In a rite that reaches back through the Pilgrim Fathers to the beginnings of the Christian church, Anne Holmes will be ordained Sunday to the ministry of the United Church of Christ.

More than a score of UCC clergy will cluster around her as she kneels before her home congregation in Fairfax County and, laying their hands on her head, proclaim her a minister of Jesus Christ.

What sets Anne Holmes' ordination apart is that it is believed to be the nation's first of a publicly acknowledged lesbian.

Among liberal mainline churches the issue of homosexuality, and particularly the ordination of homosexuals to the ministry, continues to be a bitterly divisive issue, as Holmes and others have discovered in recent years.

Item: Bishops of the United Methodist Church must decide next week whether or not to bring one of their members to a heresy trial for declaring that he does not consider homosexuality a sin. Three tiny congregations in Georgia have filed formal charges against Bishop Melvin Wheatley Jr. of Denver, after he made the statement in defense of his appointing an acknowledged homosexual minister as a pastor in the Denver area.

Item: The National Council of Churches faces one of its stormier sessions next month when its governing board, meeting in Nashville, must act on the application for council membership by the Metropolitan Community Churches, a denomination founded by and for gays.

In recent years national bodies of the United Presbyterian, Episcopal and United Methodist churches all have taken formal actions that would bar avowed practicing homosexuals from ordination. No one would deny that these and other churches do in fact ordain homosexuals who have not acknowledged their sexual preference to church authorities.

The organizational structure of the United Church of Christ, generally considered among the most liberal of Protestant churches, is such that the question of who is ordained is left to the local parishes and associations of the denomination.

Despite the denomination's liberalism, the process that brought Anne Holmes to the point of ordination has been a painful one for all concerned, splitting the congregation of Emmaus United Church of Christ in Vienna where she is a member.

"For Emmaus, this past year has been the worst in our history; our life together has been burdened with tension, hostility, misunderstanding and pain," the Rev. Tom Cox, who founded the Northern Virginia parish 18 years ago, wrote in a message to his congregation last fall.

UCC procedure requires that a candidate for ordination must have the recommendation of his or her home congregation. The highly charged debate over Holmes' request for such approval stretched over several agonizing congregational meetings last spring. In the end she received a substantial majority of votes, but the controversy cost the 350-member church "about 20 percent" of its active membership, Cox said.

"There was a lot of just sheer pain," he said.

Holmes echoes Cox, recalling, "I felt a lot of pain . . . my own pain in all of it as well as" the opponents'.

She acknowledged that "on a fantasy level I thought it would be a lot worse than it was. But on the human level it was real hard."

Holmes, 31, a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, has been spending the past two years in a chaplaincy training program at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Washington. The program requires ordination in order for her to be certified at its completion in August as a clinical pastoral training supervisor.

After approval by her local congregation, Holmes still had to win approval of the regional Potomac Association of the United Church of Christ.

In the statement of the spiritual journey that brought her to seek ordination -- a personal and theological biography required of all candidates -- Holmes dealt forthrightly with the homosexuality issue: How she had become aware of her sexual orientation as a college student in Tennessee, her struggles with self hatred, how she rebelled against the advice to keep her lesbian orientation a secret because that would contradict "the openness with which we are called to live our lives," she said.

"I didn't want this to become the issue, but I was too honest to hide it," she told the association, which ultimately voted 94 to 36 to ordain her.

In the last couple of decades, liberal Christians have been in the vanguard of many social reform movements, finding in the scriptures full justification for liberation of racial minorities and women, for example. Gay liberation has found fewer friends in the churches, where sexual mores are inextricably linked with concepts of morality and sin.

New understandings of the Bible are challenging the traditional belief that the Bible specifically condemns homosexuality. The passage most commonly cited as the biblical basis for condemning homosexuality is the story of the Old Testament city of Sodom, which God destroyed because of the wickedness of its inhabitants.

Some modern scholars have suggested that the condemnation of homosexuality comes from a faulty interpretation in that passage of the Hebrew word for "know," that God's wrath was provoked not by the sexual licentiousness of the residents of Sodom, but by their inhospitability to strangers; that in fact the story has nothing to do with homosexuality.

Still, although most liberal Protestant churches have endorsed a live-and-let-live stance toward gays, in some cases condemning discrimination against them in housing and employment, none has on a national level agreed to open the ministry to homosexuals. Several have firmly rejected doing so.

That presents the governing body of the National Council of Churches with a dilemma next month when it considers the membership application of the predominantly gay Metropolitan Community Churches. The NCC constitution states that membership is open to any church that proclaims Jesus Christ lord and saviour, as the Metropolitan church does, but many of the mainline church leaders have serious questions about the homosexual issue.

The United Methodist Church two years ago reaffirmed the portion of its Book of Discipline that holds that homosexual behavior is "incompatible with Christian teaching." At the time, Bishop Wheatley made it clear that he disagreed.

Subsequently last fall, he appointed a homosexual minister to a post in the Denver conference. Church papers reported his action, and the three congregations near Columbus, Ga., filed charges demanding that Wheatley be tried in an ecclesiastical court for actions that "undermine the authority of the holy scriptures, are divisive, and thwart the evangelistic efforts of the United Methodist Church."

The Georgia pastors report they have received offers of support for their challenge from all over the country.

Although Anne Holmes is training to work as a chaplain in a hospital or other type of institution, she says she would like to get a few years' experience as minister in a local parish. "One of the things I will be trying to do is to work in a church," she said with a mix of wistfulness and hesitation.

But she is realistic about attitudes in the churches against homosexuals. "I don't expect a lot of possibilities," she said. "I don't think they will come to me with open arms."