ST. PETERSBURG — The rector of St. Thomas' Episcopal Church recently removed one of the congregation's most prominent members from her volunteer position, creating a painful division for church members.
The Rev. Chris Schuller dismissed Marion Fleming, a retired circuit judge and wife of a former rector, Peter Fleming, from a position known as "warden of the acolytes."
Now the Flemings have decided to move from the Snell Isle church, which she has attended for more than 30 years, and which he pastored for 19. Last Sunday, Peter Fleming's name was removed from church bulletins, which named him as "rector emeritus."
Peter Fleming said he was "shocked" by what happened. "I think his behavior was inappropriate. I think he was unpriestly. He was not pastoral. And I believe he was, in the best sense of the word, unprofessional."
But Schuller said he removed Fleming after "she took black drapings off of what are called processional crosses and hid the draping … I saw her actually hide them." He said that happened on a Sunday morning in March, and he asked her to put the drapings back on the crosses before the 10 a.m. service, but she didn't.
Marion Fleming denies that's the way things happened.
The drapings are a matter of tradition, in a church that places a high value on tradition. Generally, veils of purple or red are draped over the crosses at various times during the season of Lent. Sometimes black is used, but generally only on Good Friday. Each color has liturgical meaning.
As warden of the acolytes, Fleming taught youths how to carry out some of the traditions of Episcopal services. Some of these acolytes, puzzled by the fact that black veils were being used on a day other than Good Friday, asked Fleming whether they should remove them, she said. She said she e-mailed Schuller for instructions, but he never responded.
She also said she was among a group of church members who removed the black veils on a Sunday morning, not knowing at that point whether Schuller wanted them on the crosses. He asked her to put the veils back up, but she said she didn't have time just minutes before the next service. She said she did replace them after the service.
"I took care of it, but I guess not in the time frame he wanted. But it's not a reason to terminate someone. I've been a member of St. Thomas' since 1976." She said she would have been happy to leave the black drapings in place if she had known earlier that Schuller wanted them there.
Fleming said she was shocked when she got an e-mail from Schuller the next day saying, "When you, as acolyte warden, refuse to follow my directions, then it is time for a change."
Fleming says she never refused any directions from him. And in fact, she said, she was asking for directions and never heard back.
Schuller said he was out of the country when Fleming e-mailed him. He said he made his decision to remove Fleming "in full prayerful consultation with God, the president and vice president of the board, who in Episcopal talk are called the junior and senior warden, as well as the bishop."
Fleming said she has received many messages of support from people who were grateful for her service and dismayed at how she had been treated. She and her husband now attend St. Peter's Episcopal Cathedral.
Schuller said St. Thomas, with 1,100 members, is doing well and moving forward. He said the church set attendance records at Easter, when eight babies were baptized.