, in referring to Tim-Oi and the Episcopal drubbing meted out to my father exactly 40 years before, to quote the words of the Magnificat: “He has put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted the humble and meek.” I made public reference to what Tim-Oi had suffered from the Purple Guards as well as the Red Guards.

My daughter’s secondment by Exxon to work in New Jersey gave us the opportunity to visit Toronto in 1991, and after Easter to borrow her car to drive to visit Tim-Oi then in hospital.  My last memory therefore is of her holding court from her hospital bed – her ministering to us rather us to her.

Christopher Hall  –  10 May 2002