The all-white Dutch Reformed Church, which has backed apartheid for decades, voted Tuesday to accept members of all races in a move that church leaders hope will lead to much broader racial integration in South Africa.
The decision was hailed as a social and political as well as a theological breakthrough by liberals in the church, which has long provided much of the ideological underpinning for apartheid, South Africa's system of racial separation and minority white rule.
But delegates attending a church synod in Cape Town stopped short of merging their denomination with its nonwhite "daughter churches." As a result, racial segregation will probably continue in practice although abolished in both church law and its canon of official beliefs.
The delegates put off a vote on an even more difficult issue--proposals condemning apartheid as not only without foundation in scripture but morally wrong.
Liberals Pressing Issue
Liberals in the 1.4-million-member church, which was one of the principal architects of the system of racial separation here, want a clear condemnation of apartheid as both a sin and a heresy when the delegates vote today or Thursday.
But the furthest that such reformers as Prof. Johan Heyns, the denomination's new moderator, are willing to go is to "confess" that making religious arguments to support apartheid was a mistake that, in practice and unintentionally, caused "much pain, sorrow and bitterness."
"The church is now called on to go further than it has ever gone before," said Heyns, the dean of the University of Pretoria's theology faculty. He called on church members to "rid ourselves of the apartheid myth."
"Our challenge now," he said, "is to witness another aspect of the Bible--the dignity and equality of all people, regardless of race. Apartheid is at stake, and I personally hope this is the turning point."
Integration Moves Seen
Without an acknowledged scriptural basis for racial segregation, the government will come under even greater pressure, Heyns predicted, to accept and even promote integration in many areas--but still stopping short of racially mixed residential neighborhoods and schools.
"Reconciliation is not limited to one aspect of life," Heyns told the synod, a policy-making session the church holds every four years. "The total image of the church is at stake, and it could be instrumental in the creation of a new South Africa."
Earlier in the week, the synod described racism as "a sin that no person may defend or practice" but put off a vote condemning apartheid because of its far-reaching political implications.
President Pieter W. Botha has described apartheid as "outmoded" and has pledged his government's efforts to end racial discrimination, but the ruling National Party has rejected all proposals for its outright condemnation.