The six men and one woman running for the office of suffragan bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington spent most of last week in churches looking for support.

The candidates explained their qualifications for the job to lay delegates whose votes next Saturday could determine if the Washington area will elect the first woman bishop in the Anglican Church, of which the Episcopal Church is the branch in this country.

The Episcopal Church is only one of a half dozen national branches of Anglicanism that permit ordination of women to the priesthood -- a prerequisite for becoming a bishop.

The Washington diocese, generally considered liberal in most matters, played a central role a dozen years ago in moving the national church to ordain women. But there appears to be little if any organized politicking on behalf of the Rev. Mary Chotard Doll, 47, of Cincinnati.

Doll, whose father was Episcopal bishop of Maryland, is one of four candidates named by the nominating committee for suffragan, or assistant, to Bishop John T. Walker, head of the Washington diocese.

The others are the Rev. John D. Chamblin, 59, rector of Good Shepherd Church in Silver Spring; the Rev. Lawrence Harris Jr., 45, rector of St. Barnabas Church in Upper Marlboro, and the Rev. Ronald H. Haines, 52, deputy to the bishop of the Diocese of Western North Carolina.

Three additional candidates were nominated by petitions, each signed by at least 25 clergy and 50 lay church members. They are the Rev. William M. Baxter, 63, retired and living in Portland, Maine; the Rev. Christopher Sherrill, 51, assistant rector of All Souls' Parish in the District and vice president and regional director of an executive out-placement service, and the Rev. William Wendt, founder of the St. Francis Center, a counseling service dealing with death and dying.

But the wider implications of choosing a woman bishop were not raised by the audience of more than 100 that attended a meet-the-candidates session at All Saints Church on Chevy Chase Circle -- the first of two held this weekend for the 173 lay delegates.

"How do you handle conflict?" "What do you think qualifies you to be a bishop?" "What two areas would you give attention to first if you were elected suffragan?" "What would you do about young people?"

Two or three of the candidates attempted a little joke to relieve the campaign jitters everyone felt -- and one forgot the punch line. Almost all said they were "good listeners" and good at counseling -- something a suffragan does a lot.

The listing of priorities ranged from the obvious -- more work with youth or the elderly -- to a proposal by Harris for moving diocesan headquarters from the Washington Cathedral grounds to "a site out on the Beltway."

Priests of the diocese spent three days last week in a retreat, meeting and questioning the seven candidates. There are 229 clergy delegates. Canon Charles Perry of the Washington Cathedral estimated that during the retreat he sounded out at least 50 priests about the forthcoming election and "none raised the question of sex or gender."

Shortly after the nominations were announced late last month, a church-related feminist group called two meetings to consider rallying support for the woman candidate. Both were poorly attended, a source said.

Church observers were hard-pressed to find reasons for the apparent lack of interest in supporting a woman candidate. "We've always been told that women are our own worst enemies," said Pamela Chinnis, vice president of the national church's House of Deputies.

One activist for women's causes, who asked not to be identified, charged that some resistance to Doll's candidacy is coming from "40- to 50-year-old males [priests] who want to be diocesan," or chief bishop of the diocese, when Walker retires, which he is expected to do 10 years from now. A woman with 10 years experience as assistant bishop could offer formidable competition at that time.

The Episcopal Church's House of Bishops, anticipating that it was only a matter of time before the election of a woman bishop, voted overwhelmingly last September to support such a move.

Last March, heads of the 28 autonomous national churches that make up the worldwide Anglican communion agreed that the U.S. church had every right to ordain a woman bishop. But in a long and carefully worded statement, they urged the U.S. church to move cautiously lest the ordination of a woman bishop "became a focus of disunity."

Some bishops in England, where the question of ordaining women to the priesthood is eliciting sharp and sometimes bitter debate, have threatened to split from the church if women are ordained bishops in this country.

Saturday's election will be held at the Washington Cathedral.