The text for the day spoke of the Lord's anointing "to preach the gospel to the poor . . . to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed . . . . "

"All those issues get brought to the fore in political life," the speaker told the early Sunday morning gathering at the rambling old inner-city church.

"As a member of the Maryland Senate, as the Montgomery County executive, I've had an opportunity to do something about these issues," Charles W. Gilchrist continued. "Every political official, whether he likes it or not, does deal with moral issues in politics."

For a decade, Gilchrist has dealt with issues, moral and otherwise, from a political perspective. Now he is winding up an internship at the Church of the Epiphany at 1317 G St. NW, a step on the road to ordination as an Episcopal priest.

The local political establishment, which had begun to think in terms of state or even national office for Gilchrist, was shocked more than a year ago when word of his preparations for the priesthood leaked out. But Gilchrist doesn't view the move as remarkable.

"I don't see that sharp a contrast between public service and the ordained ministry," he said in an interview in his sleek county executive's office in Rockville.

Many of the issues that public officials must deal with "are quite properly part of what the church is doing," he said. "One of the exciting things is the extent to which the church is becoming involved in public issues."

Sometimes the churchman and the public official come together on an issue. As county executive, Gilchrist has pulled some pension funds out of companies that do business with South Africa.

As a churchman, he joined other Episcopalians in demonstrations at the South African Embassy in March, although, he noted, he decided not to be arrested because "as county executive I am in charge of police, and I felt it would be hypocritical of me to break the law."

Then, with a self-deprecatory shrug: "You spend a lot of time splitting hairs."

Last Sunday, Gilchrist completed his 10-month internship at Epiphany church, where he spent 12 hours a week in the parish, helping out at services, visiting the sick, sitting in on church committee meetings and occasionally preaching.

The congregation at Epiphany is unstinting in its praise of him. "Charles Gilchrist is one extraordinary gentleman," said the Rev. Geoffrey Price, associate rector, who supervised the internship.

"I never heard a negative comment about Charlie," said William Johnston, a parishioner who handles the church's finances. " . . . so faithful. He was always here . . . . He got into the life of the parish beyond what you'd normally expect. He involved himself without being pushy."

At Christmastime, Gilchrist spent a week at the church dealing with a steady flow of street people who came seeking help. "We were very impressed. That is a busy man," said Thomazine Shanahan, a staff member at the church.

Gilchrist said the internship year has strengthened his determination to spend three years preparing for full-time service in the church after the end of his second term as county executive next year. If all goes according to plan, he will finish his graduate study at the age of 52.

Despite being senior warden, a post with religious responsibilities, while attending Washington's exclusive Episcopal St. Alban's School, Gilchrist said he had little involvement with any church as he moved on through school and up the ladder of legal and political success. But he said a number of factors through the years influenced his decision to change his career, including his son Don's successful two-year battle with a brain tumor.

"I'm also getting older," he said. "One tends to see limitations to what people can do by themselves, and you begin to become aware that our human capacities are limited, that we've got to have help in addressing these problems."

In addition, he said, "I've admired what organized religion is doing in the county . . . the importance in the black community of the church, spiritually as well as in community and political activity," the Rev. Lon Dring and the interdenominational Community Ministry, the "ministry of the Jewish community with the elderly . . . a human service in a broader context, related to the past and the future as well as the present, more than just the immediacy of solving today's problems." He said he was impressed, too, with the Catholic bishops and their pastoral letters on nuclear issues and economics.

"The entire scope of [the church's] ministry has got to be concerned with everything that human beings are concerned with."

Nearly three years ago, Gilchrist was confirmed and joined St. Luke's Church in Bethesda. He also began the Episcopal Church's "selection" process -- psychological, physical and religious screening interviews and consultations -- that won him approval as a postulant for holy orders.

His family, he said, "has been very supportive." His wife Phoebe recently completed a master's degree in library science and has taken a position with a scientific consulting concern. Their sons Don and Jim are in college, and their daughter Janet is a sophomore at Robert Montgomery High School. "We're all beginning new phases in our lives," Gilchrist said.

His rediscovered faith is not the kind that prompts him to denounce the past: "I think my approach to public issues has certainly been consonant with Christian principles.

"Sure there are compromises, but I can't think of anything I reproach myself on." The church, he added, "can offer the kind of stability and lasting presence that no other institution can."