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Gilbert Valentine Shares Lessons We Can Learn from the Anglicans


Yesterday the Anglican Communion held a service marking 70 years since its first woman priest was ordained. “It is living history we have here,” said the Reverend Clare Herbert at the ceremony in London, “all the more so at the moment because the Church of England is entering the final stages towards the frocking of women as bishops. To be at this service today is very significant. She is a real inspiration to women in the church today.” 

Gilbert Valentine, chair of the Department of Leadership and Administration at La Sierra University, wrote a paper for the Adventist Society for Religious Studies in 2012, called “Flying Bishops, Women Clergy and the Processes of Change in the Anglican Communion: An Adventist Perspective on the Anglican Journey to Equality in Ministry.” His paper tells the story of the first Anglican woman priest, and seeks to identify and explain the processes of change that have shaped the Anglican Communion’s response to the question of the ordination of women.  It tries to understand how the change and its associated conflict have been managed and what Adventists might learn from these processes. A version of the paper is scheduled for publication in the spring issue of Andrews University Seminary Studies. We asked Valentine some questions about his research.

Question: The Anglican Communion marked the 70th anniversary of the ordination of its first woman priest at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London on January 25. Can you tell us a little bit about Florence Li Tim Oi, the first woman Anglican priest, ordained in 1944?

Answer: Florence Li Tim Oi was twenty-four years old when in 1931, while attending a service in Hong Kong Cathedral, she felt a call by God to serve her church.  She attended Theological College in Canton for four years and after graduation was appointed to work with a congregation in Portuguese Macau where, in 1941 she became a deaconess.  She was a very gifted Christian leader, winsome and pastoral.  Following the Japanese occupation of Macau during the war, expatriate clergy had to leave and there was a critical shortage of local male clergy.  Li was assigned to care for the church.  She ably filled the gap, nurtured her church for four years and became a successful pastor, functioning fully as an Anglican priest in all but name.  But there was no one ordained and available to celebrate communion with her congregation.

Her immediate Chinese supervisor, Bishop Mok, under the challenge of the war-time circumstances authorized her to celebrate communion even though she was not ordained to do so.   Her regional Bishop Ronald Hall of the Hong Kong diocese learned about the situation and determined that he should regularize the situation for her.  In his mind it was better to have an irregularly ordained woman priest than having an irregularly celebrated sacrament.  He notified his brother bishops in the region and resolved that if he could possibly meet with her he would do so.  And he did.  In January 1944 under very difficult circumstances involving a dangerous week’s journey across mountains on foot for Florence and a risky five day journey by foot and boat for Hall from his temporary base in Chungking, the two met in a village in Free China near Shui-Hing.  After two days examining her and praying together Hall ordained Florence in a small old Anglican church.  As Hall related to two clergy friends in England shortly afterwards, he was sure that Florence “had amply proved (like Cornelius) that she had the pastoral charisma.” He did not feel he was challenging the authority of his Anglican hierarchy.  He was dealing with an urgent pastoral need.

Florence Li functioned fully as a priest for 18 months before word trickled out to the outside world, via a children’s story page in a New Zealand church paper of all things!  An irate conservative Anglican newspaper editor sent the clipping to the Archbishop in London and demanded that the problem be fixed and the people involved be disciplined.  Such an irregular procedure could shatter the Anglican Communion and also endanger the ecumenical movement.  The Orthodox in the church would not tolerate it.  Hall was pressured to rescind Florence’s ordination or to resign as bishop, both of which he refused to do.  In the end, Florence herself under pressure and not wishing to have her bishop’s position threatened, voluntarily gave up her license to function as a priest though she never resigned her ordination orders – her spiritual gift of ministry had not been extinguished.  

The Synod (something like an Adventist Conference Constituency Meeting) of the Diocese of Hong Kong and Macau, later issued a very strongly worded statement that they found the attitude of the Church in the West impossible to understand.  For them, Florence Li’s ordination was natural and inevitable and they believed that God was using “China’s age-long respect for women, and traditional confidence in women’s gifts for administration and counsel, to open a new chapter in the history of the church.”  The Synod believed that the discrimination against Florence Li was unjust and unscriptural.

Florence stayed on in the service for her church but suffered badly when in 1966 the Maoist Cultural Revolution broke out.  Florence was confined to hard labor on a chicken farm for years. After the revolution, she returned to her church to continue her ministry. 

A quarter of a century later the worldwide Anglican Communion eventually came to a position of allowing regional provinces of the church to ordain women as priests if it served the mission of the church and if the synod of the province agreed.  In response, in 1971, two further women were ordained in Hong Kong, and Florence’s ordination was re-affirmed.  Florence continued to build up her church until in 1981 she retired and moved to Canada to be with her family.  

