Johannesburg — The steeple of one of the most ''liberal'' Dutch Reformed churches in Pretoria, with its rounded front and sloping back, looks like the bow of a ship.
But when asked to chart a bold new course in racial affairs in South Africa, the church decided to stick to well-known waters and said no to the venture.
The white ''university place'' Dutch Reformed Church on the edge of the University of Pretoria, attended by many from the academic community, was asked to permit ''nonwhites'' to use the church building one afternoon each month when it was vacant. Blacks, Indians, and Coloreds would hold joint services.
Prof. Nico Smith, a rebel white Dutch Reformed minister now serving in a black congregation, was involved in the request. He says it was partly a move toward racial unity in the ''family'' of Dutch Reformed churches, now segregated. And it was a matter of necessity for many blacks in the Pretoria area who work as servants in white homes and have no nearby church of their own to attend on Sundays, he says.
Although blacks are allowed to join whites for general services twice a year at the university church, the rest of the time they must use a nearby Baptist church.
The application for the regular use of the church building by nonwhites was denied in a vote by the Church Council that went 60 percent against the proposition.
One reason cited was that those making the application refused to guarantee that the services would not be used for attacks on the policies of the white church. However, those backing the proposal claim it had no political motivation. A university church member says the application was rejected partly for purely racist reasons, but more significantly, for what it symbolizes:
''It was a general fear that (regular nonwhite services) would bring in a liberal thought that would challenge the church and the whole idea of separate development.''