Fearing a threat to the identity of priests, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops yesterday rejected a proposal to allow lay people to conduct funeral services in parishes without priests.

At a meeting here of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the hierarchy voted 136 to 113 to defeat the plan that would have given bishops authority to allow lay people to preside at funeral services but not celebrate Mass.

Funeral liturgies now require a priest to preside, but clergy have not been available in some places.

The Catholic Church faces an acute shortage of priests in the United States at a time when debate is intensifying over the role of priests and who should be admitted to the priesthood.

"We bishops must affirm our priests and we must do what we can to help them form priestly identities," said Bishop James P. Keleher of Belleville, Ill., in opposing the plan for laymen-led funerals. "My fear is that it will further erode their identity. I know it's a function that could be performed by others but it has been traditionally performed by priests."

Bishop Elden F. Curtiss of Helena, Mont., said the plan could be seen as further proof of "acceptance of priestless parishes and the ascendency of non-ordained ministry in our church."

But Archbishop Francis T. Hurley of Anchorage said the plan was needed because some dioceses must cope not only with a shortage of priests but also with extreme distances and weather conditions. It would be "narrow-minded and shortsighted if we're not going to allow the bishops to have this freedom," Hurley said.

As the bishops met, an alternative national conference sponsored by church activists for change was taking place in Silver Spring. The conference, sponsored by the Chicago-based Call To Action, brought together church activists who disagree with the official Catholic teaching on birth control, women priests and the issue of priestly celibacy.