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.

Kelley's adversaries said the dispute has little to do with faith. Instead, in court papers they described him as a tyrant who mishandled church money — allegedly paying a dental bill with parish funds — and who threatened to excommunicate those who crossed him. Kelley denied the allegations.

Several longtime parishioners had begged Anglican authorities to discipline him. Langley Brandt said in an email to a church official that Kelley was prone to "violent temper tantrums" in which "his face goes red, his hands stiffen and become like a skeleton, and he screams at you with eyes budging."

In December, a majority of the parish board asked the priest to leave. He didn't. In April, Anglican officials said they, too, tried to push him out.

Kelley said the bishop who wrote the letter suspending him had no authority to do so, and he continued leading church services.

Kelley's last Sunday Mass in the sanctuary, on May 20, included a reading from the Gospel of John. It began "Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another."

His rivals did not attend. In court papers, they alleged that Kelley staffed church services with security guards, forcing his adversaries to worship at a condominium complex. (He said that wasn't the case.)

Soon after, they secured a temporary restraining order against the priest. It barred Kelley from acting as St. Mary's rector, pending a hearing on the allegations. Church authorities also asked the court to do what they had been unable to: kick Kelley out for good.

One morning in mid-June, Kelley and about a dozen supporters streamed into a downtown Los Angeles courtroom. He wore black garb, a white collar and a small gold cross on his lapel; one of his supporters clutched white rosary beads.

During a brief hearing, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Ann I. Jones dissolved the restraining order. Then she told the parties: Figure out the rest yourselves.

"Who the priest of this church is is not a question for the courts," she said to smiles from the gallery. (None of Kelley's foes had shown up. They were at the church.) The judge's written ruling also said there was "no competent evidence" that Kelley had mishandled church funds.

Kelley's supporters declared victory and rushed to St. Mary's. They ran up to the wrought-iron gate, which had been locked. One woman noticed a sign listing Morello as the "priest-in-charge." "Yuck," she said.

Then the group waited. And waited.

Their smiles disappeared.

Eventually, they learned that their rivals had no plans to let them in.

Keith Kang's wife, Diane, who was just arriving at the church, walked up to the priest.

"You know you're fired, don't you?" she snapped. He looked as if she'd slapped him.

Kang joined Pat Omeirs and other churchgoers in the parish's front office, where they could peek out a window and keep tabs on Kelley's group.

"Father Kelley is a rogue priest," Omeirs said, his hands balled in frustration. "He has no respect for authority in the church."

Kelley believed Jones' ruling allowed him back into St. Mary's. His adversaries countered that the judge had left the matter in the hands of the Anglican officials who want Kelley gone. And her ruling left just enough wiggle room for both sides to keep bickering.

"She never went so far as to say, 'You have to give it back,' " said Kelley's attorney, Alan Dettelbach.

The priest griped that Jones had washed her hands of the matter, "much like Pontius Pilate."

The next day, another court hearing — and the arrival of two LAPD officers at the church, summoned by one of the sides — did little to break the stalemate.

"He's going to rush the gates!" one of Kelley's foes screeched as the priest's group assembled.

One of the police officers turned around and sized up the priest and his band of mostly aging men. "They're not going to rush the gates," the officer said.

A woman cracked the gate just enough for the cops to slip through. After much discussion, the officers decided that the judge's ruling offered them little guidance.

The next night, Kelley's plan succeeded. Sort of.

After the locksmith let them in, Kelley's group streamed into the church's first floor, an unassuming space with a stage, a kitchen, a nursery and a children's altar festooned with red roses. Presiding over the unlikely scene: a picture of Pope Benedict.

The group climbed stairs to another door, which leads to a long hallway. It's close to the second-floor sanctuary where Kelley once preached. The locksmith opened the door. Kelley's group peered down the hall.

At the other end: their rivals.

Both sides rushed to call 911. Kelley's group retreated downstairs. They've been there in varying numbers ever since — one month and counting.

During the day, Kelley and his supporters, who come and go most days, pray for a cease-fire. At night, they take turns guarding the space, sometimes by napping on the stage. Meanwhile, they've filed their own lawsuit.

Their foes on the second floor, also protecting their turf in shifts, aren't ceding ground, either. Keith Kang often carries a video camera to document any confrontations. And Morello, the Anglican official, said church authorities are taking steps to discipline Kelley via an ecclesiastical trial.

The other day, Kelley was sitting at a table, drumming his fingers on a Book of Common Prayer, when someone drew a parallel between the standoff and the biblical tale of King Solomon. The king settled a dispute between two women over a baby by threatening to slice the child in half; the woman willing to give up the baby to keep it safe was awarded custody.

It wasn't Kelley who made the comparison or his supporters.

It was the armed security guard they'd hired.

©2012 Los Angeles Times Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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