When the Rev. George Augustus Stallings Jr. announced that he was launching an independent congregation, he said it would serve black Catholics, without changing the basics. "The Imani Temple does not differ from the Roman Catholic Church in doctrine, discipline, matters of faith, and morals," he said.

Ten months later, Stallings's worship service is decidedly black in its preaching, music, prayers and chants -- more so than black-oriented Roman Catholic parishes such as his old one, St. Teresa of Avila in Anacostia, and more so than most black churches in this mainly black, Protestant city.

Each Imani service begins with a procession accompanied by musicians in African attire, includes a blessing of ancestors in the African tradition, and features a historical reading from the words of black leaders such as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson.

After 10 months, Imani Temple also is decidedly not Roman Catholic. Stallings's church considers abortion and artificial birth control matters of individual conscience, does not require priests to be celibate and has eliminated confessions to priests.

Even before February, when

he formally renounced the authority of Rome and was excommunicated, Stallings was building a denomination largely based on beliefs found in liberal white churches and mainstream black Protestant churches. A primary exception is homosexual activity, which Stallings's church does not consider a sin but

major black and white Christian denominations do. Stallings said recently he still is fundamentally Catholic, just not Roman Catholic. That stance will be underscored this month when he is made bishop by an archbishop in the Old Catholic Church, a mostly white splinter group that rejected the primacy of the pope in the 19th century.

The public support for Stallings's new church has settled at about 1,000 worshipers each week in Washington. Imani Temple has offshoots in Philadelphia and Baltimore, and Stallings continues to gain attention on nationwide speaking tours.

Some of the early supporters who have left Stallings -- particularly among the 300 who left after the excommunication -- said they were turned off by Stallings's high visibility and controlling personality. "A lot of people in the congregation need to search themselves whether they're following the man or the Word {of God}," said Stephanie Barbour, a lifelong Roman Catholic.

But many of his followers say that Stallings's message is more significant than the man. "I've been a Roman Catholic for almost 50 years," said Mae Lois Keith, of Alexandria. "I didn't feel like I had been fed. I felt something was missing. I feel comfortable with Father Stallings. It's both the religion and the culture."

The reaction of the Vatican and most U.S. Catholic bishops to Stallings has been determined silence, much to the dismay of Roman Catholics white and black who wish the church appreciated more fully the significant questions about the role of blacks in the church that Stallings raised as he left.

Many leading black Roman Catholics -- Stallings supporters and nonsupporters alike -- believe he and his church are writing a prologue to greater upheaval in the Roman Catholic Church.

Black leaders in the Roman Catholic Church said they don't expect Stallings and his church to attract a large proportion of the 2 million black Roman Catholics in the United States or the nearly 100 million worldwide.

But some black Roman Catholics said they believe a different leader may someday persuade blacks to form a separate rite within the church. Such an organization, like that of the Ukrainians and other ethnic and nationalist groups, could retain some communion with Rome but have its own leaders, liturgy, discipline and customs.

"Blacks are still peripheral to the church, recipients of the church's indulgence, not a real part of the agenda of the Roman Catholic Church in this country," said a black Roman Catholic bishop.

"How much of this Imani Temple is a genuine, spirit-filled, God-driven movement, and how much is an ego trip? I don't know. But George has modeled for many folks, in my opinion. I would think, if the church blows it this time, next time it's going to be tougher to harness."Forming a Religious Identity

Imani Temple began on an ecumenical note. On July 2, 1989, more than 1,000 Roman Catholics, Protestants and Muslims filled the Howard University Law School auditorium off upper Connecticut Avenue NW for the first Mass.

Cardinal James A. Hickey, the archbishop of Washington, had warned Roman Catholics not to attend Imani. But more than 2,000 people came to the second Mass, in the Suitland High School auditorium in District Heights. "There ain't no stopping us now," Stallings rejoiced.

Stallings said that he would build a church to seat 10,000 with a school, day-care center, community center and housing for the elderly and homeless.

He quickly opened two more temples, Umoja Temple in Northeast Washington and Kujichagulia Temple in Norfolk. Imani (faith), Umoja (unity) and Kujichagulia (self-determination) are Swahili words for three of the seven principles of Kwanzaa, an annual celebration of African roots observed by many blacks Dec. 26 through Jan. 1.

Defections to Imani Temple from the Roman Catholic Church were noticed immediately, principally at Stallings's old parish, St. Teresa, which lost many members of its two choirs and saw regular attendance fall by half. At several parishes, families split up in their churchgoing, one spouse going to Imani and the other staying put, according to church officials.

