For most Orthodox Christians in the United States, their spiritual leader, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, has been an important but remote figure, residing a hemisphere away.

But for the last 11 days in Washington, that has been changing. Church members have gotten a chance to see the frail-looking figure with the gray beard laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns, opening a national church congress and leading a service at Constitution Hall. Today, he will conclude the first leg of his first visit to the United States by meeting with President Bush at the White House.

The visit of Dimitrios I -- the first time in history an ecumenical patriarch has traveled to the Americas -- has sparked intense interest among ordinary church members and church leaders.

"From the time I was a little child, I was taught about him," said Stephanie Zuras, 24, of Potomac, who attended a service this week at the Lincoln Memorial. "He was an abstract idea to me, but once I saw him it was definitely a feeling of awe."

Father John Tavlarides, the ordinarily composed dean of Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Northwest Washington, was shaken when he met the patriarch.

"I was so overwhelmed by the deep sense of spirituality in his eyes, even now I'm not sure what I said or did," Tavlarides said.

"An Orthodox feels to him what a Catholic feels to the pope," said Serene Romas of Scarsdale, N.Y., who is attending the 30th Biennial Greek Orthodox Clergy-Laity Congress, which the patriarch opened on Monday.

Like the pope, the 75-year-old patriarch is the leader of his religion. Unlike the pope, he is not considered infallible and does not sit atop a religious hierarchy.

He is considered first among equals of several churches, including the Albanian, Bulgarian, Carpatho-Russian, Greek, Polish, Russian and Ukranian Orthodox churches.

And where the pope was met with parades and T-shirt sales during his U.S. visits, the patriarch's visit has been low-key. The stylistic difference says a great deal about Orthodox Christianity and the way it is practiced by its 6 million members in the United States.

Opposition to abortion, for instance, "has been a near-absolute throughout 2,000 years of history," according to Stanley S. Harakas, a Greek Orthodox priest in Boston. Yet the issue has not divided the church the way it divides Catholics.

"This is not an issue on which we would test our members," said Robert G. Stephanopoulos, a Greek Orthodox priest who is dean of the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New York. "We don't tend to mobilize like large and influential churches."

Deborah Charles, Malisa Triantis and Connie Charles, three Greek Orthodox sisters from Bethesda who were attending the congress, all labeled themselves "pro-choice." They said their stands on abortion have not strained their faith.

"I believe the church, but I also believe there are things they didn't think about 2,000 years ago that we have to deal with now," said Deborah Charles.

The role of women in the church also is provoking little public debate.

Only men are Orthodox priests, but the absence of women leading worship services has not generated any calls for reform.

"I just can't picture a woman becoming an archbishop or a priest," said Triantis. "It just doesn't seem right." Many attending the Clergy-Laity Congress said that women can play other roles in the church.

Harakas explained the relative harmony among church members this way: "One is more Orthodox by the way he worships rather than by following rules. Our people have tended not to be as . . . activist."

Orthodox Christians have frequently been minorities in the population, Harakas said. The ecumenical patriarch, who is Greek, lives in Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country with which Greece has frequently fought.

Until recently, the Turkish government has restricted the patriarch's travel, but in the last three years he has visited England and the Soviet Union, where some 50 million Orthodox Christians live.

Perhaps the most important international issue confronting the church, considering its enormous Eastern European membership, is how it will respond to the erosion of communism. That unanticipated turn of events has produced, in Stephanopolous's words, a certain paralysis.

"All of a sudden some giant, who's been laying on you for 70 years is gone, but your blood hasn't started to flow."

Among older church members, another concern is that the young have become too secularized.

Marilyn Iouris, 25, a nurse from Atlanta, has a ready response to that criticism: "Who raised us? We didn't spring from the head of Zeus."

That secularization is seen most clearly in two areas: language and marriage.

Services in the Greek Orthodox Church are often conducted in Greek, which has distanced some third- and fourth-generation Americans from the church.

Sixty-five percent to 75 percent of Orthodox Christians in the United States marry outside their faith. The church forbids a non-Orthodox spouse from taking communion. And an Orthodox Christian who marries a non-Christian is no longer considered a member in good standing of the church.

Nonetheless, the patriarch's visit has had a secular flavor. On Sunday, he led about 3,700 worshipers in a Patriarchal Divine Liturgy in Constitution Hall.

At the Independence Day Doxology at Saint Sophia, the patriarch looked on as Archbishop Iakovos, the primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in the Americas, led the crowd in a rousing "America the Beautiful" and "God Bless America."