In January 1984 Florence was invited to go to England where ordination of women was still not permitted, to attend fortieth anniversary celebrations of her ordination.  Special services were organized by those who supported the Women in Ministry movement and Florence was honored in Westminster Abbey and at the Church of St Martin-in-the-Fields in central London. She died in 1992.  

Question: What process did the Anglicans follow to later conclude that there was no theological barrier to inviting women to ministry, and then go on to begin ordaining women? 

Answer: The office of the Archbishop of Canterbury commissioned numerous different study groups over several decades beginning in 1919.  The groups wrestled with the inconsistencies in church practice and understanding.  How was it that women were able to function as deaconesses, (a defined Anglican order of ministry), preach, lead prayers, and eventually to baptize children and function in other ways as ministers and yet not be recognized as full priests?  More and more women became involved in a life of ministry – particularly in mission fields where their ministry was essential in reaching sections of the population with the Gospel that men were unable to reach.

Reports and study by panels, commissions and committees (1930, 1935), further requests from the provinces (1948), and more studies (1962, 1966) resulted in a conclusion that the church could find “no conclusive reasoning against ordaining women” but that pragmatic difficulties lay in the way.  

Discussion and debate continued, until at the London Lambeth Conference of 1968 it was determined by a large majority that “there was no valid theological objection to the ordination of women.”  Two years later an international Anglican Consultative Council held in Kenya (February 1971) came to a landmark decision that if a province, after due study and consideration, decided that they should ordain women, the action would be acceptable to the rest of the worldwide Anglican Communion, even though other provinces might not wish to take such a step.  Fellowship would not be broken. 

Question: Was the process of change different in different countries? How did the Church of England end up voting to approve women’s ordination in 1992?

Answer: Anglican Churches in different countries moved at their own pace.  For some it was a turbulent passage as in the USA during the early 1970s.  In other places like Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Southeast Asia it was a much smoother process with some tensions but little disruption and disturbance.  

In England the process was much more complicated because of a strong Anglo-Catholic wing in the church, apprehensions about derailing the ecumenical efforts the church was making to try and rebuild relationships with the broader Christian church and because of legal difficulties.  In England Anglicanism is an “established” church with a strong link between church and state and there was the need for approval by parliament and detailed legal protections for protection of the minority viewpoint.

The historic vote in November 1992 when the General Synod of the Church of England voted to approve women as priests came after a very careful process of dialogue and negotiation.

Question: How did the Church of England handle the fallout from the historic vote, and manage to keep the church together?

Answer: Church leaders in England, who it seems were surprised that the vote would be favorable, were deeply concerned to prevent the church from fracturing over the issue.  They realized that they needed to adopt pastoral measures to care for the needs of the minority of church members who felt they should not be obliged to receive communion from a woman priest.  There were also bishops and priests who had difficulty accepting the decision.  The English House of Bishops decided to implement a measure where they would amend church policy and provide for the appointment of “Provincial Episcopal Visitors” or what became known as “flying bishops” to serve the minority parishes.  These “flying bishops” were responsible to the Archbishop and were authorized to cross diocesan boundaries in order to celebrate the Eucharist for those churches who could not yet accept communion at the hands of a woman priest.  The measure was unusual but it helped keep the church together during the next two decades of adjustment.

Question: Why, in your view, has the Adventist Church struggled so much with the concept of ordaining women?

Answer: At first thought it would seem that resolving this question in the Adventist Church should not have been so difficult.  We have anti-creedal roots, we are non-sacramental in theology and non-liturgical and one of our founding leaders was a woman with a special charisma recognized in our midst as a prophetic gift who clearly exercised authority over men in our community.   We are also a community committed to develop in our understanding as we encounter “present truth.”

Probably our commitment to the plain meaning of scripture which we have allowed ourselves in practice in an overly literalistic way or surface reading way instead of looking for the underlying principles and noticing context has made it difficult for us.  Our reading of scripture needs to look for the eternal principles that can be applied across and in all cultures.  We are probably bound more by tradition and habit and a focus on the past instead of focusing on the future than we realize.

Question. What can the Adventist Church learn from the Anglicans in our debate over women’s ordination? 

Answer: Although we are protestant and have much in common with Anglicanism, we are of course quite different in some areas of theology, church polity and governance structure, and in our heritage.  Nevertheless some of the ways that Anglicans have managed their approach to coping with change can be instructive for us.  I would note the following:

Anglicans came to recognize that the accomplishment of the gospel commission in different cultural contexts — even in something as important at the structuring of its ministry — requires the acceptance of diversity.  They realized that unity does not mean uniformity.  A commitment to mission in differing cultural contexts must allow for diversity.

