DENVER - Although Episcopalians are still debating the role of homosexuals in their denomination, it hasn't deterred some church members who have extended a hand to AIDS victims for more than a decade.
The National Episcopal AIDS Coalition was formed in 1987, when there wasn't a lot of discussion in the church about the disease many people once wrongly believed afflicted only gay men, prostitutes and intravenous drug users.
''We were the first faith-based organization involved in HIV-AIDS ministry,'' said Episcopal priest Bill Frampton of Wilmington, Del. ''There were so many people dying and not finding help, so many people grieving and not finding any support or comfort.''
The Episcopal AIDS coalition planned to hold a ''healing service'' on Monday during its national convention, which began Wednesday.
A major issue facing church leaders during their 10-day gathering is the blessing of same-sex unions.
A proposal meant to stake out middle ground for Episcopalians considering whether to bless same-sex unions was called both a ''huge step forward'' and ''terrible mistake'' Monday.
The measure would direct the church to develop rites covering same-sex unions in time for the next convention in 2003. Panel members have said they hope the proposal will inspire consensus among the 1,000 delegates.
The church's legislature may vote on the proposal as early as Tuesday.
The same-sex unions issue drew anti-gay protesters to the convention site Monday. Delegates were confronted by about 10 sign-waving demonstrators, including children, from the same church in Topeka, Kan., that staged anti-gay protests at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, the gay University of Wyoming student who died after he was beaten and tied to a fence.
''Unclean Episcopalians!'' shouted Jonathan Phelps of the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka.
Episcopal Bishop Catherine Roskam of New York said anti-homosexual slurs on the demonstrators' signs were unconscionable. ''For all of our struggles, we have no part in the hatred that's being demonstrated outside,'' she said.
One proposal on same-sex unions would codify the church's unofficial policy of allowing each diocese to decide whether to ordain homosexuals and bless gay relationships. Another suggests the church develop rites for couples who live in monogamous, committed relationships but do not get married.
Last week, a delegate to the convention resigned after he scattered salt - a traditional method of battling the devil - under the tables of openly gay and lesbian delegates and their supporters.
The Rev. Nelson W. Koscheski of Dallas told The Dallas Morning News that his sprinkling of salt in various locations was intended as a blessing.
The Episcopal group has changed as the epidemic has changed. The first challenge was starting the discussion, said Episcopal priest Richard Younge of Seattle. Coalition members passed out buttons that read, ''Our church has AIDS,'' to make the case that everyone was affected.
''Our approach was we had to talk about it because there are a lot of gay men in the Episcopal Church, like everywhere else,'' Younge said.
These days, more attention is focused on youths and minorities.
''There are two big problems. No. 1, youths just kind of feel they're immortal,'' Frampton said. ''And they feel if they get sick they'll just pop a pill.''
An estimated 40,000 Americans contract HIV each year.
New data the government released Saturday showed that roughly 5 million Americans have sex and drug habits that put them at a high risk of catching AIDS, scaring public health officials who fear an upsurge of the disease.
''There's a misconception among the general population and among youths that it's gone, it's over,'' said Scott Barnette, head of the Colorado Episcopal Diocesan Commission on AIDS, which works with the national coalition.
On the Net:
National Episcopal Aids Coalition: http://www.neac.org
Episcopal Church: http://www.ecusa.anglican.org