OKLAHOMA CITY, June 11--Preparing the sermon he gave Sunday, the Very Rev. George Back, dean of St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral here, struggled with what he would say about Timothy McVeigh.

Should Back speak against capital punishment, which he and the Episcopal Church oppose? Should he seek prayers for McVeigh, who killed or injured several St. Paul's regulars and did damage that closed the church for two years when he bombed the nearby federal building in 1995?

Or should Back acknowledge that, laying aside what is ''right,'' virtually ''everyone'' at St. Paul's, himself included, believes that the killer of 168 deserved to be executed?

Back decided to omit prayers for McVeigh and mention him only in passing in his sermon.

''I decided . . . McVeigh has had more of an impact on life here than he ever should have been able to make,'' Back explained later. ''Our primary task is to call people to the world of God and away from the world of McVeigh. . . . That wouldn't be served by making (the sermon) about him.''

Timothy McVeigh's last full day on Earth fell on Sunday, and in houses of worship across the USA, clergy and the faithful tried to wring lessons from his execution and to reconcile the colliding values of mercy and justice that his execution seemed to embody. Few found the going easy.

At St. Mary's Episcopal Church in New York's Harlem neighborhood, the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp, the rector, called McVeigh's execution ''state-sanctioned murder.'' But he also condemned the ''sheer ugliness of what Timothy McVeigh represents.''

At Valley Mission Temple in central Los Angeles, minister Horace Owens cautioned the predominantly black Baptist congregation to take no satisfaction in the mass murderer's death. Owens called the execution a ''rightful fate'' but warned that capital punishment is used ''all too quickly, all too blindly'' for many others, particularly African-Americans.

In Atlanta, the Rev. Gerald Durley challenged worshipers to ''go down deep inside'' themselves to find forgiveness for McVeigh. ''God is concerned about even the spirit'' of a condemned killer, Durley said. ''(Monday) morning, do I say, 'I'm glad he's dead?' Or do I say, 'Thank you, Lord for allowing me to rise up to the next level?' '' the preacher asked.

Some of those who heard the homilies struggled to accept the forgiveness message.

''When I saw all those kids being carried out'' of the bombed building, ''I knew I wasn't going to be satisfied until they found who did it and brought them to justice,'' Franklin Carella said at Valley Mission Temple.

Nowhere were the tensions more evident than in Denver, where in 1997 McVeigh was convicted and sentenced to die.

Four blocks from the federal courthouse where McVeigh was tried, members of Trinity United Methodist Church tried to reconcile mixed feelings about capital punishment with their denomination's vigorous official stance against it.

The Ultimate Punishment

  • Conservative Christians Rethink the Death Penalty

  • The Pope vs. Paragraph 2266: A Catholic defends the death penalty
  • Terre Haute Rakes in Cash: Making a killing off McVeigh
  • Where Is McVeigh Going? Discuss.
  • Bible verses about capital punishment

  • Death Penalty Opponents' Worst Nightmare
    How McVeigh has changed the debate
  • The Ultimate Punishment

    asp?pageLoc=/story/81/story_8123_1.html&boardID=18456" target="_top">Conservative Christians Rethink the Death Penalty