Black church leaders traditionally have been viewed as virtual ward bosses during elections in predominantly black Washington. But the upset victory of Sharon Pratt Dixon in this week's Democratic mayoral primary calls that assumption into question, said the Rev. A. Knighton Stanley, co-chairman of Dixon's campaign committee.

District voters proved "the city is quite capable of making a very sound judgment without the leadership of its clergy, who were trying to lead them down the path that was most politic," Stanley said. "{The clergy} have done what they thought was politic and kept {Marion} Barry there for years. I hope the religious community can recover from that."

In a mayoral race where candidates courted preachers and hoped for church endorsements, Dixon had the public support of only two church leaders: Stanley, the pastor of Peoples Congregational Church in Northwest Washington, and the Rev. Charlene Monk, pastor of Douglas Memorial Methodist Church in Northeast.

The Rev. Willie F. Wilson, a politically active Baptist pastor in Southeast, abandoned his role as a Dixon campaign co-chairman this year after Dixon called for the mayor to resign in the wake of Barry's January arrest for cocaine possession. Wilson then endorsed John Ray.

Dozens of the city's other prominent black ministers fell behind mayoral candidate Walter E. Fauntroy, a preacher himself, who placed last in the election.

Stanley said he sees nothing wrong in ministers endorsing a politician but that it should not stop them from speaking out against wrongs by high-ranking officials. Shortly after Barry's arrest, Stanley publicly questioned the behavior of the mayor, one of few ministers to do so.

Many of the city's ministers stood beside the mayor. Last month, eight months after Barry's arrest, more than 80 religious leaders signed a carefully worded statement that questioned both the motives and actions of the federal government and Barry.

"Our only power is to give the city a sense of moral meaning and when you lose touch with that which makes you powerful, it's like pulling the cord," said Stanley.

Stanley, 53, said his candidate's victory gives him a "wonderful confirmation" about what he has always believed about the District.

"People have asked me, 'Has Washington gone crazy?' " Stanley said. "People are very interested that I have faith in the city that they have made the judgment is absolutely falling apart."

For the last 20 months, the pastor said he has tried "to tell it as I was able to see it to those who would listen to me" in lectures, at religious conferences and in interviews with the media inside and outside of Washington.

He said he does not endorse candidates from the pulpit, though his 1,800-member congregation knows who he supports. He said his church also steers clear of city government contracts so that it can more objectively speak out.

Stanley is no newcomer to politics. He has endorsed political candidates before, including Mayor Walter E. Washington in 1978, when Barry was elected. Stanley's wife, Andrea, is the daughter of former Atlanta mayor Andrew Young, who recently lost the governor's race in Georgia. Stanley said it is important for ministers to take a stand on social and political causes.

"If you come from a religious base, then that is the base from which you inform the political community, whether they listen or not," Stanley said. "Martin Luther King was effective because he never became a politician or played the political game but his was a voice which was heard because it was often apolitical, anti-political and where necessary, its assertion of the truth went against the body politic."

A graduate of the divinity schools at Howard and Yale universities, Stanley has pastored Peoples Congregational for 23 years. It is one of about 500 predominantly black United Church of Christ churches nationwide. Stemming from a tradition of New England congregationalism, about 7,000 United Church of Christ congregations exist across the country.

Stanley said these are exciting times for the city, even though some District residents have talked only about malaise in recent months.

"The election was simply a metaphor for the good things happening in our city, the will of the citizens to develop a better town and that's really where it's at," he said.