On the 14th of September 2021, at 7.30pm, Christina Rees CBE will be giving a talk at Discover DeCrypt about the life of Florence Li Tim-Oi and the Li Tim-Oi Foundation as part of the Gloucester History Festival. Reverend Florence was the first woman to become a priest in the Anglican Church. In this interview, I talked to Christina about Florence Li Tim-Oi, women and the Church, and the Li Tim-Oi Foundation.
When did you first hear about Florence Li Tim-Oi?
I heard about Florence in 1989. At the time, I was involved in the campaign for women’s ordination. The vote for this took place on the 11th of November 1992. It was successful and women were then able to be ordained as priests.
However, I became much more aware of Florence in 1997 when I was invited by Canon Christopher Hall to become a trustee of the Florence Li Tim-Oi foundation. I was asked because the year before I had been elected as the chair for National WATCH – Women and The Church. WATCH promotes the equal ministry of men and women in the Church of England. It wasn’t yet equal because even though women could become priests, they were unable to progress beyond that to become bishops.
Now that women can become bishops, has the campaign for equality for women in the church been achieved?
Not at all. The vote for this was in July 2014. The first female bishop, Bishop Libby Lane, Bishop of Stockport was ordained in January 2015. The vote for women to be ordained as priests took place in 1994. That’s twenty years of campaigning before women were able to become bishops. I stepped down from the WATCH chair in 2010, four years before the vote, because it was such demanding work.
I am still a trustee and chair for the Li Tim-Oi Foundation. However, we are searching for a new chair; someone who will carry on the incredible work and bring a fresh vision and energy to the Foundation.
The Foundation was set up by Christopher Hall, the son of Bishop Ronald Hall, the Bishop who ordained Florence on the 24th of January 1944 in Hong Kong. Rita Li Chui, Florence’s sister, was also involved. They got together and started the Foundation in honour of Florence.
Does more still need to be done to promote equality for women in the church?
Yes. In law, men and women are equal, but that’s often not the case in practice. There are so many areas that presume the maleness of priests. There are also those members of the Church who don’t support women being ordained. They are in the minority, less than 10%, which means that more than 90% of churchgoers do support women ordinations. Unfortunately, though, it does mean that women clergy still occasionally have to work with men who are not supportive of women’s ordination and in some places the Church is still not as welcoming to women as it is to men. Female clergy can also come across the same negative attitudes and behaviours that a lot of women face at some point in their lives in other areas.
However, the good news is that nowadays women are able to minister in the Church at all levels: as bishops, deans, senior clergy, parish priests and as chaplains in schools, prisons, hospitals and the armed forces. Others with an academic background can become lecturers, professors and tutors and are able to teach at theological colleges.
Yes, it took a long time, and yes, there was, and still is, prejudice. But the success story is that now women who have a calling to be ordained into the ministry can follow, pursue and test that calling.
These days I sometimes meet younger women who are following their calling and have never heard of Florence Li Tim-Oi. They are also often unaware of the decades of campaigning that took place and was necessary in order for women to be priested. On one hand, I am surprised that they don’t know, but on the other, I am thrilled that a young woman can pursue her vocation without running into hurdles just because she’s a woman.
What will you be covering in your talk on Florence Li Tim-Oi on Tuesday, September 14th, 2021?
I will be talking about Florence’s background and how she was a fascinating woman who lived during an extraordinary time in history. I will also be telling anecdotes about some of the remarkable women who have received grants from the Florence Li Tim-Oi foundation. Over five hundred women have trained for ordained ministry and for various other ministries and positions of leadership. Consequently, they now have influence in their churches and communities. Mainly, they are from African countries, but they also come from South America and elsewhere. They have some amazing stories to tell.
Christina has been on the General Synod of the Church of England, where the historic votes were made, for twenty-five years. In 2015, the Queen awarded Christina a CBE for services to the Church of England.
Christina is currently a school chaplain. Later in September, she will be ordained at Norwich Cathedral, benefiting from her own and others’ campaigning and also following in Florence’s footprints.
Book your tickets now at https://www.gloucesterhistoryfestival.co.uk/buy-tickets/ to hear more about the extraordinary life of Florence Li Tim-Oi and the fascinating women who have benefited from the Li Tim-Oi Foundation.