NEW YORK -- Episcopalians across the country are increasingly breaking ranks with their head bishop over the location of next summer's General Convention, urging that the convention be moved from Arizona to protest the state's failure to establish a holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.

However, in the wake of recent calls by at least six of the church's regional bodies to move the gathering, Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning has called a special Jan. 5 meeting of the denomination's Executive Council to explore ways to go forward with the Phoenix convention and at the same time honor the vision of racial equality held up by King.

In a memorandum to members of the Executive Council, Browning said his proposal "involves the shortening and restructuring" of the convention so that the church may "witness to racial equality" while conducting its legislative business.

Suffragan Bishop Arthur Williams Jr., of the Diocese of Ohio, an opponent of the Phoenix location and chairman of the church's Commission for Black Ministries, applauded the call for a special meeting of the Executive Committee and said it showed Browning "is paying attention to what's been said to him."

But Williams, one of 17 active black bishops in the 2.4-million-member denomination, added, "It is my hope they {members of the Executive Council} will discuss a wide range of possibilities, including the major one being that we would not meet in Arizona."

Noting that he had consulted with "a great number" of persons about the issue in the weeks after the defeat of the King Day referendum in Arizona, Browning said, "After much prayer and these consultations, I am more than ever convinced that we must be faithful to our original intention to go to Phoenix and witness to our understanding of the Gospel.

If received favorably, the bishop's proposal could mark a turning point in the debate, which has pitted those who feel the church can best "witness" to racial equality by meeting in Phoenix against others who argue that a boycott of the state is the best way to make that witness.

Strong opposition to the Phoenix location has come from the church's Diocese of Washington, which has one of the highest concentrations of black residents of any large city in the country.

On Nov. 13, the Diocesan Council not only voted to recommend relocating the convention but also said the diocese's delegates to the convention should not attend if the location is not changed.

The Diocese of Atlanta, the birthplace of King, voted at a diocesan council meeting Nov. 10 to offer Atlanta as an alternative site for the 1991 convention, calling on the church to dedicate the convention "to the fight for equality for all humankind throughout Georgia, Arizona, the United States and the world."