‘Inspirational’ first English woman to become an Anglican priest dies aged 92

Joyce Bennett became a priest in the Chinese branch of the Anglican Church in Hong Kong in 1971

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The first English woman to be made a priest in the Anglican Communion – 23 years before the Church of England ordained its first female clergy – has died aged 92.

Joyce Bennett, who became a priest in the Chinese branch of the Anglican Church in Hong Kong in 1971, was hailed as an inspiration for those campaigning for the ordination of women in the Church of England.

Christina Rees, the founding chairwoman of the campaign group Watch, Women and the Church, told The Independent: “Because she was such a lovely, measured, and inspirational person, she didn’t just make women’s ordination look like a good thing. She made it look normal, which was the best thing she could have done for the Church.

“If people who were unsure about women priests chatted to her, they would have gone away thinking, ‘Well, if women priests are all like Joyce Bennett, then it is going to be okay.’”

Born in London, Ms Bennett arrived in Hong Kong in 1949 after undertaking missionary training. She worked as a teacher, eventually founding St Catharine’s School for Girls in 1969 – and while serving as headmistress, she was ordained in December 1971 by the Bishop of Hong Kong, the Right Rev Gilbert Baker.

Before this, the only woman to be ordained in an Anglican diocese had been the Hong Kong-born Rev Florence Li Tim-Oi. She was also ordained in Hong Kong, in 1944 during the Japanese occupation. But to avoid controversy, she resigned her licence shortly after the end of the war. 

Ordained for work in the Chinese-speaking part of the diocese of Hong Kong and Macao, Ms Bennett conducted most of her church work in Cantonese.

In 1975, at a time when the Church of England’s General Synod was said to have been approaching the issue of female priests with “the enthusiasm of men and women asked to cross a minefield”, she wrote that Chinese church members considered her gender irrelevant.

The non-Christian Chinese, she added, “have a very real respect for the ordained priest. Before my ordination, I certainly never experienced having a male member of the staff come to my office and, kneeling down on the floor, beseech me to pray for his little girl, who was lying in hospital dangerously scalded by boiling soup”.

“For the Church not to treat women equally with men,” she wrote in 1975, “provides a poor witness to the 20th century non-Christian society”.

The first women priests in the Church of England were ordained in 1994, and in January this year the English church consecrated its first woman bishop. Ms Rees said: “I am thrilled Joyce lived long enough to see all this becoming normal. Forty per cent of all active clergy in the Church of England are now women.”