THE REV DR LI TIM-OI
3 March 2002
In the name God, ever creating, redeeming and sustaining.
In Isaiah 55 verse 11 we read:
Thus says God:
The word that comes from my mouth shall prevail. It shall not return to me without accomplishing my purpose or succeeding in the task I gave it.
I continually marvel at how God’s purposes are accomplished: how the most unlikely, indeed sometimes ghastly, events in history come together to effect the intended goal.
A Chinese family: God-fearing, kindly, and intelligent.
a daughter has taken up a career in a Portugese colony
a British missionary priest from a high sacramental tradition
who becomes a Bishop in China
During World War II
Had it not been for the war …… things would have been different
But there was war, and the young Chinese woman, and the British missionary bishop met and did something that stunned the bishops of the Anglican Communion and forced them to work at a loom which is creating a tapestry that has as its central motif women taking their places equally with men in all aspects of church life.
And in the centre is a kindly face, with luminous eyes that belie the suffering sustained, looking into the distance, and wordlessly saying: I know what God has called me to be and to do, and I will be given grace sufficient to the task.
And, underneath, the words, muksi Tim-Oi.
Or, as we in Toronto know her, the Reverend Doctor Li Tim-Ol, first woman priest in the Anglican Communion.
Today I tell a story, a life story which has many threads. (I hold 8 thick cords in colours).
|Destined yet unfulfilled
Her thread starts, where all of our individual threads start, at birth: and for her this happened in the Chinese New Territories in 1907. As a young woman, during an ordination serviced at St John’s Cathedral, she heard the bishop say, “Here is an English woman who is offering herself for the church in China. Is there a Chinese woman willing to do the same?”
Tim-Oi’s initial reaction was in the form of a question, “Am I the one who will do this work?”
The threads: violet for humility, and purple for the destiny yet undefined.
Our Judeo-Christian heritage speaks of men and women working with threads of many colours. I read from
Exodus chapter 35:
Moses called the whole community together and instructed them to bring a contribution to God. Men and women alike came. Every man brought what he possessed of violet, purple, and scarlet yarn, fine linen and goats’ hair. Every woman with the skill spun and brought the violet, purple, and scarlet yarn, and fine linen. All the women whose skill moved them spun the goats’ hair. They used violet, purple, and scarlet yarn in making the stitched vestments for ministering in the sanctuary and making the sacred vestments for the priest.
Tim-Oi’s initial reaction was in the form of a question,
“Am I the one who will do this work?”
The answer was “YES!!”, and the colour gold appears now for she distinguished herself in her studies at Guangzhou Union Theological College. Upon graduation she became a lay leader in the Anglican congregation in Macao, a Portugese territory close to Hong Kong. In 1941 she was ordained a deacon.
When the Japanese occupied Hong Kong, refugees fled to Macao and Tim-Oi worked tirelessly caring for the hungry, sick and dying. She also found herself ministering to a congregation who yearned for a complete sacramental life which was no longer available to them because all the priests had fled.
News reached Bishop Ronald Hall who was deeply pained by the dilemma. To him, the sacrament of Holy Communion was inalienably the right of all Christians, and better that the people have the sacrament than stand on a tradition which decreed only men could be priests. He sent word that Tim-Oi meet him midway. She agreed. The thread is now scarlet, for courage.
Both traveled, not without considerable personal risk, by night, through enemy territory. Black is now the colour, the colour of safety, safety by night, hidden in a peasant’s boat as Tim-Oi and her guide travel silently along a river, and, miraculously, she and Bishop Hall arrived at Zhaoquing within 30 minutes of each other in the late afternoon of January 22, 1944.
The thread is now white as two days were spent in prayer and dialogue until Bishop Hall was certain: Tim-Oi is worthy, and she was ordained priest in the church of God. The thread is red.
The return journey was equally perilous, but God’s purpose was not to be thwarted, and Tim-Oi arrived safely in Macao and the people joyfully accepted her priestly ministry.
The central motif of the tapestry was woven: violet for humility, scarlet for courage, gold for excellence, black for safety, white for prayer, red for priesthood and purple for a destiny yet undefined. In 1948 some of the threads were pulled out, by the Lambeth bishops who could not, would not, follow the pattern. The tapestry, in their minds, was ill-conceived, and Tim-Oi relinquished her licence to practise as a priest, but never flinched in her belief that she was truly God’s priest. The red was over woven with brown.
