As three major mainline Protestant denominations prepareto tackle the issue of gays and lesbians in church life at conventionsthis summer, one of the country's smallest and more evangelicalreligious bodies--the Mennonites--also finds itself confrontinginternal dissension over the issue as a historic merger looms next year.

The two major U.S. Mennonite branches, the Mennonite Church and theGeneral Conference Mennonite Church, plan to unite as the MennoniteChurch USA next summer in Nashville, Tenn. The combined church would bethe largest Mennonite body in the country, with 120,000 members in 1,100churches.

But before that historic merger can happen, some leaders within theMennonite Church say the two bodies need to reaffirm the church'sposition that homosexuality is a sin and marriage is reserved forheterosexuals. Without that guarantee, some bishops say they will notsupport the integration.

For Mennonites, a small conservative denomination with historic tiesto the Amish, the gay issue is acknowledged but rarely talked about.Official church statements in 1986, 1987 and 1995 flatly declaredhomosexuality a sin, but called on church members to "mutually bear theburden of loving dialogue" on the issue.

Over the past month both sides have raised the rhetoric and broughtthe issue to the front of the church's consciousness.

In January, 30 bishops in the Lancaster (Pa.) Conference of theMennonite Church issued a "Statement of Faith and Call to Prayer,"calling for a resolution at next summer's convention to clarify thechurch's stance on homosexuality.

"We believe that we cannot be faithful to our understanding ofScripture that homosexual behavior is sin and join with a church bodywhich does not support those commitments," the statement read.

Last week, opponents fired back with a long-expected advertisementin the Feb. 17 issue of the Mennonite Weekly Review, an independentnewspaper serving both bodies. Nearly 700 clergy, academics and otherssigned the "Welcoming Open Letter on Homosexuality," which called forthe church to accept gays and lesbians into church life and "blessmonogamous relationships of same-sex couples."

"For us, to take our faith seriously is to tremble when we observethe exclusion by the church of our lesbian and gay sisters andbrothers," the ad said.

The internal wrangling in such a small denomination shows the degreeto which the homosexual question has become a contentious and nearlyall-consuming issue for many of the nation's Protestant denominations.

As much as any issue, homosexuality has divided AmericanChristianity into two distinct camps and galvanized forces on bothsides. Talk of schism over the issue has been heard in several mainline Protestant churches.

This summer, Episcopalians, United Methodists and the PresbyterianChurch (USA) will take up the issue at their individual conventions.

While Mennonite leaders seem to agree the issue probably won'tderail the impending merger, they maintain it may cause some to leavethe church.

Jim Schrag, a former general secretary for the General ConferenceMennonite Church, is overseeing the merger for both bodies. He saidwhile disagreement is inevitable, he doubts either church would say noto the merger over the issue.

"The communal instinct is very strong among Mennonites, and I thinkwe are sensing more and more that a new church, a new unity, willstrengthen our ability to be a solid witness in our society, and forthat reason we have every good reason to work out our differences onissues like this," Schrag said.

Those differences of opinion have led to the expulsion of severalchurches in recent years because of their positions on homosexuality. In1997, Germantown Mennonite Church in Germantown, Pa.--the country'soldest Mennonite congregation--lost its affiliation in a regionalconference because it openly welcomed gays and lesbians into itscongregation.

While not always happy with what's being said, some within thechurch are just happy the issue is finally being discussed.

Anna Dennis, interim executive director of the Minneapolis-basedBrethren/Mennonite Council for Lesbian and Gay Concerns, said while thechurch is not "of one mind" on the issue, an honest discussion will movethe church forward.

"The welcoming letter demonstrates that many people care aboutincluding all persons in the church regardless of sexual orientation,"Dennis said. "(We're) pleased to see Mennonite church members withinclusive stances coming forward to be counted."

For the staff of the Weekly Mennonite Review, the decision topublish the full-page ad was an agonizing one. Editor Paul Schrag, anephew of the former general secretary, said the newspaper receivedseveral dozen letters from church members who either supported oropposed the publication.

In an editorial accompanying the ad, the paper said that by publishing the ad it hoped it would not polarize thechurch and that it would not comment on the ad's message.

"The effort to achieve unity amid differing convictions is a majortheme in Christian and Mennonite history," the editorial said. "The adis a reminder that it is unrealistic to expect that the new MC/CG unioncan avoid diversity on some issues."