There's a lot of talk this week among Washington-area Episcopalians about the Holy Spirit at work. The spirit, they will tell you in gentle tones, is leading them to choose Washington's seventh Episcopal bishop tomorrow, a man or woman to succeed John Walker and become a visible moral leader.

But don't be misled, some of them will also say. While the clerical and lay delegates to tomorrow's convention are doing a lot of praying, it's also true that their choice will come at the end of a long political campaign filled with stump speeches, lobbying by special interests, discussion over the power of incumbency and even what some perceive as dirty politics.

"All of us will be saying, 'Oh, this is God's will,' " said the Rev. Jacob Beck, of St. Barnabas Church in Oxon Hill. "It's really political."

"It used to be unseemly to campaign," agreed the Rev. Canon John Frizzell, executive officer of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. "It's still a delicate question, but I don't think it's as unseemly as it used to be."

The six candidates tend to reflect the activist direction that the Episcopal Church has taken on social issues over two decades.

Among the ministers seeking the position is a black candidate, a woman and a lawyer who helped Cuban refugees in the Mariel boat lift. One candidate is already a bishop known for his work with homosexuals; another is an older intellectual who is pastor of a wealthy Northwest D.C. parish; and the other is Washington's acting bishop.

Just as presidential elections reflect the issues that divide a nation, the battle among those six has brought to the surface the divisions and challenges facing this region. In large public forums and small groups, on the telephone and in mass mailings, parishioners have asked the candidates what they would do about racism, disparities between rich and poor parishes and the lack of ethical standards among America's leaders.

"The Episcopal Church here is just a microcosm of this larger area," said Wesley S. Williams Jr., a Washington lawyer who headed the diocesan nominating committee. "Its members are involved in all {the area's} problems."

About 300 men and women, including several other bishops, were recommended originally to be the next bishop of the diocese, which embraces the District of Columbia, Montgomery, Prince George's, Charles and St. Mary's counties. Such widespread interest stems partly from the fact that the diocese has been called the most powerful diocese in a historically powerful church.

President and Barbara Bush are members here, as are high-ranking members of the federal government's legislative and judicial branches. (Bishop Walker used to talk to Bush not infrequently on matters of public policy, according to several sources.) The bishop is chairman of the Cathedral Foundation, which is responsible for Washington Cathedral and oversees St. Albans School for Boys and the National Cathedral School for Girls.

But the bishop also must pay attention to internal church problems, which some say festered under Walker's tenure, as well as to parishes in the city and rural Southern Maryland that are struggling with problems of homelessness, drug use, violence and poverty. An internal profile of the diocese reveals that at least 20 percent of the diocese's 94 congregations can't provide anything other than a minimal social ministry to the poor.

Open forums at churches have been the candidates' way of addressing these issues.

The Rev. Lloyd Casson, vicar of a wealthy Wall Street parish and a former canon at the Washington Cathedral, was usually the first at such gatherings to respond to questions, often with the same facile answers he had given the evening before.

Casson, a former school board president, seemed completely at ease on the stump. Petitions have been circulated on his behalf, citing his management experience; other supporters have said they believe the diocese needs a black bishop.

The Rev. Joe Morris Doss, a rector in California and member of the national board of Common Cause, was also a comfortable campaigner. At least one private reception was held for Doss, whose work on behalf of Cuban refugees and against the death penalty has gained him the respect of parishioners attuned to political causes.

The Rev. Helen M. Havens, the first woman rector in the Diocese of Texas, has been a quiet but effective and longtime champion of women's ordination.

Bishop William E. Swing, of the Diocese of California, is a former rector of St. Columba's in Northwest Washington and built that parish into the diocese's largest in members and dollars. He has a lot of support from Washington's gay community.

The Rev. Francis H. Wade, rector of the prestigious St. Alban's Church in Northwest, is seen by many as the senior intellectual in the group. He suggested to a group at St. Luke's Church in Bethesda that Washington Cathedral might become "a kind of Brookings Institution on Ethics," but he also said the new bishop's first job must be to address issues closer to home.

The sixth candidate, Suffragan Bishop Ronald H. Haines, became acting bishop upon John Walker's death last fall. Haines has worked in the diocese four years, long enough to build a reputation of a hard-to-beat incumbent whose picture and column appear every month in the diocesan newsletter.

One supporter of Haines's, a pastor in Leonardtown, Md., wrote a letter signed by 17 others urging delegates to choose someone other than "a clone of Bishop Walker."

Several blacks in the diocese called the letter dirty pool, saying it was a racist slap at candidate Casson. "It smacks of Willie Horton," said one lawyer, referring to a political ad about a black rapist used by the 1988 Bush presidential campaign.

The author of the letter, the Rev. Joseph C. Weaver, denied any intention of criticizing Casson or any other of Haines's rivals.

The six candidates for the $125,000-a-year job will face 379 delegates -- all the clerical and two lay delegates from each parish -- tomorrow at the Church of the Epiphany in Northwest Washington. A majority of votes in both lay and clerical houses is needed to win.

Epiphany's pastor, the Rev. Edgar Roemig, said several ballots are expected, with considerable politicking in between. "I expect to use my conscience, my good sense and my political sense," Roemig said. "If God has a preference, He has not made it known to me."