At a California church, a sort of holy war

By Ashley Powers

Los Angeles Times (Mct)

Published: Monday, July 23 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

A battle has broken out between two factions within the St. Mary of the Angels Anglican Church in Los Feliz. The debate revolves around Father Christopher Kelley, pictured June 20, 2012, with one group backing him, and the other wants him out. Both groups are occupying different floors of the church and embroiled in an ongoing legal battle. (Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Michael Robinson Chavez, Mct

LOS ANGELES — Under the glimmer of a fingernail moon, Christopher Kelley tiptoed toward a two-story, Spanish Mission-style building in Los Feliz. He and his crew were jittery. What if a security guard spotted them?

A few blocks away, late-night revelers mingled in trendy bars. But Kelley's target was dark and hushed — exactly as he wanted.

The building's front door was protected by a padlocked, wrought-iron gate. So the crew crept around back, sidestepping a few jugs of rainwater and a tomato plant. They strained to hear whether anyone had followed them.

Nothing.

Then a locksmith pried open the door.

Motion-sensitive lights flickered on. Kelley felt a rush of joy. For the first time in weeks, the priest was back inside his church.

St. Mary of the Angels is an Anglican parish embroiled in an odd sort of holy war.

On one side are the Rev. Kelley and his supporters, who say their rivals are resisting the parish's efforts to join the Roman Catholic Church. On the other: parishioners and Anglican authorities who accused Kelley of wrongdoing, took him to court, ran him out of the church and changed the locks.

Church quarrels are frequently decided in courtrooms, particularly when property is involved. A few years back, the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles took a dispute with a breakaway parish all the way to the California Supreme Court.

But the St. Mary's saga is notable for its viciousness. The church has perhaps 60 members, and the bickering among them has been marked by incendiary accusations and screaming matches that often end with "God is on our side!" The parish itself became such a battleground that for a time community groups were shooed out and services canceled.

"Never in the annals of church history has it gone down quite like this," said Canon Anthony Morello of the Anglican Church in America, which has sided with the group trying to oust Kelley.

Kelley arrived as parish priest in 2007, having been chosen by St. Mary's elected board of directors. Now 65, he is white-haired, blue-eyed, slight in build. He speaks in a soft, somewhat grandfatherly tone.

"He was just so pleasant," said former board member Keith Kang, now a leader of the rival faction.

Kelley and his family — the Anglican church allows married priests — had been living in Michigan, where he worked as an archivist. They relished the summery feel of Los Angeles and the parish's only-in-Hollywood history. (Its founding priest, Neal Dodd, had bit parts in dozens of films. He usually played a clergyman.)

Kelley and his wife, Mary Alice, moved into the church cottage with two of their children. They embraced the eclectic mix of congregants, many of them converts from other faiths, and the church's black cat, Vesper.

Somewhere along the way, the goodwill crumbled. The two sides can't even agree on how.

Kelley says the troubles stem from his enthusiasm for joining the Roman Catholic Church, a door that Pope Benedict XVI recently opened for Anglican parishes. At Kelley's urging, St. Mary's members have twice voted to head down that path.

"We can see the dispiritedness of the Anglican movement," Kelley said. "Pope Benedict's offer was a sanctuary for us."

Such a step would sever their ties to the Anglican Church in America, a group of conservative parishes that long ago broke with the larger and better-known Episcopal Church. Kelley portrayed the effort to remove him as a last-ditch attempt to remain in the Anglican fold.

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