In a precedent-setting action that has divided black and white members of the United Methodist Churches in this area, an ordained minister went on trial in a makeshift courtroom at a Silver Spring church yesterday for allegedly sexually harassing five women.

The Rev. John Preston Carter, 36, a black minister from Washington, is accused by the United Methodist Church of making unwanted verbal and physical sexual advances toward three black women and two white women.

The women had either worked in church projects supervised by Carter or were being interviewed for jobs in those projects.

No criminal charges have been brought against Carter.

Carter, who was an associate council director for the Baltimore Annual Conference on Ministries, has denied the church's charges of immorality and disobedience to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church.

Carter also contends that church officials failed to follow the church's judicial procedure in his prosecution.

But church officials said that the trial is being conducted according to the Book of Discipline, which spells out the laws of the Methodist church. If found guilty by the trial court of 13 ministers, Carter could be stripped of his ministerial credentials. Nine votes are needed for conviction.

In his opening statement yesterday, presiding Bishop William Boyd Grove of West Virginia urged the court members and observers to remember their unity as Christians, but acknowledged that the proceedings were "as rife with polarization and conflict as any coming together of Christians might be."

Observing the trial yesterday were about 100 people who crowded into the fellowship hall in the basement of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church at 9701 New Hampshire Ave. The trial is open only to members of the Methodist church. Observers were asked at the door for the name of their church and their minister. A non-Methodist reporter for The Washington Post was turned away. A Post reporter who is a Methodist was admitted.

A large number of the observers were blacks who, according to the Rev. Joe Gipson, the black pastor of Simpson-Hamline United Methodist Church in Washington, were there to show their support for Carter.

Gipson said that he and some of his colleagues believe that Carter would not have been charged with sexual harassment if he were white.

Gipson said that Carter's liberal, if sometimes "arrogant" management style had irritated the conservative hierarchy of the conference, but that conference officials were unwilling to fire Carter, the only full-time black staff member of the conference.

The Rev. Frank Williams, a retired pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Washington, who also is black, said he thought the three black women bringing charges had been persuaded to do so by the two white women.

The trial is being watched closely by national offices of the Methodist church. Observers at the trial include representatives from the General Commission on Religion and Race, and the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women.

Church officials said that this is the first time in more than 100 years that there has been a trial in the Baltimore Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, which includes 745 churches and about 240,000 members in an area that encompasses the District of Columbia, most of Maryland and two counties in West Virginia.

The national organization of the United Methodist Church said this may be the first time that a minister has been tried on charges of sexual harassment.

"To my knowledge, I can't recall a trial that had as its primary focus or reason, sexual harassment," said the Rev. Donald Treese, an executive with the UMC division of ordained ministry.

The decision to bring the matter to a trial came after an investigation by a committee of seven persons, including both blacks and whites, according to Jan Lichtenwalter, associate council director of communications for the conference.

Despite the integrated committee, Lichtenwalter said, many black church members view the proceeding as racially motivated.

"It is certainly unfortunate that the racial and the sexual issues have become interlocked," Lichtenwalter said. She said that the jury of ministers has been asked "to decide charges of sexual harassment, and not racist charges."

She stressed that the charges had been brought by both black and white women and would be decided by a jury that included blacks and whites, men and women.

Most of yesterday's proceedings were devoted to selecting a trial court of 15 ministers, including two alternates, from a pool of 33 ministers. The 15 chosen included 12 whites and three blacks, eight women and seven men.

Presenting the church's case against Carter, in keeping with church law, was the Rev. Miriam Jackson, minister at the Dickerson United Methodist Church, Dickerson, Md.

In her opening statement, Jackson said that Carter specifically had solicited Brenda Blom, 32, of Baltimore for sex and made several sexual innuendoes. Blom, who is the daughter of Morris Bratton, one of Carter's colleagues in the Methodist conference, eventually left her job, Jackson said.

Blom, now a program coordinator for Lutheran Employment Training Services, testified last night that she had finished working for the Baltimore mayoral campaign of William H. Murphy Jr., a black who ran against the incumbent mayor, when she went to see Carter for money to fund a housing program in Baltimore.

Carter hired her on his staff, she said, and on a later occasion suggested that she have lunch with him to discuss her program.

At that lunch, she said, Carter asked her if she would have a sexual relationship with him, and she declined.

"He laughed and said if I ever changed my mind, to let him know," Blom testified.

On other occasions, Carter made numerous sexually suggestive remarks, Blom said, and when she didn't respond, he stopped supporting her work.

In his cross-examination, the Rev. Irvin C. Lockman, minister of Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Baltimore and Carter's counsel, questioned why Blom didn't report Carter's first advance.

"As a white woman relating to a black man, did you not understand the mere mention of this could be [Carter's] undoing?" Lockman asked.

Blom responded that at the time, she believed she could deal with the situation by herself.

Other women who were subjected to Carter's alleged sexual advances, Jackson said, were Elaine de Coligny and Janece Patterson, both of Washington, and Cheryl Winston and Rochelle Francis, both of Baltimore.

Carter, who is married, graduated from American University with a bachelor of science degree in 1973, according to conference records. He received a master of divinity degree from the Howard University School of Religion in 1978, the records show.

He served as a minister at Mount Vernon United Methodist Church in Northeast Washington from 1977 to 1980. In 1981, Carter was hired by the Baltimore Annual Conference to work as an associate conference council director.

He was dismissed from that job on June 30, Lichtenwalter said, because he refused to accept direct orders from the council concerning an investigation and audit of books for projects that he had supervised.

Those projects, known as Mountaintop Ministries, covered the areas of preventative health care, employment training and community development, she said.

Lichtenwalter said that Carter's dismissal from the job did not affect his ministerial credentials and was unrelated to the sexual harassment charges on which he is being tried this week.