A Houston gay activist and an unidentified United Methodist minister have said that retired United Methodist Bishop Finis A. Crutchfield, who died of AIDS May 21, was a practicing homosexual, the Houston Chronicle reported this week.

The paper quoted gay rights lobbyist Ray Hill, 46, as saying he and Crutchfield, who was once president of the church's Council of Bishops, "talked about some of his homosexual activities" in the late 1970s. "He was active in the gay community as a gay person. I knew him in that context," said Hill, a trial assistant for a Houston law firm.

The Chronicle also quoted a statement from a United Methodist clergyman who serves outside Texas. The minister, who asked not to be identified, said in his statement, "I can state categorically that Bishop Crutchfield was sexually active with men over a period of many years, continuing at least into 1984." The minister told the Chronicle he first spoke with the bishop at the 1984 General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the nation's second largest Protestant denomination.

Delegates to the 1984 General Conference, the church's quadrennial legislative body, voted after bitter debate to bar "self-avowed practicing homosexuals" from the church's ministry. The 1984 General Conference also added "fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness" to requirements for ordination.

The newspaper said that no official church source has confirmed the allegations, "nor has anyone publicly identified himself as having had a sexual relationship with Crutchfield."

Rumors had long circulated among United Methodist clergy that the bishop, a married man who was the father of a grown son, was involved in homosexual activity.

The bishop's son, the Rev. Charles Crutchfield of Odessa, Tex., issued a statement immediately after his father's death saying that in a private and "extremely candid" conversation, his father had told him he had had neither homosexual nor extramarital affairs.

The statement also said that his father, in private conversations with his physician, also had denied having homosexual relationships. The younger Crutchfield continues to stand by this statement.

According to a church spokesman, the bishop's wife of more than 40 years, Benja Lee Crutchfield, gave her consent to release of a family statement intended to halt speculation only after she was told that the death certificate would disclose the cause of death as acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

The family statement, which eliminated drug use and blood transfusions as a possible source of infection, detailed the late bishop's volunteer ministry to people with AIDS.

The statement seemed to invite the conclusion that Crutchfield's infection with the deadly AIDS virus was the result of casual contact with AIDS victims, which health authorities agree is all but impossible.

In the wake of the family's explanation, organizations concerned with the care of AIDS patients in Houston and elsewhere received numerous calls from volunteers who feared for their own safety in working with those stricken with the disease.

The level of fear among volunteers put some programs in jeopardy, organizers reported. Religious News Service reported that a Houston clergyman, who asked not to be identified, said clergy there were so concerned about the possible loss of volunteers that they had urged persons with firsthand knowledge of the late bishop's life style to make public statements to the news media.

The out-of-state minister quoted by the Chronicle said, "Bishop Crutchfield spent all of his life denying that he had same-sex sexual experiences to nearly everyone except his partners. He was sufficiently active that rumors of his contact followed him for much of his ministry. He and those close to him denied the rumors as motivated by persons who were out to get him.

"It is not surprising, therefore, that up to the end, he denied his same-sex experiences to his family and to his doctor."

Hill, the other source quoted by the Chronicle, said he had first talked to Crutchfield because of other people's concerns that the bishop's homosexuality might be revealed through a possible arrest.

Hill said he was "amazed" at the silence of United Methodist ministers and said the bishop's homosexuality was widely known among local clergy. "Bishop Crutchfield kept the various elements of his life separate," Hill said.

Charles Crutchfield, informed of the Chronicle's story, stood by his original statement, saying, "It is sad that allegations and charges can be made against the character of a man who is unable to defend himself. I simply believe what my father told me."

The United Methodist Church, like most mainline Protestant denominations, has been wrestling with the question of homosexuality for over a decade. Efforts to force church officials to dismiss a homosexual pastor in Denver were rebuffed by the church's highest Judicial Council last November because the Rev. Julian Rush, while readily acknowledging his orientation, declined to say whether he was a "practicing" homosexual.

Last month, the ban on homosexual ministers was challenged again by the Rev. Rose Mary Denman, a self-acknowledged lesbian from Grovetown, N.H., who has demanded a church trial on the issue after a church board recommended removing her from the ministry.

Crutchfield, who served for more than 30 years as a pastor of churches in Oklahoma, was instrumental in bringing evangelist Oral Roberts into the United Methodist Church. Elected a bishop in 1972, he headed the church's Louisiana Area for four years and was bishop of the Houston Area from 1976 until his retirement in 1984.