The keys strewn about the table at St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church told of the rancor now separating men and women who once worshiped together. Torn apart by theological differences, most of the Largo congregation packed up and left, with a remaining handful laying claim to church property all had once shared. Festering for months, the quarrel has been borne out in changed locks and signs, along with a stream of vitriol concerning stolen real estate, lying clerics, hijacked records and money removed from a school account. Similar fights have occurred nationwide, as disputes over gay ordination and biblical interpretation roil the 2.4 million-member Episcopal Church.
Dozens of parishes have seceded from the denomination — the U.S. branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion — uniting under a banner of orthodoxy in the new Pittsburgh-based Anglican Church in North America. The rift also has led to court battles over property as secessionists try to hold on to real estate the Episcopal Church says is rightfully its.
As at many breakaway parishes, the holy war in Largo can trace its beginnings to 2003, when the first openly gay bishop was consecrated in the Episcopal Church. In September 2009, their priest, the Rev. Ed Sellers, led all but 13 of St. Dunstan's almost 200 members into the conservative ranks.
"The gay issue is the sensational issue that the press focuses on, but that is not the pivotal issue for us,'' said Sellers, 68.
"We still have gay people in our parish and we still welcome them, but we are not comfortable with a gay bishop walking down the aisle with his partner.''
Sellers, a priest for 42 years, said that many Episcopal Church leaders no longer believe in the authority of the Scriptures and have "virtually denied the divinity of Jesus.''
"The people in the pews are being led by lunatics,'' he said.
Despite parting ways with the Episcopal Church, Sellers and his congregation remained on St. Dunstan's property, paying $1,300 a month in rent. In an uneasy truce, the few remaining Episcopalians also occupied the property but worshiped separately. They say that at one point, Sellers' flock changed the locks, relegating them to entering through a side door and dictating that they could worship only on Sunday afternoons. Sellers disputes that, saying that only the office locks were changed and that was to stop additional church records from disappearing.
The conflict took a new turn on April 23, when the Episcopal Diocese sent an e-mail setting conditions for continued use of the property.
As far as Sellers was concerned, his congregation had received an eviction notice.
"We didn't believe anything the diocese said, because they're pathological liars,'' he said.
In a statement, the diocese said its actions came "not only after many conversations, but also in the wake of profound conflict.''
So it was that the first Sunday in May, the two sparring congregations worshiped 2.5 miles apart. The tiny Episcopal group met at St. Dunstan's, at 10888 126th Ave. N, a building that seats 250. Sellers' congregation — St. Dunstan's Anglican — worshiped at the recently closed Faith United Methodist Church, 403 First Ave. SW.
That morning Bishop Dabney Smith, head of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida, a jurisdiction that includes Pinellas County, gave the homily at St. Dunstan's.
"Choosing to practice forgiveness is difficult work,'' he told 10 worshipers at the 7:15 a.m. service.
Later, sitting at a table covered with a jumble of keys, Smith said the diocese is assessing the viability of the remnant congregation.
"It's our hope that we will be able to revitalize, renew and rejoice,'' he said.
That day, Sellers told his congregants that their property had been "taken over'' and predicted doom for the other side's efforts to maintain it. Parishioners should grieve for their loss, he said, but "we must put the past behind us and not be consumed with feelings of bitterness and anger.''
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The theological differences that precipitated the exodus of Sellers' congregation and others from the Episcopal Church are the root of the latest strife to affect the denomination. This new conflict, though, which has managed to unite groups that abandoned the denomination as far back as 1873, could mean serious trouble for the Episcopal Church, said Bill Leonard, dean and professor of church history at Wake Forest University Divinity School.
"It is very fascinating historically that the Anglican Communion in this country has decided to split over issues of sexuality, when they resisted schism over slavery, temperance, and fundamentalism and liberalism in the 1920s, those controversies that divided so many Protestant groups in North America,'' he said.
"It took a long time, but now that it has started, it is moving along with a vengeance.''
In Pinellas, the squabble between the two churches continues over matters such as ownership of an early learning center and a bingo license. The Episcopal congregation wants its website and phone number back.
"It's like a family breaking up,'' said Jim DeLa, spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese.
"It's traumatic and it's going to take time for this church (St. Dunstan's Episcopal) to find its bearings again, but we're going to do everything we can do to help.''
For parishioners Nancy Campbell, on the Episcopal side, and C.J. Peter Lilly, with the Anglicans, the fray has been difficult. Campbell's stomach "just gets rolling'' when she thinks of it, and Lilly is incensed by the way the Episcopalians have acted.
"They destroyed our sign,'' he said.
They also took $75,000 from the early childhood center's account, he said.
"We knew it would be needed to pay the day school's bills,'' Campbell said, adding that the center has always belonged to the Episcopal Church.
The school, Sellers countered, is independently chartered and belongs to the Anglican Church.
Leonard, the Wake Forest professor, expects such wrangling between Episcopalians and secessionists to intensify. Eventually, he said, the Episcopal Church could find itself coexisting with its rivals, who are campaigning for formal recognition among Anglicans worldwide.
"I think it will get more difficult for the overall church not to recognize them,'' Leonard said, "because of their numbers and their intensity.''