The Washington National Cathedral is a vast, vaulted cavity, designed to make humans feel tiny. Into the echoing nave came Washington-area Episcopalians, both laity and clergy, for the annual diocesan conference. They came from the high churches perfumed by swinging censers to the low churches where the pews have been replaced by chairs that can be moved aside for parties. They came from liberal suburban churches, and conservative urban ones, and vice versa. There were priests who are women and priests who are gay, and others who opposed their very existence as ordained interpreters of God's word.

Presiding over all was the bishop, the Right Rev. Ronald H. Haines, a tall, 61-year-old grandfather who for six years has guided this prominent and contentious flock. Looking down from the dais at the 200 or so representatives of the Washington diocese's 41,000 Episcopalians, he tried to preclude the discord that was sure to come. This was not to be a debate, he said, but "a time of Christian sharing."

Right.

In its conflicts over the ordination of women and homosexuals, the Episcopal Church reflects society at large, which continues to thrash out painful questions about sexuality and gender roles -- invoking confusion, animosity, even terror. An Episcopal Church version of the debate takes on its own characteristics: a vocabulary of equivocal phrases and caveats adopted in a futile attempt not to offend anyone; an awesome capacity for hair-splitting; a certain lost-empire ruefulness. But beneath the language of "Christian sharing" is a seemingly bottomless pit of raw emotion, and Ron Haines, a staunch supporter of the ordination of homosexuals and women, is the lightning rod for much of it.

He is an unlikely target for such emotion. Haines has an air of austerity tempered with a faint sweetness. He is dry. Careful. Some would say obstinate. He is a man who wishes everyone would get along, but if they won't he's not going to back off. And faded as it may be on the American landscape, the Episcopal Church is still an important moral standard-bearer. If Haines and his allies prevail, they may effect enormous change in the way women in positions of authority and homosexuals are recognized by society. Of course, there are plenty of those who predict Haines someday may be presiding over an empty church.

"I am sometimes accused of being passionless," Haines says, his Delaware Valley accent flattening the vowels. "I am a steady person. I'm in this for the long haul." A person in the middle of emotional conflict, he suggests, "is better served by perseverance than by passion."

He could be charged with heresy for ordaining an openly gay woman, the Rev. Elizabeth Carl, in 1990. A retired bishop, Walter Righter, is currently accused by some 76 fellow bishops (of 302 total) of committing heretical crimes when he ordained the openly gay Rev. Barry Stopfel a few months after Carl's ordination. A heresy charge against Haines seems unlikely at this point, but that it is even a remote possibility shows how explosive the issue is.

Does the Episcopal Church officially condone the ordination of homosexuals? Typically, the answer is about as clear as a glass of communion wine. A 1979 "recommendatory resolution" enacted by the church's governing body was against it, but there is nothing written down that forbids it.

"Haines is a courageous man," said the Rev. Michael Hopkins, rector of St. George's in Glenn Dale, Md., who is openly gay. "He's put himself and his episcopate on the line for us. I know that if he'd been able to choose an issue to make his stand on, this probably wouldn't have been it."

The fact that Haines has a gay son, and a wife of 40 years who is adamantly opposed to the ordination of homosexuals, only adds an intriguing dimension to his unflappability.

The question of women's ordination seemed to have been settled years ago, but opposition keeps popping up like brush fires. Officially, the church approves of the ordination of women, but recognizes those who don't as a legitimate minority. Some in the diocese feel that Haines and Suffragan Bishop Jane Dixon may have exacerbated the problem recently by forcing three churches who reject women as priests to receive Dixon, as part of her "rota," or regular circuit of visiting each church in the diocese. The two visits that have taken place so far were marked by pickets, parishioners staying home and a priest sitting with his back to Dixon as she celebrated Mass.

"It must seem to the world at large that we take our cues from Phyllis Diller," said Carl at a recent prayer vigil for Righter. "She wrote . . . Never go to bed mad. Stay up and fight!' " Facing the Fact

To Haines, it's just a question of honesty. Homosexuals have been ordained for years, only nobody acknowledged it, he says. "We learned to live with {homosexual priests} in an unhealthy way, and that was pretending that we didn't know. And when you start keeping those kinds of secrets, that's not good for anyone's soul or for the organization."

Women are as capable of priestly duties as men, according to Haines, and the dissenters are in a small minority. The Bible -- which he has read annually in its entirety for the past 30 years -- should be interpreted generously, he says.