In these early days, Stallings drew on the advice of as many as 50 clergy and laymen within the Roman Catholic Church, according to a black priest familiar with Imani's beginnings.

Many of those advisers said they were motivated primarily by the belief that the best way for black people to form a religious identity was to form their own church.

In Imani's early months, some compared it to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which was founded in the 1790s by blacks because of racial discrimination in the Methodist Episcopal Church.

But the Methodist schism was different in significant ways: The AME church kept much of the liturgy of the mother church and its first bishop, Richard Allen, was ordained a bishop of the new church by a Methodist Episcopal bishop.

Stallings's movement found fertile ground in a Roman Catholic Church with a long, contradictory relationship with blacks.

The first 10 slaves from sub-Saharan Africa were delivered to Rome as a gift in 1441 to Pope Eugene IV, who accepted them. Four centuries later, Pope Gregory XVI (1831-46) denounced slavery as unworthy of Christians.

But in Maryland, home of most American Roman Catholics from the colonial era to the Civil War, priests as well as laymen owned slaves. The first bishop in America, John Carroll of Baltimore, owned several.

At times the Roman Catholic Church has been ahead of others on racial issues. In 1948, Cardinal Patrick A. O'Boyle, then archbishop of Washington, was one of the first bishops in the nation to integrate church schools. Six years later, his friend Earl Warren, chief justice of the United States, ordered desegregation of public schools throughout the nation.

A watershed for blacks came with the church's Second Vatican Council. This conference of bishops (1962-65) encouraged evangelization of all races and modified the Latin liturgy to allow local expressions of faith. Many American parishes in black communities -- including several in the Washington area -- brought gospel, jazz and revival preaching into the liturgy.

In 1963, there were 700,000 blacks in the U.S. Roman Catholic Church. Today, there are nearly 2 million, making up about 4 percent of America's 53 million Roman Catholics. The Roman Catholic Church has become the fourth largest religious organization among American blacks, behind the two Baptist conventions, with a total membership of more than 8 million, and the 2.2 million-member African Methodist Episcopal church.

There are about 80,000 blacks among the nearly 400,000 Roman Catholics in the Washington archdiocese, which includes the District and the Maryland counties of Montgomery, Prince George's, Charles, Calvert and St. Mary's.

In 1988, two centuries after the first Roman Catholic bishop was named in America, Pope John Paul II named the first black archbishop, Eugene A. Marino of Atlanta, formerly auxiliary bishop in Washington.

Racial pride and education were central to Stallings's new congregation and its liturgy. Bible readings are common at all Imani services, as are readings from black history. Many of his sermons offer strong appeals for black nationalism.

Over time, Stallings retained the basic confession of faith used by most Christian churches. But he rejected several doctrines and moral positions of the church he served as a priest for 15 years. In addition to its positions on abortion, birth control, celibacy and homosexuality, his church encourages the ordination of women, offers communion to people baptized in other denominations and welcomes divorced or remarried members without annullment.

"The church has no right to spy on you in your bathroom or your bedroom and tell you what you should or should not do," he told his congregation Jan. 21. Establishing Fiscal Control

Money flowed into Imani from around the country during the early months, encouraged by Stallings's appearances on national television. Collections and donations averaged $20,000 a week over the first seven weeks, according to Imani financial documents -- two and a half times what parish leaders say Stallings had brought in during his last years at St. Teresa.

Stallings centralized financial information and decisions under his control, making the parish council an advisory group, council members said.

Stallings and his advisers met privately and set their salaries more in line with ministers of large Protestant churches than Roman Catholic priests, according to former council members and Imani payroll sheets. The church would pay Stallings's $7,238-a-year mortgage on his Southeast Washington home, Augustus Manor, and his transportation and food costs. It also would pay Stallings a salary of $60,000 a year. As a parish priest, his salary had been $10,000.

Payroll sheets dated Aug. 20 show that the payments were made at those rates for the preceding seven weeks. It could not be determined if the payments have continued at those rates. Stallings and his spokesman, William E. Marshall Jr., declined to be interviewed for this series.

Financial control, long an issue for Stallings at his former Roman Catholic parish, was one of the causes of disputes between Stallings and the Rev. Bruce Edward Greening, the first Roman Catholic priest to join him at Imani, according to parish members loyal to Greening.

In February, after Stallings and his followers were excommunicated, Greening and the 300 members of Umoja Temple broke from Stallings, saying they wanted to "remain in communion with" the Roman Catholic Church. But Greening and Stallings had been drifting apart for some months.

