Rev. Christopher Kelley talks to police at St. Mary of the Angels Anglican… (Michael Robinson Chavez…)
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.
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.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 19, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Los Feliz church: In the July 16 Section A, an article about a legal fight concerning the Los Feliz church St. Mary of the Angels incorrectly attributed a biblical quotation that the Rev. Christopher Kelley cited in his last Sunday Mass from the church. "Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another" is from 1 John, not the Gospel of John.
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.