"Moral standards do change historically," Haines says. "Some of the people most exercised about what the Scriptures say or allegedly say about gay matters are divorced people. I wonder how that is compatible -- the Scriptures are pretty specific about divorce."

Haines is quick to point out that the prospect of racial integration was heralded with the same cries of alarm that have greeted the ordination of women and homosexuals. As he noted in a recent speech, the first local Episcopal church to integrate was St. Stephen and the Incarnation in 1953, and "many of the lay leaders left in protest." His opponents insist there is no parallel.

Haines trained as an engineer, and worked in the field for eight years before entering the seminary as a part-time student. His practical side can be seen in the yard of the Silver Spring home he shares with his wife, Mary. There he has built a set of grass terraces, shored up by stones laid in precise rows to bear the weight of the earth. Haines built the walls in his spare time, lodging each flat rock into a network of granite, creating sturdy order where there was erosion.

Their six children are grown, the youngest 25 and a recent mother. There are pictures of the christening -- conducted by the proud grandfather -- on the refrigerator. This unpretentious suburban family place is not the home of the blue-blood bishops of yesteryear; the Episcopal Church, Haines notes, is no longer the Establishment church, pews filled with the ruling potentates of government and business. He is glad of that.

The 2.5-million-member Episcopal Church, like many other denominations, is on a quest for relevance. The Washington diocese, like other urban churches, worries not only about spirituality but about its role in the fight against racism, poverty, AIDS, violence and so forth.

It's not had an easy time of it lately. More than a few churchgoers and clergy are weary of the infighting, and fret that increasing ugliness between factions will send the faithful right out the door. Family Matters

Mary Haines, the bishop's wife, is as vehemently opposed to the ordination of homosexuals as her husband is for it. This fact has not gone unnoticed in church circles.

"I read a book that said you can disagree 20 percent of the time and still have a good marriage," she says, with a big smile. Mary Haines, a slim, white-haired woman who is as outgoing as her husband is reserved, says, "We only disagree about 10 percent of the time."

Their marriage is a "covenant," and that's that.

"We have agreed that each person is entitled to their own opinion," says Bishop Haines tightly.

Mary Haines agrees with the 1979 recommendation against ordaining homosexuals. She believes that the Bible says homosexual activity is sinful. She does, however, support the ordination of women, which she sees as a different theological issue.

Her husband did not mention Elizabeth Carl's ordination until the night before it happened, and it came as a surprise. "I just couldn't believe he would do that, especially without telling us," she says. She and her son Josh spent that evening calling people and asking them to pray that Haines would change his mind.

He didn't. Later that year when a group of more conservative bishops tried to have him censured, Mary Haines thought he should be -- but then was relieved when he wasn't. It's an episode she prefers not to discuss now.

A few years ago the Haineses were told by their gay son Jeffrey, now 35, that he had been sexually abused by Haines's junior warden, J. Faulton Hodge, while Haines served a parish in North Carolina. Jeffrey said the abuse began when he was 8 and continued for 12 years. In 1994 the younger Haines, supported by his parents, sued the Episcopal Diocese of Western North Carolina for $130,000. Hodge denied the charges. The suit was settled out of court last year for what Bishop Haines called a modest amount. The whole episode was extremely painful, he says.

"In 1968, we were all a lot more naive about such matters -- or alleged matters, I have to say. I would not have dreamed that such things happen to normal, typical people in small towns. . . . People who perpetrate such things often don't look like ogres on the outside," Haines says.

"You get into it and you don't believe it yourself. And you don't want to believe it. And you start to talk about it and it sets other people's teeth on edge. It was a long and difficult journey. The embarrassment . . . the victim gets revictimized. There's a terrible price to pay" for going public. But in hindsight, says Haines, "there was a lot of healing."

Jeffrey, who lives in New York and works for a restaurant, told them that Hodge had given him alcohol, drugs and pornography. "This was a man who was in charge of greeting us when we arrived," says Mary Haines. "Ron sponsored him when he went to seminary."

They sued because there was no other recourse, Bishop Haines says, and because they felt the publicity would help keep others from being victimized.

The experience has not affected either Haines's position on ordaining homosexuals, however. Religious Disobedience

Stella Morabita Green disagrees with Bishop Haines on the ordination of both women and homosexuals. Moral standards should not change, she says. A member of St. Luke's in Bladensburg who has been outspoken in the diocese on both issues, she says: "You can justify almost any sin with the logic they use. You could say you were not created monogamous -- monogamy is a minimum standard for Christian marriage. But you could easily prove that some people are not created that way. Yet that's the standard that is set forth for us. . . . So many people are born with proclivities or appetites; that's why we need the Bible to guide us."