Greening, 39, had served with Stallings at St. Teresa several years ago. Last fall, he gave Stallings's movement momentum by leaving his Roman Catholic post in Norfolk to work at Imani.

A former schoolteacher, Greening was hired to be an associate pastor and eventually headmaster of the proposed Schools of Imani, which Stallings said would fulfill one of his main principles: African American education.

Stallings also assigned Greening to pastor Umoja Temple, which in October began meeting at Logan Elementary School near Union Station in Northeast Washington. Umoja parish council members said Stallings directed that all of the offerings taken at Umoja be sent to Imani, the mother church of the movement.

The Umoja Temple council, some of whose members were former members of St. Teresa and Imani Temple, said they did not want to give any money to Imani unless Stallings gave them reports on finances. They received no reports, council members said, and sent no money to Imani.

Umoja council members also made up the majority of the board of the Schools of Imani. The volunteers held a Christmas bazaar to raise seed money for the schools, planning to put any profits in a school bank account to which Stallings would have no access, they said.

On the morning of the bazaar, which had been advertised in the Imani bulletin, Stallings stood on the sidewalk outside and urged prospective shoppers to go home, according to people who attended. He said that he, the founder and senior pastor of the African-American Catholic Congregation, had not authorized the event.

At Imani the next day, Dec. 10, Stallings explained that he was disbanding the schools because they were outside his control and under the direction of "dissidents."

The next week, Stallings demoted Greening from pastor to assistant pastor and visited the Umoja parish council, calling council members "renegades from the mother church," they said.

Greening's associates said he was surprised when Stallings renounced the authority of the pope on national television and was subsequently excommunicated. The day after the broadcast, Greening and Stallings quarrelled, and Stallings asked for his resignation. Greening wrote to the archdiocese seeking reconciliation for himself and his congregation of 300.

With Greening gone, Stallings now has two associate pastors.

One, the Rev. Hugh Randolph Caines Jr., 42, has worked as a counselor, radio announcer, chef and fire inspector. He pleaded no contest in August 1985 to a felony charge of accepting a bribe as an inspector for the Hialeah, Fla., Fire Department. Under a Florida procedure, rather than being convicted he was placed on three years' probation, with the conditions that he serve 30 days in jail on weekends and perform 1,500 hours of community service, according to court records. He completed his probation satisfactorily, according to a probation official.

In January 1987, he was ordained by a traditionalist splinter denomination, the Christ Catholic Church, which waived its ordinary rules and accepted Caines's correspondence courses from a Pentacostal Bible college in California, according to his bishop, Karl Pruter of Highlandville, Mo.

Caines declined to comment.

The other associate, the Rev. Charles F. Stephney, 45, is a suspended Roman Catholic priest. As reported Sunday in The Washington Post, Stephney was suspended from his religious order because of allegations that he made sexual advances to teenage boys in the Cincinnati jail, according jail officials and the leader of the order.

Stephney declined to comment.

The Archdiocese Responds

Stallings's departure prompted the Archdiocese of Washington to expand in number and quality its worship services for blacks, according to Jacqueline Wilson, executive director of the diocesan Office of Black Catholics.

Wilson's office began running racial sensitivity sessions for church officials, and is rewriting the archdiocesan guide for converting adult Roman Catholics to expand on the music and liturgy available to blacks.

But black Roman Catholics nationwide are still restless, according to several sources, saying the church has not dealt with the broader issues raised by Stallings.

"The bishops still think of {Stallings} as Hickey's problem," said one bishop.

When the U.S. church's 300 bishops held their annual meeting in Baltimore last November, relatively little discussion was held on the role of black Roman Catholics. Several bishops said that a national plan for evangelization of black Roman Catholics, proposed one week before Imani began and approved at the November meeting, sufficiently indicated their interest.

Several leading black Roman Catholics said the plan was inadequate because it did not propose solutions for their most pressing problems, including the closing of inner-city parochial schools and the shortage of black priests. Out of 1,100 predominantly black parishes in the United States, only 75, or 7 percent, have black pastors, according to church officials.

Stallings drew 1,000 people to Philadelphia on April 8 as he announced a new church there. He preaches frequently in Baltimore, and late last month in Los Angeles he told several enthusiastic crowds that he hopes to start new congregations on the West Coast.

"He is teaching me something I've always wanted to know," said Patricia Dixon, a visitor last Sunday at Imani who said she intended to join.

"My heritage is Africa and I've always wanted to know about my heritage."

Staff writer Nathan McCall and researcher Bridget Roeber contributed to this report.