It's a terrifying thing," says the Rev. James O. Mote of Denver, "to leave the church of your baptism, your confirmation. This has been a terrible strain on me."

Father Mote, 55, is a central figure in a theological dispute now sundering the Episcopal Church of the U.S. Under his leadership, members of St. Mary's Church in Denver voted last November to secede from the Colorado diocese, the first parish in the nation to do so. (Close to 75 have now broken away.) When nearly 1,800 dissident Episcopalians met in September in St. Louis, Mote was the first among them to be named a bishop in the newly formed Anglican Church in North America. "Lord, help me," an anguished and reluctant Mote said of his appointment. "I'd rather be a garbage collector."

He nonetheless believes that secession is the only way to fight efforts by the established church to "modernize" itself in recent years. Like his fellow rebels, Father Mote's liturgical practices are closer to those of Roman Catholicism than of the American Episcopal Church. "I was loyal to the church for more than 25 years," he says, "but that changed in 1973 when the general convention voted to give bishops permission to terminate marriages and changed the sacrament of confirmation."

He argued from within the church against what he considered unwarranted changes until a new crisis erupted last year. "Then," he claims, "they blessed abortion. We were condoning the killings of future Einsteins, Pasteurs and Salks."

Father Mote concedes that his split with the church came over the question of women in the priesthood. He insists his opposition is scriptural, not sexual. Believing that priests are successors to Christ's apostles, he says, "God did not choose females to be his apostles," and therefore only males can be priests.

Though born of Episcopal parents in Indianapolis, Mote attended a Methodist Sunday school closer to his home. In his teen years he was able to drive to an Episcopal Church, which he joined. He worked three years in factories to earn money for college, but World War II intervened. A pacifist, he was drafted nevertheless, served in Europe as a chaplain's assistant and won a Bronze Star for rescuing wounded troops on the battlefield. He completed his education after the war at Canterbury College and Nashotah House Seminary in Wisconsin. Joining St. Mary's in 1951, he has been there ever since. Its membership today is 416, up slightly since the break, and its 1977 budget is $97,000, an increase over last year.

From the time he was ordained, Mote has been celibate by choice. "I could not handle battles on two fronts," he says. His church's defection, he admits, has brought bitter divisions in the parish, occasionally between members of the same family. Yet Father Mote's humor has not entirely deserted him in the turmoil. "Bishop or not," he observes, "at St. Mary's I'm still the one who has to water the lawn."