Parishioners at St. Luke's were called the night before Suffragan Bishop Jane Dixon's pastoral visit and told that the service had been canceled and the rector, the Rev. Arthur E. Woolley Jr., was away. Earlier, he had written to Haines that he would "use every means at my disposal to prevent such a violation of our consciences."

When Haines told the rector of the Church of the Ascension and St. Agnes that Dixon would be visiting, Victoria Ebell and other members of the vestry voted to strip the altar and cancel the service. But their priest, the Rev. Lane J. Davenport, is a temporary leader from another diocese here while the congregation searches for a permanent rector, and he was told by Dixon (reiterated in a follow-up letter from Haines) that his license could be revoked if he was not present in the nave to receive the suffragan. So he did -- with his back to the altar.

Ebell felt "violated" by Dixon's visit. "It was blackmail," she says. Current church policy, she says, is that those who sincerely do not believe that women should be ordained have a legitimate view and should be respected. The next General Convention is likely to solidify its support of women as priests, making it harder for the four dioceses (of 119) who have rejected them to keep doing so. But Ebell doesn't understand why Haines wants to "force" her church to accept female priests before they have to.

"This isn't a civil rights issue," says Ebell, who handles constituent services for a congressman and has four children. When Jane Dixon was consecrated suffragan in November 1992, Ebell read a statement objecting during the ceremony; she still refers to her as "Miss" Dixon rather than bishop or reverend. "Our Lord came to Earth as a man. There are important roles for women to play in the church. Jesus did not ordain women in his church. I don't think this is something God just overlooked."

Dixon is scheduled to visit St. Paul's, on K Street NW, in three weeks. The vestry voted to accept her visit, even though many disapprove of women as priests. The rector is starting a pre-retirement sabbatical before the visit.

That only three of the diocese's 96 congregations object to women's ordination is no indication that their objections are inconsequential. All three churches have healthy memberships that are comparable in size to others in the diocese. Nationally, four of 119 dioceses refuse to accept female priests, but after 1998 they will have to provide "equal access," according to preliminary votes by the governing House of Bishops.

Haines and Dixon say they forced the issue after several years of discussion with the resisting parishes. They offered compromises, Haines said.

"I even suggested, why not have Bishop Dixon to tea, or why not let her speak in the parish hall at some Lenten event, something that was not sacramental," he says. "I had hoped to incrementally reach one another. That was not to be. . . . I thought time would take care of it. But time is not making it better and is exacerbating the situation." It is not acceptable, he says, for even three parishes to view Dixon's ordination as invalid, because that means every confirmation, baptism, ordination or marriage she performs is also illegitimate. Every effort was made to accommodate the non-accepters, he says, because Dixon conducted only one service; those who reject her could attend one at a different time.

"Some very uncivil and unfortunate things were done," Haines said.

"That's like a rapist complaining that the victim was rude because she fought back," said Ebell. A Matter of Interpretation

The issue of homosexuality is even more explosive, and has been debated almost as long as the ordination of women. Those who object generally say they do not mind a celibate homosexual priest -- but once a person is in a relationship, he or she is having sex outside of marriage, which is a sin. Likewise, they say, homosexual sex is against biblical teachings. In the Old Testament book of Leviticus, for example, it says that a man "lying with a man" is an "abomination."

It also says in Leviticus that eating shellfish is an abomination, and that a man can't be a priest if he is a dwarf or has a flat nose. Most of these ancient "purity laws" were abandoned in the New Testament, but the prohibition on homosexuality hangs on like a limpet.

"It's pretty clear that God wills our existence to come from the male and the female," says Green. Believing that gay men and women should not be priests doesn't mean rejecting them as people or as fellow Episcopalians, she says, it just means they can't be in a position of moral leadership.

"Homophobia is not the question for them," says the Rev. Rona Harding, who leads a conservative parish on the Lexington Park Navy station in St. Mary's County. Her church has lost "quite a few members" over Haines's stance on the issue. Many of her parishioners question whether homosexuality is chosen or inherent, she says.