Anglicans came to realize that societies themselves change and that to be effective in continuing ministry and in sharing the gospel, the church also needed to adjust and adapt.

Anglicans developed a way of respecting the different voices advocating the various arguments involved in the long debate.  Church leaders respected and valued the different advocacy groups with their points of view and did not consider them as “anti” in the sense that they were against the church.  Adventists are slowly learning this as well.

An important lesson Adventists are now learning — and that the Anglicans have helped teach us — is that openness and transparency are essential.  Rather than keeping reports from committees shelved or restricted, it is better to make them public and disseminate them.  The General Conference Archives has now created a sub-section of its website specifically on the issue of the ordination of women, and made past and present reports and discussion papers accessible.  This is a valuable new development that has further extended the work of previous archivists in making documentary resources available.  Allowing as many as possible to join in the conversation is part of the essential educational process.

Developing a theology of change was a helpful thing for Anglicans.  Our emphasis on “present truth” and our reflections on our experience with the Minneapolis Conference of 1888 should help us here.  Allowing for a period of “reception” or for the idea of a “process of open discernment” as a way of enabling a community to come to terms with a new theological insight could be helpful to us. 

In Anglicanism there was also a commitment on the part of leadership to educate the church by facilitating discussion.  They were also careful to nurture a climate of inclusiveness in public rhetoric, in their speeches and in their writing, and this was critical.  Leaders of the Church felt they had a responsibility to be pastors to the whole church not just the parts of it that agreed with them.

Question: What are some strategies you believe the General Conference would be wise to have in place should a 2015 General Conference vote decide that the church will officially begin ordaining women? Or strategies should a vote decide against women’s ordination?

Answer: Although the processes of the Theology of Ordination Study Committee (TOSC) are proving to be laborious, time consuming, expensive and at times acutely painful for those involved, the discussions and the dialogue are essential.  The work of this group and the division-based Ordination Study groups (BRI) that have been working in parallel with it is doing much to help educate the church more broadly.  There is a developing consensus out of this process that people see the issue differently and that is okay.  As numerous division study groups have now established, Adventists from different backgrounds, each having a high view of scripture and a deep commitment to the mission of the church see the matter of the ordination of women to ministry differently and feel strongly about it. There must be room for diversity on this. One regional or cultural group cannot exclude the other group from fellowship because they understand scripture differently on this issue.  They are all part of the church.

As the Anglicans approached their significant decision making time they took care to request experienced leaders to carefully analyze the logistical implications of the outcome of the decisions to be made — good and bad —  and to share these studies.  That was an exceedingly helpful step in clarifying in the mind of the church the options it faced.  TOSC has begun this process with some of the papers it has recently commissioned.  They have asked for analysis of the way forward on the matter. This has produced very helpful analysis.  It seems to me that it would be helpful to share some of these studies or aspects of them with Church leadership at all levels as part of the education process.

There is precious little time until the 2014 Annual Council and the following 2015 General Conference session, and education of the church membership and local leadership is paramount.  It seems to me that journals like the Review and Ministry are now presented with an urgent task to help create a climate of confidence in the future – not of apprehension and fear.  There is an urgent need for such agencies to help build a climate of understanding that diversity on such issues as ordination is not a threatening issue but will actually give strength to the accomplishment of the church’s mission – that the church can do this and that it will hold together as it has in the past as it works its way through difficult theological or governance issues.  The church’s other media agencies like Hope Channel also have an important role to play in building a climate of confidence that the church can handle this.  These journals and media agencies should be change agents in the best tradition using their gifts of creativity in building an inclusive church.

The recent initiatives of the General Conference Archives to make public on its website the rich resources of research and study on the ordination of women that has been undertaken over the decades on this issue is a significant step.  Transparency is essential.  The church’s media could highlight the existence of these resources for those who need to or who want to know.

For Adventists the unfolding of truth perceived in scripture has often been like the coming of the dawn, like the glimmers of early sunshine that leads us on to a fuller understanding in the full brightness of day.  “The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day” (Prov. 4.18, NIV). Some encounter the dawn early because they live on mountainsides or at beaches.  Others see the light later because they live in mountain glens, valleys or in forests.  But the light of God’s truth eventually embraces and warms us all.  We cannot stop the dawn.

It seems to me that a concerted process of education and community building now is the best strategy for dealing with the issue post 2015.

Image: The Reverend Dr Li Tim-Oi with Archbishop Robert Runcie, from the Diocese of Indianapolis.




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