AT A RECENT MEETING of about 30 Methodist clergy, the Rev. Lovell Parham, campus minister at Howard University, announced, "The women clergy have become our enemy."
Harsh words for a man of the cloth. But Parham was stating openly what had only been whispered before: In an institution that has worked hard since the early part of this century to bring about justice for the oppressed, blacks and feminists are at war.
Many members of both groups believe deep-down that their real enemy is the white male power structure that runs the United Methodist Church, and that what they really should do is join forces to change that structure. But it is easier, somehow, for one group to be angry with another that is virtually as powerless, particularly if the amount of power either can enjoy is limited.
For what is really at work here is a power struggle similar to that going on in large secular institutions around the country. Black men, traditionally angry at the clout that white men wield, see white women and, most recently, black women making power plays as well. Women of both races are getting promotions, better-paying jobs and political appointments some black men feel they should have.
White and black women, for their part, entered the struggle for equality well after black men, and feel they have a lot of catching up to do. That's especially true for black women, who with the formation of groups like the National Black Women's Political Caucus, have announced to the world that they intend to be serious competitors for power.
The internecine struggle among these groups within the Methodist church raises very real questions about whether any of them can achieve equality in the church and -- to the extent that the 9-million member church, which frequently calls the most American of Protestant demoninations, reflects larger society -- in the United States as well.
What stirred up these animosities -- which are longstanding in America in both black and feminist liberation movements -- is the Sept. 17 conviction in a church court of John Carter, a black pastor, on charges of sexually harassing two white women and three black women on the job.
The conviction, one of only two in recent church history on these grounds, said to male ministers, black and white, that they could not get away with abusing their positions of trust by verbally or physically harassing women. And yet, at a gut level, it resolved little.
Like two children fighting for their parent's attention, both the women and Carter's supporters complain that the church hierarchy was partial to the other side.
In the women's case, they are angry that, as testimony showed, church officials knew about Carter's behavior toward women long before charges were filed, and did nothing about it. "It should never have fallen on the shoulders of these women to have had to do what they did," says attorney Jane Dolkart, who helped prosecute the case against Carter.
Dolkart speculates that church officials ignored problems with Carter because they were more afraid of being called racist than sexist, an accusation strongly denied by the church leadership.
Blacks, for their part, complained that church leaders accepted the women's stories at face value before ever speaking privately to Carter. "Wouldn't you pull someone aside, talk to them?" before investigating charges, asked the Rev. Joe Gipson, pastor of Simpson-Hamline United Methodist Church.
The more cynical on both sides suggest that white leaders, consciously or unconsciously, wanted the two sides to come to battle -- two thirds of the Baltimore conference's ministers are white males, and the percentage is higher in the rest of the country. Plaintiff Brenda Bratton Blom recalls that even after the conviction, she would wake up at night in a sweat wondering, "Have I just been a pawn in a white male conspiracy?"
United Methodists are the second largest Protestant denomination in the country, behind only the Southern Baptists. They are distributed more evenly around the country than any denomination, according to a church history, and include sizeable percentages of most minorities.
The church was organized in a chapel in Baltimore on Christmas Eve, 1784. And the Washington-Baltimore conference, with 247,000 members, is one of the most diverse of that very diverse national body, often leading the denomination in the number of women clergy and near the top for the number of black clergy.
Methodist leaders trace their concerns for justice issues to the social gospel movement in the early part of this century when Protestantism came to see its mission as improving the social and economic welfare of the underclass. Methodists, along with Baptists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians, started that movement initially around the issue of economic justice for factory workers. They broadened their scope considerably with the adoption of the Methodists' social creed, which in 1908 spelled out secular goals such as ending poverty. This movement would become one of the pillars of American progressivism and liberalism.
Women gained the right of ordination in 1954, while the civil-rights movement found Methodist leaders including Rev. Harold DeWolf, a former dean at Wesley Theological Seminary, as advisers to the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Local leaders acknowledge that the formation of their Washington- Baltimore conference in 1968 -- a merger of an all-black conference with an all-white conference -- caused some racial divisiveness as blacks lost a number of leadership positions. But blacks and whites, men and women all thought they had gained ground toward understanding and equality when a coalition of all of them got a black conference staff member elected bishop to another conference at the church's national 1984 General Conference.
Little wonder, then, that sexual harassment plaintiff Jenise Patterson, a black and a Roman Catholic, says she thought she had "hit the numbers" when she found her job working for Carter in the Methodist church.
So what went wrong? And what does this trial -- in effect one big morality play -- say about the ability of blacks and women to achieve justice in what should be the best of all environments -- the so- called family of God?
These particular battle lines were drawn in April, when the five women told Bishop Joseph Yeakel of the Baltimore Annual Conference that Carter, the only full-time black on his 64-member staff, had sexually harassed them on the job. Last month, 12 members of a 13-member jury of ministers found Carter guilty of harassment and suspended him from the ministry for two years. The jury's only black man abstained.
As the investigation and trial played out, alliances shifted among blacks and whites, men and women. Many blacks, especially black ministers, sided with Carter and said the pursuit of charges against him was racially motivated. Some blacks, however -- including a couple of black ministers and black laymen and laywomen -- threw their support behind the plaintiffs. So did white women, especially a small but vocal group of white clergywomen who argued that it was time the church put a stop to the propositions and sexual blackmail they said had dogged women for years.
White men, by and large, were silent.
Carter, 36, plugged into a well- formed caucus of black ministers and laypersons, known as Black Methodists for Church Renewal, shortly after the church started its investigation of the women's charges. Caucus members addressed black congregations over the summer, raising money for Carter, who had been dismissed from his $20,000 job as a program director in the church conference's headquarters in Baltimore on charges unrelated to the trial.