Green has another problem with the debate. She says she feels that those who disagree with her traditionalist position have in effect accused her of hating all gay people, or having some personal vendetta against Dixon -- contrary to the diocesan precept that "all are accepted and none are despised." "It's a Stalinist tactic," she says, to twist her reading of the Bible into a rejection of specific people. In her view, the diocese has not dealt with the minority view in a way that reflects that they, too, are accepted and not despised. Pain and Progress

The Rev. Michael Hopkins, the openly gay rector of St. George's in Glenn Dale, Md., was ordained without fanfare in January 1990, months before Carl or Stopfel. He came from the Chicago diocese, so Haines performed the ordination as a courtesy rather than as a sponsor.

Episcopal priests are "called" to a particular parish, which is a polite way of saying hired. There are no guarantees of a job once one has been ordained. Each congregation goes through a lengthy process of self-evaluation before it ties its fortunes to an individual priest. The parish knew that Hopkins was gay and that he lived with John Clinton Bradley, one of the local conveners of Integrity, the church's ministry to homosexuals.

"About six people left very loudly when I first came here and wanted others to go with them," says Hopkins. "It was very painful for all of us." At that time, six years ago, the parish was nearly moribund; since then the membership has tripled to about 120. Two other parishes in the Washington diocese, St. Thomas' and All Souls', have called openly gay priests. Elizabeth Carl, whose ordination caused all the fuss, is currently working for a federal employee assistance program, "between jobs" as a priest, looking for an opening. Jerry Anderson, another well-known gay priest, is taking a sabbatical after years of working with the diocese's AIDS ministry.

Hopkins says that "80 percent of the clergy" have been welcoming and supportive. "But there's a part of me that is never quite sure if I fully belong," he says. "I'm always living under sort of a threat because the church as a larger body hasn't accepted {the ordination of homosexuals}."

Inevitably, the discussion comes around to the subject of same-sex marriage -- although there is no unity among gay clergy on this issue.

Even Haines parts company with gay activists here, and in this he reflects mainstream thinking. Public opinion polls show that between 56 percent and 64 percent of the American population oppose legal same-sex marriage.

"Same-sex marriage -- that to me cannot be," Haines says. "Holy matrimony can only be between a man and a woman. Whether or not a union can be blessed gets you into a whole other area. There, at least, a whole lot of discussion can be done. I look to the gay community to do a lot of the theological reflection on what a union means."

Gay priests such as Hopkins and Anderson realize how difficult it will be to get approval for same-sex marriages, but at the same time they long for the recognition and benefits a legal union would bring.

"If you expect your straight clergy to be monogamous and faithful in marriage and you put in place a marriage rite to support that relationship and build up a set of expectations, all of which is part of the institution of marriage, what do you do for a gay person trying to maintain a committed relationship?" says Anderson. "Do you bless the union? Give the spouse medical benefits? Or say no, you have to keep your significant other like a mistress?" The Visit

On a snowy Sunday morning, the bishop is making a routine visit to St. David's, a small parish in Northwest Washington, not far from MacArthur Boulevard. Haines visits a different church every Sunday; it takes just over two years for him to make a complete circuit. The visits are special occasions.

About 50 people have braved the weather for this morning's service. This is a conservative, older parish; those in attendance are white except for a couple of children adopted by white parents. Many here oppose Haines's support of ordaining gay men and women. Although their current priest is a woman, she is there only until a new rector is chosen to replace the one who retired a year ago.

St. David's is a pretty church in the Anglican mold. Sunlight strains through the stained-glass windows offering a faint promise of better weather. Haines tells a story from his boyhood near the Delaware River, where he spent a lot of time in small boats.

"You get home by following the running lights on shore," he says. "To see one light is no help at all. They are always in pairs, one on shore and one further up. Two lights set a course. . . . Christian life is like that. Rarely do we see the whole course before us."

He sketched a parallel between the Sermon on the Mount and the running lights -- how Jesus did not intend to set "conditions for entrance" but rather a pattern for Christian life, just as the running lights guide the sailor home.

"Being a bishop is not unlike being the captain of a ship," he says later, sitting on a couch in his office in Church House.

He does not elaborate. CAPTION: The Rev. Ronald H. Haines, Episcopal bishop of Washington: "I am a steady person. I'm in this for the long haul." Below, the Washington National Cathedral. CAPTION: "Haines is a courageous man," said the openly gay Rev. Michael Hopkins, above. "He's put himself and his episcopate on the line for us." Some say Haines and Suffragan Bishop Jane Dixon, left, exacerbated the problem by forcing three churches who reject women as priests to receive Dixon.