A blistering row over one of the most hurtful aspects of apartheid -- the South African government's policy of enforced racial segregation -- may lead the black churches in the important Dutch Reformed Church "family" to cut their ties with their all-white government-supporting "mother" church.
The main white Dutch Reformed Church, the Afrikaans-speaking Nederduitse Gereformeerde Kerk, has by far the largest white membership of any church in South Africa. More than 40 percent of the country's churchgoing whites belong to it. The Dutch Reformed Church has about equal numbers of blacks and whites in its approximately 1.6 million-strong congregation.
The church has the closest possible ties with the ruling Afrikaans-dominated National Party.
But it also has very close connections with three "daughter" Dutch Reformed Churches that serve variously the Asian, African, and Colored communities. The so-called Colored people in South Africa are people of mixed racial descent.
However, the three black churches have been increasingly critical of the white church's support for government policy generally, and specifically for its support for the official policy of apartheid.
But as members of the same church "family," they have been gentle in their criticism of the "mother" church, especially in public.
But this week they publicly accused the white church of a breach of faith, warned that their relations with the "mother" church were at a crossroads, and threatened to cut their ties with it.
The cause of the row is a debate about two laws that some right-wing white nationalists regard as essential to the "preservation of white identity," but that are regarded by the country's blacks as a despicable reflection on their human dignity.
They are the Mixed Marriages Act and a section of the Immorality Act. Together they prohibit marriages between whites and blacks, or any other intimate relationship across the color line.
The black Dutch Reformed Churches have repeatedly condemned them and called for their repeal.
The white church, with its conservative Afrikaans membership, has, however, defended the laws. At first there were claims it could even find justification for them in the Bible.
More recently however, the church has conceded that there was no scriptural justification for such legislation. But it still ruled that racially mixed marriages were "highly undersireable."
However, the government itself has shown signs that it might be ready to consider amending the laws, even if it would not repeal them, both because of continuing pressure from inside the country and because such institutionalized racism is indefensible abroad.
So the matter came up at a joint meeting of the white Dutch Reformed Church and its three "daughter" churches. After a thorough debate involving the whole leadership of white church, and the executive members of the three black churches, a most circumspect statement was issued in which the four churches said they would have no objection "in principle" if the government did, indeed, "reconsider" the laws in question.
It seemed cautious enough to satisfy anybody, and it was the mildest possible statement the three black churches -- which have repeatedly condemned these laws out of hand previously -- could agree to.
But within a matter of hours after the statement was published, the head of the white church repudiated it because he said it might give the impression that his church would have no objection if the laws were scrapped.
The black churches were immediately bitter and angry. They pointed out that all four churches had been party to the original agreed-on statement and that, furthermore, they had all agreed not to amplify this or discuss the matter further in public at this stage.
A forceful and influential young Colored minister, Dr. Alan Boesak, said: "I see no sense in any further meeting with the white church. . . . The time has come to tell the white church to look again at its adherence to the apartheid system in the light of Christian doctrine. . . . Unless they make a fundamental change in thinking, we cannot accommodate one another."
The row is also likely to precipitate a crisis of conscience for many members of the white church who have been trying to persuade the church to accept a more liberal social doctrine. Some of them have already resigned from the all-white "mother" church and become members of one or other of the black "daughter" churches, which are open to Christians of all races who accept their Reformed Church interpretation of the Bible.