Once the case went to trial in a Silver Spring church basement, the minister representing Carter alluded frequently to the racist atmosphere in which Carter claimed he worked, at one point introducing testimony that Carter's supervisor had told him he sometimes acted "like a nigger."
The idea of a racial conspiracy caught on, and Carter's supporters started saying the three blacks among his five accusers were pawns for the whites.
"Who paid you to testify? How much?" two black women asked plaintiff Patterson, who is black, after she left the stand, according to witnesses. Patterson said she and the other four women, who were sequestered in a room in the basement, listened to a number of derisive comments from Carter's supporters who passed by their room during the first days of the trial.
Blom, one of the two white women, said she and her white colleague, Elaine de Coligny, had suspected that Carter would raise charges of racism, and that they wouldn't have a prayer pursuing their charges without the participation of black women who felt badly treated by Carter as well.
Much to Blom's dismay, the participation of the black women -- Cheryl Winston, Rochelle Francis and Patterson, and their insistence that they had acted independently, did little to dispel the idea that two middle-class white women and the white women clergy supporting them were ruining the personal reputation of a man who, until he was dismissed from his job on other grounds, was considered a rising black star in the church hierarchy. And they were doing so on charges of harassment that, in the minds of many blacks, were not terribly serious, particularly since Carter had not had sex with any of them.
"In the black community, as in society at large, there is still a question of what sex harassment is," said Barbara Thompson, a black woman who now heads the United Methodist's General Commission on Religion and Race.
Sex harassment, the Rev. Carter said in an interview last week, is seen among blacks as "a white woman's issue." Even Patterson acknowledged, "Black women don't like to deal with sex harassment," largely because their men have other pressing problems -- including unemployment.
Patterson was the only one of the five women whom Carter physically harassed, according to testimony. The others testified that Carter propositioned them and constantly talked about sex, then stopped supporting their work when they resisted his advances.
The day after she turned Carter down in the basement of the Washington office they were working in, Patterson said, Carter called her to a meeting where he criticized her for dressing too flamboyantly, "coming onto men," -- echoing the "seductress" arguments sometimes made in sexual cases in secular court. Carter told Patterson she wasn't to solicit money for their community outreach program anymore.
Patterson has concluded that she and her colleagues need to educate other professional women, blacks and whites, to resist signs of sexual harassment. She concurs with Blom, who says "we may be paid the same as men, but why should we have to pay a high price for that?"
The feeling of blacks, especially black ministers, that the conference pays more attention to women clergy stems in part from the rapid clip at which women have been entering seminary and getting appointments at the conference's 745 churches. The enrollment of women in seminary now runs between 35 and 55 percent every year according to Wesley professor Goen, while the rate for blacks has stayed at about 6-12 percent.
Thompson, the race commission secretary, said some black ministers cried foul last year when a white woman who was an associate pastor on the conference staff was appointed by Yeakel's predecessor to the bishop's cabinet, a post traditionally held for full pastors.
The woman had been a full pastor at a church before taking her staff job. However, to some blacks, "it looked like favoritism," Thompson said. Opinions, in cases like this, are often more important than reality.
Also, blacks resent the fact that conference bishops almost always send black clergy to black congregations, which traditionally pay smaller salaries than white congregations. Women, on the other hand, resent the fact that they are often asked to take associate pastorships.
Little wonder, Thompson noted, that among blacks and women, "there is a perception that the system will provide just so many slots."
Or as plaintiff de Coligny notes, "People who don't have power are fighting for crumbs from the master's table."
One way churches, including the Methodist church, perpetuate the competition, says plaintiff Blom, is by fostering the image of God as a white male in its reading of the Bible, its hymns, and its services. The church has refused to look at equality for blacks and women as theological issues, she says, because that would call for fundamental structural changes. Instead, it treats equality as a social issue which can be assigned to committees and acted upon in token fashion.
"Of all institutions, one expects the church to look at its soul," Blom says, "not to be clean necessarily, but at least to examine it."
Bishop Yeakel believes such examination in fact is going on. "United Methodists are doing as much or more than other denominations in developing an inclusive church," he says. "Ethnics and women participate in all levels of church life."
He adds, "The church is committed to inclusiveness, and perhaps we've paid a price for that." Tensions such as those that now exist between some blacks and some feminists might not fester so openly in a more authoritarian setting, he says.
Blom, deColigny, Thompson, Carter and others all have specific suggestions for getting blacks and feminists back together and their suggestions are often along the same line: restructuring salary scales, changing the way pastoral appointments are made and the way job descriptions are written, rewriting hymns and all other parts of the church service to be inclusive, holding workshops for black and white congregations.
They are reluctant to say it's a lost cause, and like to point out that blacks and feminists have alternately worked together and fought since the late 1960s, when white middle- class women transported civil rights workers on their marches in the South.
In those days, the enemy was the white male. But then the white male passed laws opening employment, housing and other social opportunities, and discrimination became less obvious or, some would say, more subtle.
Another target needed to be found. The question is, have blacks and feminists found that in each other?
Parham, the black clergyman at Howard, notes that there were only two women at the meeting of District clergy to discuss racism about two weeks ago. He doesn't know how many black ministers will show up at a similar meeting scheduled for next month to discuss sexism.
Since most of the clergywomen sided with the five women rather than acting as a bridge between Carter and his accusers, "we can't trust them," he said. He doesn't know what can make him and his colleagues regain that trust.
"Those who aren't for you, aren't your friends," he said.