There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
We remember today Florence Li Tim-Oi, the first woman ordained to the priesthood in the Anglican Communion. January 25th marks the day she was ordained to the priesthood in 1944, in the urgency of war when there weren’t enough priests to go round in Macao, a province of Hong Kong. She was already a deacon to her community.
We remember her today on the Feast of St. Paul’s Conversion. You see, Li Tim-Oi was ordained on that particular feast, which is why the Church Calendar walked her back a day, to January 24th, in order to remember Paul’s Conversion. His conversion has primal and necessary weight for us, as it did for her. That primal weight is found in those holy words we heard just now from his letter to the Galatians. There we meet Paul’s radicalism, his complete embrace of Christ’s love.
Notably, tradition tells us Paul was blinded on the Damascus Road, blinded enough to see that we are all one in Christ.
Later letters, though, would tame our understanding of Paul: letters to Timothy and Titus, what we call the Pastoral Letters, letters about who should have oversight of churches, who should minister to God’s people. Those later words would emphasize the differences between men and women with words that silenced women for millennia. They were an effort at rehabilitating Paul for the sake of the Church’s ideas about power. Scholars for the most part today believe Paul didn’t write them, that they were written under his name.
You could say their authors decided to rob women to pay Paul, or rather rob women to pay homage to their idea of what an apostle should be and look like. For whatever reason, some folks still can’t imagine Paul speaking up for the ministry of women.
A question worth asking is this: Who do you rob to pay Paul?
And who do we rob to pay Paul? Or pay homage to some exclusively masculine idea of ministry?
At the end of World War II, Li Tim-Oi gave up her license to officiate as a priest. The Church of England considered it a scandal. Two archbishops condemned it. Li Tim-Oi, though, never gave up her ordination. She held on to it because it was who she was.
At some point, she ran a maternity home established to prevent the common practice in China of female infanticide: killing girls in infancy. Eventually, under the rule of Maoist China, all churches were closed, and Li Tim-Oi was forced to work on a farm and then a factory. Sixteen years later China allowed the Church to minister to her people in the open. They even allowed Li Tim-Oi to visit family in Canada; and while there, in 1981, she was licensed as a priest in Toronto.
Writing about her ordination, one journalist pointed to the progress we’ve made today, and went on to say it’s hard to imagine why the ordination of women was ever controversial. But the truth is this: it’s still controversial. Paul’s radical claim that we are all one still threatens a whole lot of church-going people who are not blind enough to embrace their unity with others. Even today, even here in Savannah, women dressed in chasubles still have the visual power to chase people from the church. It’s not a power they want. They humble themselves to wear the chasuble. They do not wear it for personal power. They wear it because we are all one in Christ Jesus.