For three days last week dozens of townsfolk, all attired in their Sunday finery, quietly filed into the small white brick courthouse here for a trial that has split this community apart, wrenching father from son, pitting neighbor against neighbor.

"It's like the War Between the States," said Francis Butler. Her own family and many others in this farming town of 1,000 have been torn for more than a year over questions of heresy. Should women be priests? Should a divorced bishop be allowed to remarry? Should the age-old Book of Common Prayer be revised?

Those questions have long been answered in most communities across the country, but here in Amherst, change is not easily accepted - especially in religious matters.

It was the issue of change as much as any other, that last week drew townsfolk to the courthouse where an out-of-town judge presided over a trial on the question of who owns the red brick Ascension church.

Officials of the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia had come to court with some local Episcopalians in an effort to regain the 132-year-old Church that had been a part of their denomination since its founding. But their lawsuit was bitterly contested by a majority of the church's members, who argued that the question was whether the Episcopal Church had abandoned its beliefs.

Bitterness over the issue runs deep here, 160 miles southwest of Washington. "It's broken up life-long friendships," said Evelyn Cauwenberg, one of the many church members at the trial. Friends no longer speak and Margaret Hutchinson vividly recalled the day when a neighbor "crossed the street when she saw me coming because she was afraid I was going to speak to her."

The breakaway faction still meets in the church under the leadership of a pipe-smoking pastor, Rev. John A. Pedlar, whom the Episcopal Church considers deposed. When the church voted to join the conservative Anglican Catholic Church, a new denomination formed largely by dissatisfied Episcopalians, the dissidents painted over the former "Episcopal" church sign.

Last week the church's lawyer, S. Strother Smith, argued that the state judge hearing the case must consider what has happened to Episcopal doctrines in recent years. "We are saying the Angelican Catholic Church is the same as the Episcopal Church was in 1847," he said.

State Circuit Court Judge I. L. Koontz of Salem, a Presbyterian, said he was unmoved by questions of church doctrine. "What does all this have to do with the property of Ascension Church?" he asked aloud at one point.

The judge said he could rule on the case without considering the question of doctrine, but he said that his ruling won't come until late September after lawyers are to present him with written briefs.

"When you get into which church is the proper church, that is doctrine," the judge said. "That is not my territory."

His statement appeared to strengthen the claims of the 44 members of the congregation who meet nearby and assert they are the true Episcopalians. They contend that the deed to the present church, erected in 1847, says the property is to be used for a congregation of "the Episcopal Church" and they argue that they are the only Episcopalians in Amherst.

That point was disputed by one of the Anglicans' witnesses, the Rev. William Rutherford, a former Episcopal priest from Roanoke. He told the judge that because of changes in its doctrine, the Episcopal Church has ceased to be a church.

Martin P. Burks, a lawyer for the diocese, said he was amazed. "Over two million people [the church's current membership] floating around the United States without a church?" he asked Rutherford.

"That's right," Rutherford snapped. "That's the sin of it."

Regardless of how Koontz rules on the issue, some townsfolk say the tensions raised by the fight will not be soon relieved. In a dispute like this one, said Hester Scott Wailes, whose great, great grandfather helped build the Ascension church, "You can lose much more than a church." CAPTION: Picture, The Rev. John Pedlar at controversial church. UPI