"How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?" -- Psalm 137.4

The singing could be heard well beyond the imposing red brick Methodist church in Silver Spring: first a spiritual, then a feminist hymn, 100 voices strong.

But this was no ordinary gathering of black and white Christians at the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church. A black Methodist minister was on trial in the church basement on charges of sexually harassing two white women and three black women. The highly unusual proceeding had sparked a great deal of tension among clergy and lay church members, and it had raised in public troubling issues of sexism and racism that many in the church wished could remain private.

"Methodists sing either when they're spiritually moved or deeply angry," said the Rev. Richard Goode of Baltimore, and it was clear which frame of mind he and others were in during the proceeding.

A court of 13 ministers began deliberating yesterday as the trial entered its second week. They were sequestered overnight at an undisclosed location.

"This has been the most painful week in my life," Bishop William Boyd Grove, who is presiding at the trial, said late Friday as several of those assembled called out "Amen."

The charges of harassment brought by the United Methodist Church, the nation's second largest Protestant denomination, were one reason for the pain. The Rev. John P. Carter disobeyed church law on morality, church officials said, by making sexual advances to the five women, who either worked for him or were interviewed by him for a job.

By pressing charges, the five women said privately, they were hoping to make this point to male clergy and laymen throughout the denomination: As churchwomen, they expect to be treated as equals by their male colleagues.

That point "makes white males in the church uncomfortable," the Rev. David Argo, a D.C. pastor, said in explaining why he was one of the few white men at the trial. Argo sat on the right side of the fellowship hall with supporters of the five women. Most of the blacks watching the trial sat on the left. That separation symbolized the second source of discord for members of the approximately 600 congregations of the Baltimore Annual Conference, which includes the District, most of Maryland and parts of West Virginia.

Carter, 36, who was working on the conference staff when the women brought their allegations to Bishop Joseph Yeakel, leader of the conference, contends that church leaders would not have levied the charges had he been white. An articulate man with a master's degree in public administration from American University, he won support from black church leaders during the summer in a series of informal meetings and public rallies.

"The motivating factor here is racism," said one of those supporters, the Rev. Leonard Felton. "The whole church is on trial here."

It is an unlikely setting for a trial. The concrete block walls leading to the fellowship hall are adorned with "Peanuts" characters admonishing those who pass to remember the Ten Commandments. The hall itself, with its linoleum floors and folding chairs, lends itself more to potluck dinners and choir practice than to a trial.

Bishop Grove, a white, 56-year-old West Virginian, has not presided over a trial before.

"I'm not a judge, I'm a preacher!" he exclaimed in frustration one afternoon as the defense raised an objection to one of his rulings. Grove has had to be a peacemaker as well, reminding the blacks and whites of their common Christian beliefs in prayers at the beginning and end of each day.

The ministers acting as the jury were chosen before the trial out of a pool of more than 30 ministers. They must determine whether Carter violated church law found in the Book of Discipline. If nine or more find Carter guilty, they will recommend punishment, which could include stripping him of his credentials as a minister.

Eight of the jurors are women -- evidence that the power structure of the Methodist church is changing, said the Rev. Linda Covaleskie. "Fifteen years ago, we wouldn't have had three women on the jury," Covaleskie said.

Covaleskie, pastor to a small central Maryland congregation, said she was at the trial to support the women who brought charges against Carter. "Everyone knows sexual harassment has been going on [in the church] for years," she said. "It's time to p4941nt, they disagree on how to solve the problem. A number of older black women were heard mumbling that the five women should have simply ignored Carter or, at worst, left their jobs.

"God made man to ask, and woman to say 'no,' " said the Rev. Emma Burrell, who is retired.

The female clergy is growing, according to church officials. In 1981, there were 1,332 women pastors in Methodist churches, or slightly less than 4 percent of all pastors. By 1984, the latest year for which figures are available, there were 1,886, or 8.2 percent.

The black clergy has been growing also -- in 1984, there were 2,561 black pastors -- making it almost inevitable that at some point the two groups would clash while trying to establish authority in what is still largely a white male institution, several ministers said last week.

Carter implied during testimony that the five women who brought church charges against him were pawns of white church leaders who want to "stop the revolution" of young, radical black ministers like himself. Carter said he makes church leaders uncomfortable because of his informal attire and casual management style and because he works directly with the Washington area's poor.

Church leaders dismissed him from his position on the conference staff June 30, largely, they said, because of bookkeeping problems at Mountain Top Ministries, a District community-based organization that Carter ran loosely under the auspices of the church.

Mountain Top, a small organization run out of the Partners for Global Justice building at 4920 Piney Branch Rd. NW, was composed primarily of young women who wanted to work with the area's poor. Four of the five women bringing charges against Carter either worked for him in the organization or had tried to get a job with him.

One of those four, Janece Patterson, alleges that Carter made numerous sexual advances to her, including grabbing her chest in the building's furnace room. Elaine de Coligny said Carter frequently talked with her about his sexual prowess and on one occasion kissed her as he told her she had won a grant from the conference.

Rochelle Francis said Carter engaged in "unwanted touching" during a job interview and, when she declined a job offer, continued to harass her on the phone at home. Cheryl Winston alleged that Carter ordered her to go to a meeting that turned out to include just the two of them, and that he discussed sex with her.

Carter, taking the stand Friday in his clerical garb, calmly and confidently denied the charges. He said the women had misinterpreted his actions, that he had engaged only in "collegial discussions" about sex.

That was not how Brenda Bratton Blom, 32, saw things.

Blom, mother of three small children, was the first of the five women to testify last week and laid the groundwork for the other four.

Blom was hired by Carter in late 1983 to develop a housing program in Baltimore. Shortly after she went to work, she testified, Carter took her to dinner and propositioned her. When she turned him down, "He laughed, and said if I ever changed my mind, to let him know," Blom said.

Carter continued to make sexual jokes around her, Blom testifed, and on one occasion he asserted to someone who Blom did not know that Blom was such an "aggressive person" she must be "aggressive in bed."

At first, such behavior made her uncomfortable, Blom said. Then, when she did not respond, Carter stopped supporting her work, so that by the time she quit, in September 1984, "I believed I wasn't worth anything."

Blom and her colleagues have testified in some detail that Carter's treatment damaged them emotionally and economically. And, in an argument relatively new in the field of women's rights, they say they were damaged spiritually.

Taking a job with Carter, Blom testified, was a way of finding out "what my faith meant to me." That a minister would violate her dignity has made it "very difficult" to believe in the church, she said.

The church was not eager to investigate their concerns, testimony indicated. On various occasions, the five women relayed their concerns about Carter to supervisors, but those supervisors chose to do nothing, according to trial testimony.

Finally, the women went to Bishop Yeakel, and he convened an investigating committee that was racially and sexually mixed. The committee recommended that Carter be charged, and Carter asked for a trial open only to Methodists.

Some members of the church have shunned her since she brought up her concerns, de Coligny, 22, said last week. In late summer, she said, she attended an annual meeting of the conference and "there were people who behind doors had told me they supported me who wouldn't speak to me out in the open."

De Coligny, who is white, said Carter's claims of racism are particularly painful because her first job was setting up church workshops on combating racism for black and white congregations. There have been tensions between blacks and whites since 1965, she said, echoing others. That year, the black Washington conference and the white Baltimore conference merged and a number of black church officials lost their positions in the church hierarchy.

"Blacks were saying they're angry," de Coligny said, "and whites weren't hearing it. The irony is that [with the filing of charges] the dialogue has exploded."