United Methodist clergy members are more liberal than United Methodists in the pews, and delegates to the church's major policy-making body are more liberal than the average United Methodist, according to a study conducted by the church's General Council on Ministries.

The study appears to support claims frequently made by critics that the leadership of the 8.9 million-member denomination is more liberal than the grass-roots membership.

Based on a series of 45 questions asked of clergy and lay persons, including delegates and non-delegates to the church's 1988 General Conference, the study concludes that "clergy were consistently more liberal than lay respondents" and "non-delegates were consistently more conservative than General Conference delegates."

The questions, formulated around major issues facing the 1988 General Conference, were posed in mail and telephone surveys conducted in February and March 1988 -- just weeks before the General Conference held April 26 to May 6 in St. Louis.

The Rev. Mearle Griffith, research chief of the General Council on Ministries, observed, "For the first time, we have tabulated the differences of opinion between a panel of local church respondents and elected delegates. We have heard for years that the local church appeared to be more conservative. This gives the denomination for the first time a chance to compare hunches with valid data."

Most indicative of a respondent's stand on a wide range of issues -- more so than demographic variables or institutional status -- was the question asking whether the Bible is "the literal word of God."

"This one belief seemed to structure the entire set of survey responses," according to the General Council on Ministries analysis. That question also revealed the widest divergence, among all the questions, between United Methodist clergy and lay persons.

While just 11 percent of the clerical delegates to the General Conference agreed that the Bible is "the literal word of God," 26 percent of the lay delegates voiced agreement.

Among non-delegates, 25 percent of the clergy responded in the affirmative, while 62 percent of lay persons agreed that the Bible is "the literal word of God."

In terms of broad issue areas, the subject showing the greatest statistical variance among different clergy and laypersons, delegates and non-delegates, was the hymnal revision, which was approved by a huge majority of General Conference delegates.

Respondents were widely divided on the statement, for example, "The new hymnal should include hymns from different traditions, including Asian, Hispanic, Native American/Indian and Black."

The area that showed the greatest amount of agreement was the issue of homosexuality, one of the most hotly debated topics in the denomination in recent years. Of all 45 statements listed, "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching" -- reflecting the official church position on homosexuality -- showed a higher degree of unanimity than any of the others except for the idea that "a clear statement of common beliefs would help to unify the church."

The General Council on Ministries analysis says that actions ultimately taken at the General Conference were almost always closer to the liberal opinions of the delegates than the more conservative opinions of non-delegates.

However, the analysis points out that on issues with the greatest potential impact on local churches, the General Conference generally leaned toward non-delegate opinions.