She returned to school and studied at yenjing Theological College in Beijing, and then taught at her alma mater, Guangzhou Theological College, until 1966 when the Proletarian Cultural Revolution swept China. Tim-Oi endured de-programming, life on a chicken farm and in a factory, then learned with delight that, after 22 years of talk, the Anglican Communion would not prevent countries, who were ready, from ordaining women to the priesthood.
The diocese of Hong Kong and Macao was the first to take the step, the threads had been woven back in. It was 6 years before another country proceeded canonically to ordain women to the priesthood: Canada.
In 1979 the churches were allowed to re-open in China and Tim-Oi, now 72, became a consultant pastor.
In 1981, the threads of members of the family surfaced from the background as her sister Rita, a brother, a nephew, and a niece, after many years of circumventing red tape, succeeded in bringing Tim-Oi to Canada. Tim-Oi served as honorary assistant at St John’s Chinese Congregation in Toronto.
Soon after I had the privilege of meeting her and in 1983 when I was inducted as incumbent (rector) of the Church of the Epiphany, Scarborough, she robed and processed. There is a video of that service and one can glimpse her face intently focused on the Spirit-filled liturgical action.
Now the world was beginning to understand the incredible significance of the tapestry and many hands joined in the task of embelishing it:
1984 in Westminster Abbey a service was held in her honour to celebrate her 40th year of ordination to the priesthood.
1986 in Canterbury Cathedral at the service of thanksgiving for the ministry of women throughout the ages, she was singled out.
1988, again in Canterbury, the video of her life, Return to He-Pu as on the Lambeth agenda.
1988 New York, she received a doctorate from General Theological Seminary
1989 in Boston, she occupied an honoured place on the dias at the consecration of the Rt Rev Barbara Harris.
1991 in Toronto, she received a doctorate from Trinity College.
1993 in England, she is perpetually remembered through the Rev Li Tim-Oi Foundation Fund.
today, we are here to give thanks for a remarkable life, to admire the tapestry, and to ask what we might weave into it.
When I asked her in 1988 if she was writing her autobiography, she said, “My life? What is there to my life?” I said, “Tim-Oi, writing your life story is your task, judging it is not your task”. She has written her life story. It has been taken to Hong Kong by Father Edmund Der so that arrangements can be made to have it published there.
I submit that part of the task of judging her life is ours to do. Will we allow it to be forgotten? as has so much of women’s history? or will we delight in the memory of this incredible woman and find ways to keep it alive?
Let us review what is so remarkable about her life:
She was clear about God’s call to her. She was not always clear about why her life took that the turns that it did, but she found ways of ministering within the constraints placed on her.
Whomever she was with was the most important person in her life at that moment. Whatever was the concern of that person was her concern, and I believe that all the time that she was talking with me she was also praying that God be with us in the conversation, and that God be with me in the hours and days ahead. I felt that holiness and sustaining spirit every time I was with her.
There are parallels that can be drawn between Tim-Oi’s life and Jesus’ life, and I guess the most poignant is that moment when she felt that God had abandoned her and wondered if the only possible solution was suicide,
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
However her faith was rooted in a God who is always present, so she decided to persevere in spite of the persecution she was experiencing.
And quite outside of the choices that she had under her control, there are the threads of the institutional church, and the resistance of the institutional church to change, and the folly of God to use a war and an English high-church bishop, and a courageous faithful woman to weave a tapestry that resulted in changing that church.
Thus God says, “My purposes shall be accomplished”.
I believe that the story has a future: in the BAS calendar of commemorations. Look in your BAS pages 22 to 33.
Page 29 Robert McDonald, priest in the western arctic, 1913
Page 25 Catherine of Siena, reformer, 1380
Page 23 Hanna Coome, founder of SSJD, 1921
Page 23 Lindel Tsen, bishop of Honan, 1954
The process is:
Choose a day that is free.
Argue that the church has benefited by the ministry of the person.
Testimonials spring forth spontaneously – these have.
Not just in Canada: USA, England
Grassroots support, such as commemorating the person with prayer.
This we have done today. Collect, prayer over the gifts, prayer after communion written specifically for her were used today.